The 90s Japanese subculture has found a new home online, where a growing number of Black TikTokers are adopting the trend for themselves
Lavender is done up as a “manba” gyaru. Her white painted lips match her heavy white eye make-up and bold white nose contour that extends up onto her forehead. Oversized lashes hang down low under her eyes and her long nails are painted the same pastel baby blue as her eyeshadow. Even amid all the noise on TikTok, the look stands out. Which makes it unsurprising that the video has over four million views and over 640,000 likes. But far from being alone, Lavender is just one of a growing number of Black women and femmes on TikTok who are joining the gyaru culture and sharing their looks online to their thousands of followers.
Gyaru (a Japanese transliteration of the English slang word gal) is a fashion subculture that originated in Japan in the 90s, although its roots can be traced back to the 70s. “Everyone has a different story about how gyaru came into existence,” says Dr Masafumi Monden, a University of Sydney professor who researches Japanese popular culture, with an emphasis on fashion and gender. What we do know is that it stemmed from a relaxing of social norms across the country in the 90s and the growing influence of Western media on the culture. With their exaggerated takes on American aesthetics such as “the California valley girl” or R&B style, gyarus symbolised a rebellious response to the traditional Japanese concept of beauty: pale skin, dark hair and neutral make-up tones.
In contrast to this, gyarus often wear their hair bleached or colourful, with dramatic oversized eye make-up in pastel colours. Gyaru sub-styles like “yamanba” also involve deeply tanned skin, while manba gyarus often wear leis and rhinestones. While political messages weren’t explicit, Dr Monden says, the looks did give these young women power and visibility – and sometimes notoriety. “[Japanese] adults often associate youth subcultures and fashion groups with the idea of delinquency,” he says. Because gyarus were often younger women, their love of partying and sometimes suggestive attire – sexualised school uniforms were an early part of the gyaru look – created moral panic in the country and an association with sex work. It’s something Xiomara, a gyaru who plays with the yamanba and manba styles, finds upsetting. “They take a subculture that’s meant to do something opposite to what they [society] like. And they try to sexualise it,” she says.
After peaking in the early 2000s, the gyaru culture saw a decline and by 2015 an article in Japan Today was asking: “Where have all the gyaru gone?” While Tokyo remains mostly empty of the groups of gyarus that once filled the streets, the subculture has found a new home on TikTok where a new generation of young people outside of Japan are discovering the trend. There isn’t really one pipeline to “gal” culture. All gyarus for this piece shared different experiences, from anime to an interest in other Japanese styles such as kawaii and just simply their enjoyment in the absurd. “First I was nervous, but then I really thought about it. I already get bullied. I already experience colourism. I already experience these things that, you know, make my life terrible. So why be miserable in it? Why not make it fun?” says Xiomara.
It may seem unusual for Black women and femmes to engross themselves with such a niche alternative fashion subculture, but gyaru was hugely influenced by Black culture. As hip-hop reached new global heights in the 90s, Japanese youth were enthralled with Blackness. Japanese pop star and gyaru icon, Amuro Namie has often cited Janet Jackson and other Black women as inspiration. Meanwhile, “b-kei” gyarus have been criticised for appropriating African American culture with their darker tans, braided hairstyles and hip-hop fashion. Tanning is a very common beauty staple in gyaru culture. While all the gyarus Dazed spoke to noted it was OK to tan, all stressed the importance of not overdoing it as too much can venture into “blackface”.
“In a lot of gyaru magazines, they would have pages on Janet Jackson fashion or Beyoncé fashion,” says Laetitia, a British-Jamaican gyaru infatuated with fashion who has plans for their own clothing brand. “Obviously the nails being so extravagant and long and blinged out took inspiration from females in rap at the time and things like that.” Despite this influence, however, Black gyarus on TikTok face a lot of ostracisation and racism. When Lavender first started posting videos, she would get comments about her being an ‘East Asian baiter’ and people referring to her as “it” or “thing”.
Janee, or “NYC’s No. 1 Gal” as she is known on TikTok, is a popular gyaru who is very vocal about cultural appropriation and anti-blackness in the gyaru scene. “If you talk about the racism that’s going on in the [gyaru] community or the hatred that black ‘gals’ are facing you would be shunned by certain people,” she says. Another well known gyaru Xolani, brought up the issue of colorism in the community. Xolani pointed out that the most popular gyarus are either not Black or racially ambiguous and/or fairly light skin. “Black women are seen as angry, big, flashy, violent. So when you incorporate what people already think of us with a style that is so out there, it breeds hate.”
Despite this, the Black gyaru community remains resolute and growing. When speaking to Dazed, the “gals” enthused about the ethos of gyarus and why it’s so attractive to not just them, but other people. “It’s something that kind of puts a twist on all different styles from times and places, and adds a unique, bold twist on it,” Laetitia said. At times, there can be some infighting since gyaru styles can blur with other alternative subcultures thus providing tension and dispute on what qualifies as gyaru, but overall the community strives for inclusive support. Gyarus like Xolani and Janee shared the importance of providing tips to beginner gyarus, especially on confidence and ignoring the cynics. “I’m just happy I can inspire other people to try to do new things,” Tasia said. With Xolani concluding, “Gyaru doesn’t always look a certain way. You’re allowed to shape your own gyaru look.”