Japanese schoolgirl fashion hasn’t always existed for male fantasies only. Meet the ‘sukeban’ crews who used the power of DIY style to pierce through the patriarchal bubble
How does fashion shape adolescence? Every month, Claire Marie Healy deconstructs the ways that style culture has contributed to the idea of the teenager in her series Extreme Adolescents
In a fan-made YouTube tribute to mid 1980s Japanese television series, Sukeban Deka, a schoolgirl is dressed in a demure uniform. More unexpectedly, she also wears leather gloves and brandishes a yo-yo. She proceeds to use said weapon of choice to sling a gun out of an evil businessman’s hand, tie up his hands, and save the day for high school kids everywhere. Take that, patriarchy. But a decade earlier, this teenage figure in her school uniform didn’t belong to the televised world of cheesy crime-fighting heroines. In Japan in the early 70s, the idea of the ‘sukeban’ hadn’t yet been taken up by TV and movie execs and made commercially viable. Instead, sukeban was a real, vibrant subculture made up of rebel girls, who, preferring school uniform to borrowed-from-the-boys leathers, set out to prove that girlhood and strength weren’t mutually exclusive.
Translating in slang terms as “girl boss”, sukeban is a term first used to describe the movement of all-girl street gangs that emerged in Japan in the late 60s. Taking inspiration from the male gangs that wouldn’t allow female members – often called yankii for their affinity with American culture – sukeban carved a distinct identity of their own. It starts with the uniform.
For Japanese youth in the tumultuous 1970s, Western, sailor-style uniforms were an unwanted symbol of tradition. Indeed, while we tend to see the super “kawaii” sailor suit as a thoroughly modern invention (thanks, Sailor Moon), the seifuku has been popularised by the education system in Japan since the early 20th century. By the early 70s, so-called “delinquent girls” were carving their own style signatures within the confines of uniform fashion: an unusually long skirt and Converse sneakers were immediate markers, while the sailor blouses were often cut short using scissors to expose bare skin at the waist. Scruffiness was key, with little make up (though eyebrows were supposed to be extreme and thin), unknotted scarves and loose, unruly socks.
Once they graduated, those who identified as sukeban would continue to wear their uniforms, embroidering roses and anarchic kanji character messages onto the fabric – an urge to customise that neatly reflected the British punk movement on the other side of the world. In Britain, early punks in suburban settings were lifting establishment signatures like their school blazers and customising them with whatever was available: spiked up hair using kitchen ingredients, oversized anarchist badges, and crisp bags and beer mats attached to narrow lapels by safety pins.
“Once they graduated, those who identified as sukeban would continue to wear their uniforms, embroidering roses and anarchic kanji character messages onto the fabric – an urge to customise that neatly reflected the British punk movement on the other side of the world”
No matter where you come of age, school uniforms have always had a role to play in the formation of subcultures and modes of teenage self-expression. Fostering a sense of societal constrictions of dress from a young age, the uniform provides the perfect platform from which to adjust the style codes that one has been dealt in life. While using pop culture leftovers to execute a look from scratch might be a statement of the infinite possibilities of identity, re-coding an existing formula sends a crystal clear message that can’t be missed.
That message, for the rest of society, was one of no-holds-barred violence. Between the layers of clothing, sukeban girls would conceal weapons – razors, chains and anything else that one ought to take a jot more seriously than a yo-yo. Indeed, the sukeban sisterhood rivalled their male equivalents for violence and crime: facing off with rival factions, punishing girls within their own group (e.g. for cheating with someone else’s boyfriend), or generally colouring suburban ennui with a splash of petty crime. What's more, Yakuza-style levels of organisation meant that, at the subculture’s peak, the largest alliance had over 20,000 teenage girls sworn in.
But despite the reputation for crime, sukeban culture was centred in a belief system that above all else brought girls to the front. The long skirts can be seen as a reaction against the sexual revolution of the 60s, a means of protection by which girls could show that their existence wasn’t defined by the desires of male onlookers. Fast forward to the 90s, and this trend had completely reversed itself: by then, the “bad girl” was the one wearing gallons of make-up who had rolled up her skirt’s waistband to turn it into a ultra-short mini skirt.
So what changed? The sukeban subculture was a pop-cultural timebomb: representing something so utterly new in Japanese society, the stylistic signatures of the group were too much for image-makers to resist. In the 70s, Japan struggled to keep up with American cultural imports, and even major film studios found that only erotic productions would be able to keep them afloat. Enter exploitation movies, or “pink films”: sex-fuelled cinema with sukeban culture on the brain.
Major studio Toei launched its ‘Pinky Violence’ series with Delinquent Girl Boss in the early 70s, later followed by Norifumi Suzuki’s Girl Boss (Sukeban) films and the Terrifying Girls' High School series. Constructed much like Russ Meyer’s movies in the US – with heroines taking a leaf out of Tura Satana’s boy-beating playbook – the films made stars of “bad girl” actresses Reiko Ike and Miki Sugimoto. By the 80s, the real life sukeban, now grown up and settled (as historians have noted, only very rarely did girlhood juvenile delinquency lead to a life of crime), were a fully-fledged, somewhat tired trope visible in manga, anime and live-action programmes for young girls and lustful men alike.
Today, the spirit of the sukeban girl gangs lives on in a separate teenage subculture that has managed to ride all the way into the 21st century: all-girl motorcycle gangs, or bōsōzoku. Best referred to in English as “speed tribes”, bōsōzoku girl gangs emerged when the girlfriends of male biker gang members became fed up of being stuck on the back of the bike. As the expectations for young women to marry and settle continue to be a fact of life in Japan, so too has this all-girl outlaw subculture prevailed as an alternative narrative for young women. Today, you can spot them by their embellished and embroidered jumpsuits, floral tattoos, long manicured nails and bright pink, heavily stickered bikes. Usually considered a separate subculture of delinquent, the female bōsōzoku are nonetheless related to sukeban culture in their creation of girl gangs that refuse to bow down to the boys – and their emphasis on customisation as a tool with which to rage against the norm.
While plenty has been written about the commodification of subculture, not much has been said of its straight-up sexualisation. The narrative of short-lived sukeban culture performs one such trajectory. In Japan in the 70s, the idea of the sukeban began as a statement of difference, and of solidarity, away from the expected path for young women. But it was quickly distorted and eroticised by a male-oriented movie business. Not that movies like Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom don’t make for amazing, often hilarious viewing – they really do – but it’s a shame that they are among the only lasting documents of one of the most radically unique subcultures in the history of fashion.