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Little Devils

I thought the whole gyaru thing was RIP, but Popteen is a player in the publishing world, Tsubasa was a big star before her surprise yankii wedding, and this mag Koakuma Ageha is literally the brightest thing on the shelves. The black-face Ganguro are ancient history, but the angelic Koakuma Gyaru are being spun to be “Gyaru + Cosplay” because of the tiaras and lacy dresses. Everyone, however, is ignoring the white elephant in the room.

Read the Japanese State’s official take on them here — only mentioning the word “hostess” in a single sentence. That’s like only mentioning the word “cocaine” once in describing Crack Whore Monthly.

I was in denial about the hostess-ness of the Koakuma for a while, but actually browsing through an issue of the magazine, I admit defeat: the editorial tone takes for granted that the reader works in the “the night life” or is hoping to once Senior Year at Saitama High School finishes in March. 41% of girls date guys that are “customers.” This doesn’t mean that love bloomed over the cash register at Wendy’s.

Perhaps the word “yankii” is too much rooted in a specific late 1970s fashion, but there is a very resilient aesthetic of the Japanese working classes. They did dark skin and bleached hair before it was “okay.” And that aesthetic guides the all kogyaru/kogal after the original girls as well as the current boys doing O-nii-kei. These subcultures stab the “Japan is a classless society” myth right in the heart. They represent not only a different fashion but a completely set of social mores. These styles are despised and not recognized by the “middle-class” fashion press. The magazines for these styles come from smaller independent publishers. The magazine content presents employment in semi-sexual nightlife services such as hostess and host clubs as not only an option for employment, but the job to take after high school (Host Knuckle, anyone?). There are no sections about “what to wear to your interview with Mitsubishi UFJ Trust & Banking.

Magazines like Egg speak frankly about sexual promiscuity and activity in a way that “mainstream” magazines do not. But more importantly, they set the expectation that everyone gets married around 20, as is normal in Japanese working-class communities (Tsubasa was not pregnant, just “marryin’ age”). Sometimes these marriages don’t work out, however, and everyone heads back to their subcultures. Koakuma Ageha has a special section called シンママ同盟 — “Single Mother Community” — a section I don’t remember seeing in Non•no or even CanCam

Here’s the real question: is the sudden popularity of O-nii-kei and these post-ganguro gyaru further proof of social disparity in Japan? The “working classes” are growing as the middle-class generally descends into lower stratum. Makes sense that more and more rural lower and lower middle class youth see delinquent subcultures as a lower risk than in the past since behaving properly in the education system does not pay off so well anymore. Or perhaps the barriers to entry in the media world are low enough that the working class subcultures can advertise their cultures more. In the past, the Bosozoku did not have their own monthly fashion magazines to teach kids the best places for a weekend gang rape. Now if you want to learn what to wear so that some married Assistant Director of Logistics keeps coming back every Thursday night, you can pick up an issue of Koakuma Ageha at 7-11. Japanese conservatives surely liked it more when the working classes stayed hidden out in the countryside and were not setting “trends in Japan.”

W. David MARX
February 15, 2008

12 Responses

  1. Matt Says:

    I don’t think it’s a case of hostesses rising up, demanding and finally triumphantly receiving their own magazine so much as digitization etc. making it viable for some bright spark at a publisher to say “Hey boss, this ‘koakuma’ thing is getting kind of big– why don’t we throw something glossy together for them? They like shiny things, should be easy.” (Plus, I haven’t read Koakuma Ageha but the last time I flicked through RyuRyu it had so many ads [mostly want-ads for hostess clubs] that I bet it almost paid for itself.)

    Also is the comparison to bosozoku really the right one here? The host/hostess subcultures are by definition based on conspicuous consumption (generous sugar parent = status), so it makes sense that a “catalogue” magazine would be popular. I get the impression that bosozoku had to earn their status by actually doing things rather than just buying them.

    Another also: Japan’s demographic trends mean that youth is becoming an increasingly rare commodity, while aged, moneyed potential customers grow in number. Invisible hand etc. (Standard “it’s not how young or pretty you are, it’s how you treat your customers!” hostess manga moral notwithstanding.)

  2. statiq Says:

    “Celebich” [sic] certainly does fit that narrative:


  3. Mulboyne Says:

    You say “hostess” but, without being too pedantic, the look seems specifically that of the kyabakura hostess (キャバ嬢). The number of kyabakura around the country is falling right now just as the number of host clubs has been under pressure. I wonder whether you think this means that the look will become less popular from now and the magazines will represent a lagging indicator or, instead, the fashions will go from strength to strength but become more divorced from their mizushobai origins.

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    why don’t we throw something glossy together for them?

    I think your guess is right, that someone realized the kyabakura industry would pay for ads in this magazine. This seems counter-instinctive but magazines exist because of sponsors rather than because of readers.

    Also is the comparison to bosozoku really the right one here?

    Yes, because both are offshoots of the almost-permanent Yankii youth working-class subculture. Bosozoku were the 70s incarnation, while hosts and koakuma are the 21st century conspicuous consumption incarnation. Reading about their lifestyles, however, they are extremely similar in motivations, education levels, etc. I just read Ikuya Sato’s Kamikaze Biker again, and it’s funny how the bosozoku/yankii’s outlook on life is very close to the pages of Koakuma or even Popteen.

    Kyabajou vs. Hostesses

    Sure, but is one really less sketchy of a job than th e other? Maybe kyabajou need to look more outrageous, but they are still meeting their boyfriends on the job.

    I can’t see this look really jumping out of Kyabakura. Where are you going to wear a tiara and lacy dress? The steps of 109?

    Most importantly, economic pressure means more girls leave rural areas for Tokyo, but when they get to Tokyo, working in the mizushoubai industry is the only job that will pay them enough to actually live in Tokyo on their own. (They most likely have no real tertiary education.) The mizushoubai world is a big welfare system for the bottom of society. While its patronage is essentially a indirect form of class exploitation, if the whole industry collapses, that will knock out a pretty standard job for an increasingly large set of women at the lower stratum of society.

  5. Matt Says:

    Re the comparison, I’m not denying common threads/roots, just the consumption/magazine aspect. If businesses couldn’t make money off bosozoku fashion, but they can off “koakuma”, it’s not so surprising that a magazine aimed at the latter would exist, but not one for the former. (Seems to me like a closer equivalent than “fashion magazine for bosozoku” would be “bike parts magazine for bosozoku”.)

  6. W. David MARX Says:

    Someone’s gotta sell them 特攻服.

  7. Aceface Says:

    ”If businesses couldn’t make money off bosozoku fashion, but they can off “koakuma”, it’s not so surprising that a magazine aimed at the latter would exist, but not one for the former.”

    Well,you never know.Check out the “Champ Road”!

    “Teens road”is now gone.But it was more “fashion”oriented,because it was “Ladies(girl b0sozoku)”centered.

  8. Mulboyne Says:

    You wrote: “Kyabajou vs. Hostesses…is one really less sketchy of a job than the other?”

    The editorial team for Kojien had this discussion when they were putting together the new edition of the dictionary. They decided against including “kyabakura” (キャバクラ), even though it is in widespread use, because they couldn’t see how such places materially differed from clubs or snakku. The head of the team did recognize, however, that the term “kyabajou” (キャバ嬢) was in frequent use and intimated that it could be considered for inclusion in the next edition if it remains popular.


    The kyabakura originally occupied a legal grey area between cabarets and clubs, hence the name, which essentially allowed owners to run a hostess club for longer hours and at cheaper prices. They were described at the time as “happoshu” to the “beer” of a fully licensed club which is one reason why they used a different name. The girls in a kyabakura were also generally younger on average than girls in a hostess club and their “look” was apparently supposed to reflect that. One of the original entrepreneurs claimed in an interview that their hair and make-up was based on the style many girls favoured for coming-of-age-day or attending a wedding.

    Because clubs and kyabakura became synonymous, the police began to enforce existing regulations more strictly which meant many kyabakura could not open past midnight or one o’clock. A few have tried to open up during the day but many have closed their doors. One popular idea has been to jump on the “girl’s bar” trend so around half of the 80 or so “girl’s bars” in central Tokyo are converted kyabakura. However, few, if any, of the girls working in such places favour the kyabajou look even if it was what they wore before so it does beg the question, as you say, of whether it has a role anywhere else.

  9. W. David MARX Says:

    Thanks for that explanation, although it seems to back up the idea that society is providing the same “kind” of girls for hostess bars, snacks, and kyabakura. Koakuma style would not work for hostess bars, probably, and since kyabakura customers have less (corporate) money to bandy around, the post-109 glam-fest may fit their tastes well.

  10. manda Says:

    Sir, there’s one big fallacy that’s driving me nuts right in paragraph two: “Read the Japanese State’s official take on them here”.

    web-japan’s About Us page reads:
    “Web Japan is sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and operated by a Japanese non government organization.”

    It’s paid for, not written by, the Japanese government and so is not quite the mouthpiece of said entity.

    And as for gyaru being dead – no – I don’t think so – bgyaru will exist as long as there’s Woofin’ Girl and Amuro Namie on the cover every other month, and gyaru is picking up in the United States as otaku female are growing up. (Of course, I suppose you could argue that it’s different, but the US adherents argue that the J-style must be copied exactly.) There’s some graduate assistant around here who wanders with a mini-tiara on her head…

  11. W. David MARX Says:

    “Read the Japanese State’s official take on them here”.

    This was kind of a joke, but you have to admit that there’s a geopolitical motive in having that Trends in Japan page up.

  12. Mulboyne Says:

    “Where are you going to wear a tiara”

    At a corporate event, apparently. Last night at the Tokyo International Forum, tiaras were passed out to the crowd and Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas came on stage wearing one. In the middle of her set, she pulled out a digital camera – “a present from my Japanese friend Kumi Koda” – and said she wanted to take pictures of everyone wearing them.