Introduction to Subcultural Anthropology: Kogal


The following entry originally appeared on the Amoeblog

Even disregarding the sense having to do with bacteria, there are many definitions of “subculture.” The longest that I’ve found is that of the The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition:

A group within a society that has its own shared set of customs, attitudes, and values, often accompanied by jargon or slang. A subculture can be organized around a common activity, occupation, age, status, ethnic background, race, religion, or any other unifying social condition, but the term is often used to describe deviant groups, such as thieves and drug users. ( See counterculture.)

No one will ever be able to document every subculture, or even agree upon what they are. With this series I will examine subcultures primarily organized around two things, music and clothing. That way I can largely avoid the can of worms which are gangs. For gangs, both music and clothing are of considerable importance but the engagement in of criminal activity is assumed to be their raison d’être. Also, I don’t want to provoke a bunch of angry, misspelled comments written in all caps.

This week’s subculture: Kogal

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The kogal (コギャル) subculture arose in Japan in the 1980s and became widely known in the Japanese mainstream after the airing of a 1993 television special, ザ・. コギャル NIGHT (“the Kogal night”). The subculture were further featured in the fictional 1997 film バウンス ko GALS (“bounce Kogal”) (1997) depicted Kogals turning to prostitution to fund their insatiable materialism. In reality, many Kogals were apparently engaged in “paid dating” although for the vast majority that means involves little more than accompanying a man to karaoke in exchange for money and drinks.

Kogals remained an exclusively Japanese phenomenon although they are apparently featured in Quentin Tarantino‘s film Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003). By the time of its release the Kogal had largely been supplanted by two offshoot subcultures, ガングロ (Ganguro) and ヤマンバ (Yamaba or “mountain hag”).

“Kogal” in English, is derived from an Anglicized spelling of a contraction of kōkōsei gyaru meaning “high school gal.” Most Kogals simply referred to themselves as gyaru (ギャル), meaning “gal.” The word entered Japanese in 1972, with the launch of a brand of women’s flared jeans of that name. The basis of the kogalcostume is not bellbottoms, however, but the Japanese school uniform.


(Source: 梅の実学園の仲間たち)

The Kogal’s skirt was generally pinned up to shorten its length and the socks were worn loosely, often with platform boots. The kogal’s hair was artificially lightened and the skin artificially darkened. A common flourish was a Burberry scarf — then as now a popular emblem of conspicuous consumption.

Kogals didn’t just have a look but a unique slang, known as “kogyarugo” (コギャル語), a jargon peppered heavily with words borrowed from English and acronyms like “MM” and “MK5” (the latter meaning that the speaker is on the verge of losing it).  The poster girl of Kogal style was singer 安室奈美恵 (Namie Amuro). The Kogal’s natural range was the Harajuku and Shibuya shopping wards of Tokyo, in particular, the latter district’s fashionable department store, 109. Their motto, if they had one, was  biba jibun “ビバ自分” or, “Viva the self!”

Kogal style was promoted by the magazines ポップティーン (Popteen, launched in 1980), Street JamHappieエッグ (Egg, launched in 1995), and ランズキ (Ranzuki, launched in 1998). From 1992-2002 the manga ギャルズ! (Gals!) chronicled the exploits of a character whose claim was to be, “the greatest gal in Shibuya.” As late as 2006, the drama ギャルサー (Gal Circle) revolved around a cast of Kogal characters.

(Source: Tokyo Fashion)

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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