For all of the wonderful, beautiful aspects reflected and stemming from the rich culture of Japan, perhaps the most easily criticized is the overwhelmingly patriarchal run society. Even in the modern age, this intense regard for male dominance is threatening to capsize the country as a whole as women prefer to remain unmarried to retain their independence from a husband in the traditional atmosphere set before them. This lack of marriage is leading to a lack of children which has made Japan one of two countries in the world with a declining population rate (the second being Russia).
This new movement of independence is not the first wave of feminism to hit Japan. In the late sixties, an intense cultural phenomenon briefly threatened the system of governance in the most Japanese way possible: ruthless school girls out to be taken seriously, who went by the title Sukeban, which translates to Boss Girls.
Japan is a country with a deep set fear of gangsters, commonly referred to as Yakuza, which remains one of the only domestic threats to the common people’s well being in the obnoxiously safe country. This, Japan’s intense sexualization of young school girls in every form of media both domestically and abroad, and the disregard for female independence from the rigorous societal structure of expectations led to the development of the Sukeban.
“What is unusual is that in the yakuza, women have no authority and there are almost no female members. That the female gangs even existed is an oddity in Japan’s generally sexist male-dominated deviant culture,” explains Japanese crime writer Jake Adelstein. “The world was about feminism and liberation, and perhaps they felt like women have the right to be just as stupid, promiscuous, risk-seeking, adrenaline junkies and violent as their male counterparts,” (2016).
The Sukeban consisted of Japanese schoolgirls out for vengeance. The gangs that were formed were noted for their intense attitudes and angry demeanors, similar to those reflected in the Punk movement in Britain at the same time. The Sukeban were also characterized by their style and outfits.
The females would wear uniforms with colors reflecting their school, with skirts falling down to their ankles. School uniforms are and were a crucial point in Japanese culture, reflecting the nationalist attitude that still dominated the country of, “we are one entity.” The school uniforms would turn to a crucial dynamic of the Sukeban’s attire as the girls within the gang were known for hiding an array of weapons in their long skirts, from razor blades to chains. By the 70’s they were identified by a strict style choice to distinguish them as Sukeban: they would wear Converse sneakers, and unusually long skirts, their sailor blouses cut to expose their midriff. They were known for their intentional scruffiness, wearing very little amounts of makeup and sporting accessories like leather jackets of scarves around their mouths, (2016). All of this was to set them apart from the presupposed nationalist identity.
And the skirts were a crucial piece of their secondary message, “[they] 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,” (2015) and demand a simple acknowledgment from their fellow citizens of Japan: to stop sexualizing the young girls. Once the girls graduated, these skirts would be decorated with kanji text and embroidered flowers.
The feminist movement became widely popular despite its short reign, having over 20,000 teenage girls sworn in at its peak, (2015). The notion was clear, “Whether you loved or hated these girls they were everywhere, spreading a message of either empowerment or terror depending on your position within Japanese society at the time, (2015). The group was known for its tight-knit community, internal structured rules, and their frequent endeavors in petty crime, (2015)
However, the movement was short lived. Contrasting with similar movements, such as the Punk movement in Britain, the movement was quickly rewritten by the society is contrasted with. The shocking existence of violent females in a society that values the timid and soft-spoken female was quick to gain media attention. Within a short time, all sorts of film, manga, and tv show portrayals of the Sukeban were sweeping the nation. “Titles like Lynch Law Classroom, Girl Boss Guerilla, and School of the Holy Beast,” (2016) were strikingly popular in their time, but completely rewrote the narrative of what the Sukeban were. On top of over sexualizing the Sukeban characters, completely disregarding the purpose of their existence, in film and comic format. The Sukeban subculture in Japan was soon completely rewritten, similarly to the punk movement in Britain, resulting in a daft perception of violence and individuality that lacked the substance of what they were fighting for.
The Sukeban movement was brief, spanning only a couple years from beginning to end. The popular media at the time has mostly been forgotten just as the purpose behind these young women’s actions has also. The appearance of Sukeban in modern Japanese media is an opaque representation of what it was meant to be, further separating the term and recollection form the history and purpose.
However, feminism and Japan has not been so easily forgotten in the mix. The Sukeban may be a relic of the past, but change is still on the horizon, and I for one am incredibly interested to see what form it takes this time.
(Healy, Claire Marie. “Remembering Japan’s Badass Schoolgirl Gangs.” Dazed, Dazed Digital, 5 Nov. 2015, www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/28261/1/remembering-japans-badass-7…. Webb, Beth. “How Vicious Schoolgirl Gangs Sparked a Media Frenzy in Japan.” Broadly, VICE, 16 Feb. 2016, broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/mgmzxv/how-vicious-schoolgirl-gangs-sparked-media-frenzy-japan-sukeban.)