Kinsella believes the root of ganguro-loathing exists in the racist underpinnings of Japanese society. She writes:
Commentary about the race, tribe, and skin color of girls, was sometimes entwined with a derogatory and pseudo-Darwinian commentary about dark-skinned girls, which implied that they were a kind of species or animal. Classified as dark-skinned primitives and animals, girls daring to wear black face and witch outfits sometimes became subject to a racist assault on their humanity.
While this may certainly have played a part in setting the parameters of the discussion, the girls deserve much more credit for having intentionally engineered the ganguro look to frighten off anyone not in gyaru circles. They may have unconsciously tapped into long-standing racial and skin color prejudices to settle on a darker skin, but their goal was extremity rather than racial reference itself.
Discussing racial references is loaded, and gyaru as a whole is heavy with controversies. Marx does an excellent job at tracing down the history of the gyaru subculture which can be read here. To summarize, gyaru (a Japanese pronunciation of “gal”) began with a group of high school girls challenging typical Japanese beauty constructs and raising controversy in the early 90s.
Initially named “kogyaru”, they altered their uniforms through loose socks, hiked up skirts, large sweaters added with tans and light brown or blonde hair. The style started with upper class students hanging around Shibuya partying and shopping. Eventually, kogyaru grew old and a number of subsets of gyaru began to emerge between the late 90s and early 2000s. The magazine Egg, originally a men’s magazine which had come to fetishize young girls during the kogyaru era gradually turned into a gyaru magazine, meant specifically for these girls. The magazine’s switch demonstrated how gyaru twisted the male gaze and challenged the notion of the pale, passive woman Japanese men had established as a norm. The girls were inspired by Californian culture, TV series like Baywatch and blonde, tanned Americans. Later “ganguro” and “yamanba” began to form as the upper class moved on and the working class gravitated towards Shibuya, taking these aesthetic elements to the absolute extreme. Tans grew darker, eyelashes upon eyelashes stood out against white eyeshadow and hair went fully bleached or colored. We will be focusing on ganguro (Kanji: 顔黒 Hiragana: がんぐろ Katakana: ガングロ) and its variations.
In English, ganguro essentially translates to “black face”. Blackface in America brings back memories of minstrelsy, Aunt Jemima and just about every comedic media, be it in Bugs Bunny, early Mickey Mouse or comic strips. Across the waters, the Netherlands and Belgium have their Zwarte Piet, assistant of St. Nicholas, and us French our Y’a Bon Banania chocolate and Negrita rhum… all of which still live on to some degree or other.
With this, we will notice that there is no unified Western perspective when it comes to what is considered blackface, nor to what extent darkening one’s skin becomes racially controversial. By this, I mean that pejorative representations of a specific class of people are defended as being “part of the culture”. A history of minstrelsy and dehumanization in the United States marked the population so deeply that mostly anything resembling blackface is considered offensive. Most especially, America had a more intimate relationship with slavery than western Europe, whose main population was disconnected from the terrible conditions on plantations. So, when it came to representing black people in the media, there was a more interpretive aspect to it (which we will keep in mind for later). Stereotypes were largely accepted and quite popular among movie-goers and newspaper readers. For instance, cartoonist and creator of Krazy Kat, George Herriman, enthusiastically participated in minstrel shows and drew characters in black face for a number of years. He was a black man. Like many, his family moved away from New Orleans, passing for white as a means of getting their children into good schools and simply living a safer life. Herriman is a clear example of the country’s multifaceted racial dynamics. Even then, minstrel shows were also performed by black people who subtly mocked the whites creating those very skits.
In Western Europe, on the other hand, maintaining “purity of culture” is an endless issue. Blatantly racist representations of minorities took longer to change due to many countries being rooted in old values. You will still find an advertisement for Negrita rhum walking along the streets of Montreuil and, up until 2004, would be staring at the red lips of Banania’s mascot while drinking your hot cocoa. In the case of Zwarte Piet there were riots to remove the black face character, who supposedly looked so because he fell through a chimney and was covered in soot. This excuse was used to maintain a tradition which the modern world is ready to challenge as perpetuating the celebration of a racist figure. Europe is not only faced with oppression through media, but more powerfully, it must confront longstanding values and cultural practices.
Finally, black face in the Western world vacillates within a spectrum. On one hand, the United States lives with the memory of its rampant popularity and on the other, Europe faces conflict between culture and racial equality in old traditions.
Its Relation to Gyaru
Ganguro and its evolution into “gonguro” and “yamamba” have been subject to accusation of using black face on multiple occasions. Here, we will not attempt to debate this. We will instead explore the multiple meanings behind ganguros darkening their skin as well as question the Western gaze.
Striving for Darker Skin
Ganguros can spend up to eight hours in the tanning salon before applying dark foundation and heavy white streaks onto their face as part of a regular routine. The origin behind tanning in gyaru was to combat the pale skin Japanese society considered desirable. The aforementioned kogyaro broke this unassertive, frail figure dependent on men for validation. But, it was really the transformation of Egg magazine that made gyaru accessible.
In one of Kawaii Pateen’s videos (a Youtube channel celebrating Japanese culture through lifestyle and fashion), a ganguro girl demonstrated her makeup routine through a captivating tutorial. For those outside of ganguro, it certainly provided some insight on the process of creating such layered full-face makeup. At the end of the video was a mini interview where she admitted that she found black girls “pretty and stylish”. She wanted her skin “smooth and black”, thus spent up to 90 minutes in the tanning salon. Rather than taking her comments at face value it could instead be understood that she is using inspiration to further a style which originated outside of “black culture”. The fact that she finds black people “cool and stylish” on the surface is not automatically connected to racism, nor does it fall under cultural appropriation without further thought.
Gyaru’s intentions come from within Japan. They purposefully embrace a darker shade, some ganguros going as far as they can get. The person featured in this video was evidently either oblivious or failed to mention that there was an entire African diaspora with a wide range of shades, cultures and style. But, that is not fully the point. Japan was heavily influenced by the United States. In the 90s came a wave of appropriation of Black American fashion which established itself as the country’s norm by the 2000s. Though gyaru drew inspiration from California – adorning themselves with flowers and such – tanning was already popular in the United States. Darker shades had become desirable in the latter, but only aesthetically, for the burden was too much to bare… Americans wanted brown skin but not the weight it carried within. Essentially, 90s girls in Japan drew on what had been previously drawn upon. But, it was in the early 2000s that the look and social commentary truly took a new direction.
Living with a Bad Reputation
Starting from kogyaru, girls in the subculture had a reputation for being promiscuous – particularly with older men – rebellious and poor students. Their seeming rejection of academic promise was shown through partying and shopping. The concept of vanity was especially played upon with gyaru. It teased Japan’s obsession with high grades and reputable colleges. Gyaru girls seemed to have fun. Still, this leisurely lifestyle was a shell and did not indicate each individual’s academic status.
Though ganguro girls may find beauty in themselves, they do not aim to impress. Their use of gyaru poses are purposefully unflattering: distorting their faces, sticking out their tongues from warped perspectives, showing “aggression” rather than passivity. They take control over their own image. This is where the tanning comes to play. Dark skin is treasured amongst themselves and considered desirable. This pushing away creates a smaller culture of girls obsessed with traits directly opposite to theirs. In a video called “The Last Gyaru Girls of Shibuya” by Ask Japanese, one girl mentions that “it has nothing to do with prejudice or racial discrimination”, saying “I personally think dark skin looks healthier”. When ganguro girls strive for black skin, they look for cheerfulness. Wearing bright colors, various patterns and colored hair, the tanning works in contrast to create a fun, “healthy” look. In other words, they strive to feel alive.
What the West Sees
When faced with racial dilemmas and appropriation coming from Japan, the “they aren’t exposed to foreigners” argument gives the impression of unintentional othering. This renders the country as “innocent” in the negative sense, meaning that they are dependent on others to introduce them to racial taboos. Though there is no harm in pointing out offensive behavior in regards to culture, in certain cases phrasing can come off as patronizing. In addition, it generates a black and white battle where one party is right and the other wrong, when in fact the nature of the “offense” is usually nuanced. Taking the 1.6% statistic of foreigners as an indication of pure homogeneity is also stripping away people of different skin tones who exist in Japan as citizens of Japanese origin. Like anywhere else, they suffer for their differences.
There is a possibility that ganguros were inspired by the character Adamo-chan, an aboriginal man played by Toshirô Shimazaki. He wore dark foundation and white lips, similar to ganguro girls. The girls who see black and darker skinned people as a source of inspiration appear to draw from surface alone, similarly to B-kei (a Japanese subculture focused around Black American culture). This mainly comes from the appropriation of American pop culture as a whole rather than from race and class. Thus, it would be unfair to look at ganguro girls and immediately label them “blackface”, as the gyaru subculture bases itself on popular media and purposefully opposes Japanese aesthetic norms in every way possible. Not to mention, “gaijin gyarus” (gyarus of non-Japanese descent) participate in the scene as well. There are numerous black girls on social media that participate in the gyaru lifestyle, some wearing typical ganguro makeup.
Despite its nearly full decline in the early 2000s, ganguro left a mark on alternative subculture and style history. The scene is not racially exclusive, and most participants appear to strive for darker skin for a variety of reasons, some believing it looks healthy, others because they see black as beautiful. The controversy surrounding the latter was mostly left for B-kei, as gyaru’s origins come from suntan and Californian beaches. Ganguro is not for everyone, but the girls in the scene are there to love, liberate and be themselves. As ganguro girl Akarin admitted, “I look stronger when my skin is black”.