It’s Stormy Out, But Hot Inside, Here in Tokyo

The weather was pretty dreary today in Tokyo – rainy and cold.  But we were resolved to check out the fashion scene in Shibuya, whatever the weather, so after our morning study and meditation, off we went!

Emerging from the Shibuya Metro Station, we immediately entered an enormous intersection, Hachiko Square, named in honor of the remarkably loyal akita dog, the subject of both books and a movie starring Richard Gere.  This intersection of eight streets had hundreds and hundreds of people crossing every couple of minutes, as the traffic lights and policemen dictated – no jaywalking here!  

We strolled the rainy streets of Shibuya, which despite the weather were still packed with young people.  Everywhere, it was a sea of umbrellas, and I had to keep an eye out to avoid getting poked in the more crowded intersections.  We walked down the pedestrian street that runs off the Metro Station, dodging puddles as we went, but despite the interesting boutiques at street level, we found ourselves inexorably heading towards the building that looms over Hachiko Square, the Mecca of young fashion, Shibuya 109.  We were drawn like moths to the flame of Japanese style, this nine story building containing hundreds of small designer shops, each selling its own variation of Gyaru fashion.   

Gyaru (ギャル?) is a Japanese transliteration of the English word “gal.”  The name originated from a 1970s brand of jeans called “gals”, with the advertising slogan: “I can’t live without men”, and was applied to fashion- and peer-conscious girls in their teens and early twenties, whose lack of interest in work or marriage gave Gyaru a Lolita image. 

Gyaru subculture is still an important influence in Japan’s fashion economy, with gyaru brands branching out and becoming more accessible in rural areas. In Tokyo, more often than not, a shopping center at each main train station is dedicated to offering the newest and trendiest items from popular Gal brands, but the heart of Gyaru beats at Shibuya 109, in time with the throbbing bass of the hundreds of sound systems, each turned to Max Power, that greeted me as we entered the self-styled Community of Fashion.  

Besides the incredible noise inside, what else did I immediately notice?  This felt like entering a different world – each designer shop has its own salesgirls, who are elaborately dressed in the Gyaru style of that shop, including its typical makeup, level of suntan, and other accessories.  Since most of these salesgirls and women are naturally tall, and on top of that, are wearing super high-heels, they tower over not only the thousands of young girls shopping, but also over most of the few boyfriends and fathers who have dared to venture inside, like me.  Every one of us males did our best not only not to stare, but to look quite disinterested by the entire fashion show on offer…

Here’s a little more background on this elaborate subculture.  Gyaru is a girly-glam style, that breaks away from traditional standards of beauty. It emphasizes the man-made (wigs, fake eyelashes, fake nails, etc), and literally puts these Lolita girls on a pedestal – the impossibly high-heeled shoe, usually worn with a super short miniskirt or a short jumper with petticoats.   Gyaru fashion certainly doesn’t fit with traditionally portrayed ideals of Japanese women, and so it’s often identified as a sign of rebellious youth.  Gyaru, the fashion style sold in 109, is only one of many fashion styles that can be seen in Shibuya and Harujuku districts. 

Gyaru fashion is typically characterized by dyed and streaked hair, ranging from neon red to blue to purple to every shade of blonde imaginable, and lots of heavy makeup. This makeup typically consists of dark eyeliner, and dramatic fake eyelashes; gyaru sometimes wear cosmetic circle lenses as well to enhance the size of their irises, to add more width to their eyes. Typically Gyarus are known for being tan, with their skin color ranging from pure white (Kabuki style) all the way to dark brown. 

There are various subcategories of “gals” depending on the choice of fashion, with each subcategory having a storyline explaining each of its fashion details:

Bibinba (ビビンバ): This look usually includes a lot of gold and jewelry. Similar to b-gal.

Banba (バンバ): Banba is a lighter form of manba. Banbas wear less white makeup than manbas; they also use more glitter, and doesn’t have neon colored hair as much. Banbas wear more extreme-looking types of false eyelashes, and colored contact lenses. Banbas wear darker colors than manbas, and sometimes dress in club wear. 

Ganguro (ガングロギャル): A gyaru with an artificial deep tan and bleached hair. This style was popular in the late 1990s, and early 2000s.

Gyaruo (ギャル男): A male gyaru.

Kogyaru: Generally a high school student (高校生 kōkōsei).

Yamanba: Like manba, but the nose stripe goes past the eyebrows.

I thought that most of the sales girls and women, and many of the girls shopping, spent an incredible amount of time and effort, not to mention yen, on their particular brand of style. They each looked like a performance art piece, and it was easy for me to appreciate them from that point of view. Still…so much time, so much energy spent on something so transient…it seemed so futile.  Interesting, but futile nonetheless…

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About juleslandsman

I live, when not traveling, in Sweetwater, Colorado, located in between Vail and Aspen, and in Kohukohu, a small town on the Hokianga Harbour in New Zealand. I write travelogues, memoirs, and reflections when I'm not skiing, biking, or otherwise outdoors. I retired recently from a career in the financial services industry that spanned more than twenty-five years.
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