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25 Aug

Contained in the growing online community of Black gyarus

The 90s Japanese subculture has found a recent home online, where a growing variety of Black TikTokers are adopting the trend for themselves

Lavender is finished up as a “manba” gyaru. Her white painted lips match her heavy white eye make-up and daring white nose contour that extends up onto her brow. Oversized lashes hang down low under her eyes and her long nails are painted the identical pastel baby blue as her eyeshadow. Even amid all of the noise on TikTok, the look stands out. Which makes it unsurprising that the video has over 4 million views and over 640,000 likes. But removed from being alone, Lavender is just considered one of a growing variety of Black women and femmes on TikTok who’re joining the gyaru culture and sharing their looks online to their hundreds of followers.

Gyaru (a Japanese transliteration of the English slang word gal) is a fashion subculture that originated in Japan within the 90s, although its roots may be traced back to the 70s. “Everyone has a special story about how gyaru got here into existence,” says Dr Masafumi Monden, a University of Sydney professor who researches Japanese popular culture, with an emphasis on fashion and gender. What we do know is that it stemmed from a calming of social norms across the country within the 90s and the growing influence of Western media on the culture. With their exaggerated takes on American aesthetics similar to “the California valley girl” or R&B style, gyarus symbolised a rebellious response to the standard Japanese concept of beauty: pale skin, dark hair and neutral make-up tones.

In contrast to this, gyarus often wear their hair bleached or vibrant, with dramatic oversized eye make-up in pastel colors. Gyaru sub-styles like “yamanba” also involve deeply tanned skin, while manba gyarus often wear leis and rhinestones. While political messages weren’t explicit, Dr Monden says, the looks did give these young women power and visibility – and sometimes notoriety. “[Japanese] adults often associate youth subcultures and fashion groups with the thought of delinquency,” he says. Because gyarus were often young women, their love of partying and sometimes suggestive attire – sexualised school uniforms were an early a part of the gyaru look – created moral panic within the country and an association with sex work. It’s something Xiomara, a gyaru who plays with the yamanba and manba styles, finds upsetting. “They take a subculture that’s meant to do something opposite to what they [society] like. And so they attempt to sexualise it,” she says.

After peaking within the early 2000s, the gyaru culture saw a decline and by 2015 an article in Japan Today was asking: “Where have all of the gyaru gone?” While Tokyo stays mostly empty of the groups of gyarus that when filled the streets, the subculture has found a recent home on TikTok where a recent generation of young people outside of Japan are discovering the trend. There isn’t really one pipeline to “gal” culture. All gyarus for this piece shared different experiences, from anime to an interest in other Japanese styles similar to kawaii and just simply their enjoyment within the absurd. “First I used to be nervous, but then I actually thought of it. I already get bullied. I already experience colourism. I already experience these items that, , make my life terrible. So why be miserable in it? Why not make it fun?” says Xiomara.

It could appear unusual for Black women and femmes to engross themselves with such a distinct segment alternative fashion subculture, but gyaru was hugely influenced by Black culture. As hip-hop reached recent global heights within the 90s, Japanese youth were enthralled with Blackness. Japanese pop star and gyaru icon, Amuro Namie has often cited Janet Jackson and other Black women as inspiration. Meanwhile, “b-kei” gyarus have been criticised for appropriating African American culture with their darker tans, braided hairstyles and hip-hop fashion. Tanning is a quite common beauty staple in gyaru culture. While all of the gyarus Dazed spoke to noted it was OK to tan, all stressed the importance of not overdoing it as an excessive amount of can enterprise into “blackface”.

“In lots of gyaru magazines, they might have pages on Janet Jackson fashion or Beyoncé fashion,” says Laetitia, a British-Jamaican gyaru infatuated with fashion who has plans for their very own clothing brand. “Obviously the nails being so extravagant and long and blinged out took inspiration from females in rap on the time and things like that.” Despite this influence, nevertheless, Black gyarus on TikTok face lots of ostracisation and racism. When Lavender first began posting videos, she would get comments about her being an ‘East Asian baiter’ and folks referring to her as “it” or “thing”.

Janee, or “NYC’s No. 1 Gal” as she is thought on TikTok, is a preferred gyaru who may be very vocal about cultural appropriation and anti-blackness within the gyaru scene. “When you talk concerning the racism that’s happening within the [gyaru] community or the hatred that black ‘gals’ are facing you could be shunned by certain people,” she says. One other well-known gyaru Xolani, brought up the problem of colorism locally. Xolani identified that the most well-liked gyarus are either not Black or racially ambiguous and/or fairly light skin. “Black women are seen as offended, big, flashy, violent. So if you incorporate what people already consider us with a mode that’s so on the market, it breeds hate.”

Despite this, the Black gyaru community stays resolute and growing. When talking to Dazed, the “gals” enthused concerning the ethos of gyarus and why it’s so attractive to not only them, but other people. “It’s something that sort of puts a twist on all different styles from times and places, and adds a novel, daring twist on it,” Laetitia said. At times, there may be some infighting since gyaru styles can blur with other alternative subcultures thus providing tension and dispute on what qualifies as gyaru, but overall the community strives for inclusive support. Gyarus like Xolani and Janee shared the importance of providing tricks to beginner gyarus, especially on confidence and ignoring the cynics. “I’m just pleased I can encourage other people to attempt to do recent things,” Tasia said. With Xolani concluding, “Gyaru doesn’t all the time look a certain way. You’re allowed to shape your personal gyaru look.”

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