Nearly 50 years ago, Japan’s schoolgirl gangs known as the “sukeban” successfully defied the immaculate image of the Japanese school girl.
The subculture of sukeban (loosely translated as the slang “girlboss”) emerged in the late 1960s and persisted throughout the 70s in Japan. While the term itself mainly refers to the female gang leader of all-girl gangs, it has eventually become attributed to the massive movement itself that brought girls at the forefront at a time when men of the Yakuza were also thriving.
It was in this post-war era that saw many Japanese people becoming more outspoken and assertive. The emergence of the female “yanki” (a subculture of rebellious youth) reportedly sprung from the refusal of Yakuza groups to accept women as members.
Known to get involved in fights with rival gangs and engage in other petty crimes, members of the subculture group carried razor blades and chains concealed beneath their long skirts. Due to their involvement in shoplifting, theft, and violence, the Japanese public viewed them mostly as a menace to society.
They expressed rebellion against the sailor-style uniforms by wearing unusually long skirts, converse sneakers and untied scarves. Some even cut blouses to expose their waists in a bid to do away with the “prim-and-proper” look.
The chosen aesthetic was observed as a form of protest against the sexualized portrayal of teen girls at the time while the weapons are a means of protection and a statement showing that they are not mere objects of men’s desires.
Sukeban gangs had a hierarchy, upheld fierce loyalty and maintained a strict code of justice among members. For instance, cigarette burns are used as a form of punishment for minor infractions such as stealing a boyfriend or disrespecting another member. Meanwhile, major trespasses were reportedly dealt with by lynching.
At the peak of sukeban‘s popularity, their membership reportedly swelled to the tens of thousands. A popular gang, known as the “Kanto Women Delinquent Alliance,” was rumored to have had around 20,000 members.
Then came the s3x-fuelled exploitation movies, or “pink films,” that banked on the popularity of the growing movement.
“Pinky Violence” series with Delinquent Girl Boss was launched by the production company Toei in the early 70s to cash in on what was seen by the studios as a mere fad. This was later followed by other projects such as “Norifumi Suzuki’s Girl Boss (Sukeban)” films and the “Terrifying Girls’ High School” series.
Suddenly, the rebellious movement was being portrayed as the sexual objects they were protesting against. It is unclear whether the popularity of these films somehow affected the real-life sukeban.
Actresses Reiko Ike and Miki Sugimoto, who were both often cast as the so-called bad girls, became instant stars during this sukeban-inspired cinema boom.
Meanwhile, the real-life sukeban seemed to have eventually outgrown the movement by the 80s as most had settled with their own families.
Gyaru-based subcultures such as the ganguro and kogyaru would eventually take over sukeban in popularity, replacing the scruffy bad girl aesthetics with heavy make-up and mini skirts.
Today’s all-girl motorcycle gangs known as bōsōzoku adopts a lifestyle that is related more closely to the sukeban culture, at least in their defiance to a patriarchal narrative. Their jumpsuit outfits, floral tattoos, long manicured nails, and heavily designed bikes are seen as their form of rebellious expression.
While there are still some sukeban influences seen in Japanese pop culture today such as in manga, anime and television shows, it is hard to say if any of them will fully capture what sukeban actually was and what it stood for back in its heyday.