Loose Socks as Molotov Cocktails: Finding the Rebellion in Japanese Teen Girl Subcultures

Within examinations of Japanese girls’ culture, there lies a wide gap between a perception of traditional subcultures as docile, meaningless cultural consumption based only on non-Internet sociality, that belies the truth. Japanese female-driven subcultures have long been portrayed as more old-fashioned, in-real-life groupings than concurrent male subcultures. This is changing as female otaku become a more pronounced population in online communities and fandoms.
Most popular preconceptions of Japanese subcultures, especially in the Western world, tend to focus on otaku, which roughly translates as geek or dweeb. While the connotations of the word “otaku” have drastically changed in the past few decades, from a term loaded with derision and accusation, to one of pride, a constant element of otaku culture is that it (at least in the minds of both Japanese and Westerners) is mainly comprised of males. Most likely, this stereotype was driven into the public consciousness by the Miyazaki child murders (the so-called “Otaku Murders”) and other otaku-perpetrated crimes, and remains prevalent due to headline-ready, majority-male sub-subcultures, like the shut-in hikikomori.
While the advent of the Internet allows for female enthusiasts to enter the world of otaku fandom with far greater visibility, female otaku are not a new phenomenon. Contrary to the popular image of otaku as male, the market for female-directed doujinshi has been in full force since the advent of Comiket in the 1970s. The rise of otaku, commonly considered to be the 1970s, is concurrent to the rise of shonen ai (boys’ love) stories in shojo (girls’) manga.  Today, the market for manga and anime made for female fans is easily comparable to the market for male fans, and female otaku are becoming a much more vocal part of online fan communities.
In contrast to this reality, many prevalent notions of female Japanese subcultures are often much more traditional notions of what a subculture should resemble. Unlike otaku, subcultures like loli and kogals are seen has participating in a face-to-face group, with tangible artifacts, largely independent of the internet. Frequently, these subcultures feature a strong fashion or visual component, where the participant must posses a certain aesthetic, and a devotion to that aesthetic in order to be considered genuine. Frequently, these groups are demonized either for their perceived sexuality (as with kogals, ogals, and loli), or conversely, for their lack of sexuality (as with the kawaii and kigurumin). Additionally, the necessity of in-real-life interactions within these groups has somewhat faded in recent years, as the Internet enables these groups to form and evolve without ever meeting in person. For a brief overview of these subcultures and their general aesthetics, please left click  on the slideshows above, and select “View Image.”
Among the many subcultures formed by Japanese girls in their post-Bubble society, three have captured international imagination: kawaii, kogal, and loli girls. A few other such groups enter into this discussion of female fandom, like the lesser-known ogals/ganguro/manba and kigurumin. The subcultures described above have existed in Japan in some form for at least the past two decades, and are part of an international image of young Japanese femininity. Among those groups whose flame extinguished more quickly are the ganguro/ogals/manba family of subcultures, and the kigurumin.
While these subcultures might seem disparate, they all follow a few traits common among female subcultures in Japan. All employ cute aesthetics, although what is defined as cute might drastically change over time. Each of these groups has been demonized by mainstream Japanese society as a sign of society’s decadence, and the inability of youth to affect social change. Further cultural stigma is assigned to the girls of these groups if they are seen as either extremely sexualized, like kogals, or as purposefully asexual, like the original kawaii, as the desexualized kigurumin, and the seemingly repellant ogals.
Furthermore, these subcultures are widely seen in mainstream culture as meaningless consumption of culture devoid of value. The decline of post-Bubble youth is marked by their apparent failure to oppose the mainstream, with such youth revolt defined by the student protests of the late 1960s. However, Sharon Kinsella successfully argues that this consciously passive consumption of culture whose meaning is not defined by the mainstream is its own successful form of rebellion. Kawaii works as a reactive subculture because it does not register as particularly rebellious. Because the mainstream definition of youth rebellion is explicitly active, the mainstream fails to see a youth in revolt when girls tan, party, and don’t shower to excess. In other words, these girls are not seen as rebellious even as they utterly reject societal definitions of youth, aging, beauty, and femininity.
And while Dick Hebdige’s seminal work on subcultures in limited in its specificity to 1970s British youth and other Western groups, it still applies quite aptly in its discussion of subculture as an act of resistance. Hebdige’s discussion of drugs as aspect of style distinction is a bit less relevant in Japan than it was in 1970s Britain, but his definitional style elements like clothing, music, dance, and make-up are particularly appropriate when one considers the manba’s para-para dancing, and kawaii idols’ presentation within their own community. His trajectory of a subculture, from marginalized resistance to commercialized mainstream, is easily visible, especially within the everything-kawaii aesthetic visible virtually anywhere in Japan today, and the prevalence of loli subcultures outside the context of Japan. The marketing of cute, which has occurred concurrent to the emergence of kawaii, marked beginning of the end for that same subculture, as the opening of the Moi-Meme-Moitie brand similarly doomed the edginess of goth loli style. Furthermore, Hebdige’s ideas on subculture as an expression of rebellion against the raw materials of culture dovetail cleanly with the theory, as expressed by Anne McKnight in her work on French influences in Japanese subculture, that Japanese subcultures are a reaction against the American post-WWII Occupation.
Viewing all subculture as a form of resistance seems to help explain the motives for creating, entering, and consuming these subcultures. However, a single pat answer can never fully explain the complex motives behind self-identification. Chalking up all subculture, especially in the non-Western world, to some kind of rebellion ignores and dismisses other potential motivators, like a positive sense of belonging, a desire for a feminine, feminist space, or even more obscure subcultural sources. While the loli groups are commonly referred to as Victoriana-fetishists, who idolize all that is European, it is entirely possible that the loli aesthetic can also be attributed to the Japanese styles worn in the Meiji period, which, while Westernized, were rarely fully Western. What’s more, Japanese notions of what constitutes a subculture are quite different from Western ones, and the air of deviance that accompanies most Western subcultures is not necessary in Japan. Kawaii has progressed so far down Hebdige’s subculture life-cycle that it is now mainstream in everything but name, and kawaii goods are everywhere. In fact, kawaii aesthetics and manga are two alleged subcultures where it is far more revolutionary not to partake of them. Clearly, examinations of Japanese subcultures must be made even more specialized in order to analyze these subcultures within their own cultural context.
In Japan’s post-Bubble culture, young women and girls have frequently been pushed away from developing subcultures like otaku and its attendant online communities, while being pushed into subcultures which, through their non-Internet presence, tangible artifacts, and familiar set of distinct style elements, represent a more traditional model of subculture within Japan. Ironically, in maintaining seemingly harmless, meaningless subcultures built on cute aesthetics and seemingly meaningless style elements, young Japanese women are able to transgressively resist a mainstream culture that continues to work as a patriarchy, even as the wreck of the Bubble economy leaves other pillars of Japanese culture toppled.

Discussion Questions
1. Where do you think female otaku fandom and female subcultures might be headed in the future?
2. While not discussed here, how do you think Azuma’s database model might apply to female otaku? How might the system apply to non-otaku female subcultures?
3. How might female fandoms and female subcultures intersect?
How do you feel about the combined (Kinsella, Hebdige, etc.) idea of Japanese subculture as resistance, especially to the Occupation? How might resistance to the Occupation fit in here?


  • Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku, Japan’s Database Animals. Minneapolis, MN: University Of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.
  • Galbraith, Patrick W. “Akihabara: Conditioning a Public “Otaku” Image.” Mechademia. 5. (2010): 210-230. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. < http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mec/summary/v005/5.galbraith.html>.
  • Hebdige, D. Subculture, the meaning of style. Padstow, Cornwall: Methuen and Co. Ltd, 1979. Print.
  • Kinsella, Sharon. “Cuties In Japan.” In Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan. Lise Skov and Brian Moeran. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995. 220-254. Print.
  • Macias, P., I. Evers, and K. Nonaka. Japanese schoolgirl inferno, tokyo teen fashion subculture handbook. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books Llc, 2007. Print.
  • McKnight, Anne. “Frenchness and Transformation in Japanese Subculture, 1972–2004.” Mechademia. 5. (2010): 118-137. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mec/summary/v005/5.mcknight.html >.
  • Toku, Masami. “Shojo Manga! Girls’ Comics! A Mirror of Girls’ Dreams.” Mechademia. 2. (2007): 19-32 . Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mec/summary/v002/2.toku.html >.
  • Winge , Theresa. “Undressing and Dressing Loli: A Search for the Identity of the Japanese Lolita .” Mechademia. 3. (2008): 47-63. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mec/summary/v003/3.winge.html>.



  1. Elizabeth Denny says:

    Great post, Isabel! You did some good research on a fascinating topic. It’s particularly interesting to me to consider your remarks about the intersections/interactions of Japan’s material culture, its economy, and its historical treatment of women. I was curious about your remark that “the decline of post-Bubble youth is marked by their apparent failure to oppose the mainstream, with such rebellion defined by the student protests of the late 1960s.” I understand this application to Kinsella’s thesis about kawaii, but could you elaborate more on how kogal or kigurumin culture fits into the mainstream?

    I’d also be interested to hear you talk even more about what makes these female subcultures specifically a source of panic for Japanese society, as it intersects with my own research about female sexuality. All in all – interesting stuff!

  2. I’m really glad you defined some of those words because I was clueless. I thought the naming of these groups was pretty interesting. Does it tend to be that they name themselves, or are they given names? What about the puns on some of their names, would they be really obvious to a Japanese speaker?

    I also thought it was interesting how it seems to be very split according to gender. Do any males participate in these forms of sub-culture, or is strictly young girls? Also, obviously this culture is primarily Japanese, but does it cross over to other cultures in any sort of way? I thought it was very interesting overall and definitely a great topic to focus on post-bubble Japan. Maybe you could chart the rise of these cultures in relation to the financial collapse.