The Yanki punks and Bōsōzoku bikers that roam the streets of Japan today owe their raucous independence to the girl gangs of the 70s. While the yakuza exercised their own means of justice and brutality, their female counterparts—the sukeban gangs—concealed razor blades and chains beneath their long skirts and sailor shirts, with membership swelling to the tens of thousands at the peak of this subculture's popularity.
"What is unusual is that in the yakuza, women have no authority and there are almost no female members. That the female gangs even existed is an oddity in Japan's generally sexist male-dominated deviant culture," explains Japanese crime writer Jake Adelstein. "The world was about feminism and liberation, and perhaps they felt like women have the right to be just as stupid, promiscuous, risk-seeking, adrenaline junkies and violent as their male counterparts."
While the sukeban members indulged in petty crime and brawled with rival gangs, they still maintained a strict code of justice. Each gang had a hierarchy and their own means of punishment—cigarette burns were considered a minor sentence for stealing a boyfriend or disrespecting another member. That said, these girls had morals and they stuck to them. Fierce loyalty was upheld throughout the gangs. And, while they were angry at the world, at least they were angry together.
Dr Laura Miller, a professor at the University of Missouri, was working in Osaka during the sukeban's heyday."I admired them for rebelling against mainstream gender and femininity norms," she recalls. "Walking around different districts it soon became clear that they were all from working class neighborhoods. It seemed that their rebellion was linked to the fact that they knew they would never become princess office ladies and adorable marriage fodder for white-collar salarymen."
Like most Japanese subcultures, sukeban gangs had a distinct look to them. Take away the handmade modifications and you were left with a deceptively innocent-looking uniform consisting of a lengthy pleated skirt (a protest against the sexualized portrayal of teen girls at the time), a knotted girl scout scarf under a sailor collar, and Converse. Completing the look with badges, buttons, and a weapon of some sort, the sukeban style became iconic, loosely inspiring a series of "Pinky Violence" films that proved hugely popular at the time.
Produced with an adult audience in mind, these exploitation movies paved the way for violent women onscreen. With titles like Lynch Law Classroom, Girl Boss Guerilla, and School of the Holy Beast, Pinky Violence became the signature genre for Japanese film studio Toei Company.
"It was a type of radically female solidarity that was not only uncommon for film at the time, but film at any time," explains Alicia Kozma, author of Pinky Violence: Shock, Awe and the Exploitation of Sexual Liberation. "Because the women cast in the film were usually not professional actors, wore their own clothes in the films, did their own hair and makeup, it has a type of authenticity that is both deeply felt and exceedingly rare."
The legacy of the sukeban became bigger than the sum of its parts—what started as gang of unruly shoplifters rose, with the help of the looming bubble economy and growing media exposure, to become a leading component in the portrayal of women in the 70s.
"They became representations for the social, cultural, and political dichotomies that Japanese society was experiencing at the time," says Kozma. "On a broader, more universal level, the idea of women 'behaving badly' has always been appealing to audiences, specifically because it is a challenge to the way women are universally taught to act. Seeing this type of resistance to those expectations is thrilling for most and cathartic for many."
And it didn't stop there. Whether you loved or hated these girl they were everywhere, spreading a message of either empowerment or terror depending on your position within Japanese society at the time.
The idea of women 'behaving badly' has always been appealing to audiences, specifically because it is a challenge to the way women are universally taught to act.
"There were countless films, comics, novels, anime, and also of course porn versions of all the sukeban media products," Dr. Miller recalls from her time in Osaka. "For middle-class women, sukeban in the media were a welcome relief from chirpy, babyish idols such as Matsuda Seiko. For girls in working class schools who were bullied by real sukeban, they were a source of fear and distaste, similar to how Japanese view yakuza. At the same time, also similar to the yakuza, they were admired for having their own code of ethics and for the value they placed on loyalty to the gang."
And yet, in the city streets of Japan today the heritage of the sukeban gangs has quietened. Articles and material on these women are hard to come by; while their name is still known, their influence has been diluted by new waves of foreign culture.
"Girl gangs have become much more hybrid and diffuse. They incorporate elements from prior generations and also from the US and elsewhere to create new ways of doing and showing rebellion and anger," says Miller.
The same can be said for its cinema screens—whereas the sukeban are now commonly found in children's cartoons, it's Western films like Kill Bill that today most reflect the essence their leaders.
"The type of self-confidence, social-consciousness, the middle-finger to oppressive society, and unrepentant independence that is really at the core of the Pinky Violence films has been sadly lost," says Kozma.
Contemporary girl gangs now ride bikes, paint their nails and hike up their skirts as a new means of solidarity. Considerably more polished than their predecessors, these groups are still acutely aware of class status and the social constructs of their country. Their notions of the sukeban may well be romanticized—or as Adelstein puts it, a "deliberate attempt to recreate a gang mystique, the way it was reported [and] not as it was". But by honoring their heritage these new gangs have found comfort, and a platform for individuality and rebellion that suits them, not anyone else.