Subculture is, in the first place and by definition, a culture with its own particular rules, norms, and values that is embedded within a larger culture (Watson 2002, 116–17; Wallendorf and Reilly 1983, 293). In this case, the term “larger culture” often generally refers to the overarching established, dominant culture of a given society (e.g., Japanese culture), while “subculture” generally refers to a particular community or group existing within this culture (e.g., Visual Kei, bōsōzoku, yankii). As these examples already illustrate, the term “subculture” refers to such a broad range of practices and individuals that it could never accurately identify, encompass, or contain everything about a subculture. This is because a subculture, similar to dominant culture, is not a static and homogenous mass but is in fact made up of several smaller communities—some of which potentially could be theorized as a (sub)subculture on their own. For example, Lolita and cyber goth are influenced by the aesthetics of 1980s goth subculture (Hodkinson 2002) and Riot Grrrl is based on punk music as well as punk values (Hannerz 2015). Similarly, the 1980s yankii bleached, permed hair and loud clothing is thought to have been influenced by “the general impression of vulgarity and gaudiness associated with Americans or American popular culture” (Satō 1998, 107). What distinguishes these subcultures from each other, or from the dominant culture, is not a fixed rule, but generally, scholars agree that each subculture has its own sets of rules and regulations (Jones 2002, 21; Booth and Kelly 2013, 66) and its own vocabulary and jargon (Hellekson 2009, 113), as well as its own shared rituals and traditions (Baym 1997, 104–6).
My examples so far have been particularly visible manifestations of groups or communities distinguishing themselves from the dominant culture by dressing and acting differently. This deliberate and obvious difference means they are relatively easily identified and categorized as specific subcultures—it also means they are often automatically “defined and explained as a direct reaction to material or socio-cultural structures” (Hannerz 2015, 13), such as dominant cultural norms and values. However, not all subcultures are as easily identified as yankii or Lolita, and not all subcultures are automatically resisting the dominant culture (Hodkinson 2002). This is because subculture membership is not always directly observable through a combination of visual, linguistic, and physical markers. Indeed, a subculture may revolve around more subtle practices, such as the complex network of the creation and organization of material relating to a media product or idol, which can take place almost entirely online and thus remain invisible to others. Some subcultures or their members may even wish to be completely invisible to the larger culture, as their practices could be considered socially damaging, culturally taboo, or simply illegal.
Because of this diversity and complexity, scholars focus on mapping, legitimizing, representing, and discussing subcultures, as this not only tells us something about the subculture itself but also gives us a better understanding of the dominant culture we are part of (Duffett 2012, 263). There are two important properties of a subculture that current scholarship agrees on. Firstly, a subculture exists through and because of the shared beliefs and practices of the individuals that are part of it, but it is not a fixed homogeneous object. Simply put, without participants a subculture would not exist, but each individual subcultural identity is flexible. Secondly, a subculture is not just embedded within larger culture, but it is also inseparably linked with and dependent on it. Whether this is because its members reject (one aspect of) dominant culture entirely or merely wish to distinguish themselves and form an identity of their own, a subculture exists as part of dominant culture, its industry, and its values.
In the upcoming section, I will explain these properties of subculture and how they have been established as such by scholars. I will illustrate these points in the context of Japanese popular culture by focusing on the performer Sata (Sada) Masaki, the tsukkomi (straight man) of the comedy duo Bad Boys and a well-known “moto-yankii” (former yankii) and reformed delinquent. The cultural reformation that Sata has undergone in his life and career, and used to his betterment—from criminal youth to mainstream commodity—makes Sata’s case a good example to highlight the evolution of subcultural theory as well as its uses and pitfalls.
Subculture has gone through several definitions over the past decades of academic study, but Luigi Berzano and Carlo Genova (2015, 89–159) identify three distinct evolutionary strands of thought. The first strand is referred to as “subcultures and deviance” (ibid., 89). Early studies into subculture, predominantly done by the Chicago School and scholars such as Ernest Burgess, Robert Park, and Louis Wirth, considered subcultures as a form of (criminal) deviance. It introduced the notion that adoption or membership of a subculture (following its rules, traditions, and practices), grants an individual more subcultural status while their status in dominant culture diminishes. This line of reasoning appears obvious when considering criminal or rebellious groups—such as the delinquent youth known as yankii in 1980s and 1990s Japan—operating on the margins of “proper” society. Scholars argued that the formation of a subculture indicated a group’s lack of proper socialization and proper integration within mainstream (dominant) culture. As a result, these groups do not abide by the rules nor share the ambitions of mainstream culture (e.g., going to school, getting good grades, getting a steady job), instead organizing themselves along different, less desirable, social models (such as yankii youth gangs). Social disorganization theory suggested that there were areas in society where this happened naturally and that this disorganization was constantly reinforced (Cloward and Ohlin 1960), not only by the subculture members themselves but also by the members of mainstream culture by labeling the subcultural members as deviant or “outsiders” (Becker 1963).
One of the problems with this approach is that it retroactively labels deviant behavior, such as youth delinquency or criminal activity, as a subculture, and then treats it “as a real, material thing with its own properties that stand[s] apart from the complex lived reality of individual members” (Muggleton 2000, 22). In other words, it treats a subculture as a fixed, unchanging analytical category that one is a member of or not. This is untrue. Sata Masaki, after all, is no longer an aggressive yankii out to pick fights but a performer with a mainstream media career. This means social disorganization theory not only ignores the fluidity of subcultural membership, but it also ignores the individual members’ (reported) motivations for resisting mainstream dominant culture and displaying deviant behavior in the first place. In other words, it denies individuals a voice as well as agency, as they are portrayed as merely deviant products of the environment.
The second strand of thought, this time associated heavily with the Birmingham School and scholars such as Stuart Hall, Tony Clark, and Brian Roberts, sought to eliminate this association with criminal deviance and focused on subculture as a form of resistance (Berzano and Genova 2015, 89). Fine and Kleinman had already proposed that subcultures exist in a constant “state of flux” because the social interaction between individuals transmits different “cultural elements” (ideas, values, rules) between different groups (1979, 6). And scholars such as Dick Hebdige (1979), for example, argued that subcultures subvert dominant values and norms because their very existence is a critique of dominant culture. According to Hebdige, this not only explains why a subculture appears to attract individuals who are unwilling or unable to meet the standards of dominant culture but also why a subculture is quickly perceived as a negative or even dangerous phenomenon by the mainstream. Scholars such as Phil Cohen (1972) additionally suggested that any subcultural analysis should take into account the historical, structural, and phenomenological aspects of a subculture—including how it has come to be, how it exists, and how it is lived out by its members.
What both strands have in common is that subculture is still considered to represent “a perceived ordered and shared difference from an equally perceived homogeneous other” (Hannerz 2015, 82), where “other” refers to dominant culture. The second strand approached (and arguably exacerbated) this binary division by dividing society into two socioeconomic and cultural classes: the middle class and the working class. This portrayal of subculture as based on cultural assets and capital was influenced heavily by (economic) cultural theories of taste, culture, and distinction put forward by cultural theorists from the 1970s and 1980s, such as Michel De Certeau, Pierre Bourdieu, and Michel Foucault. With middle-class culture considered the dominant culture, the working classes were argued to create subcultures that formed new identities in response to the increasing erasure of clear class divisions and their socioeconomic conditions, which prevented them from achieving the “proper” identities (purchasing and owning the proper goods). As such, in the second strand, subculture became less an active, criminal resistance to dominant culture, and instead a “symbolic resistance,” expressed through specific styles and the consumption and valuing of resources and goods that dominant culture does not value (such as valuing pulp magazines over proper literature).
This portrayal of subculture in terms of socioeconomic division in resources led Sarah Thornton (1995) to coin the term “subcultural capital” to describe the selective nature of a subculture with regards to which goods or values are important to them. Thornton emphasizes how subcultural capital still “confers status on its owner” (1995, 11) but notes that the dissemination of these (sub)cultural resources, such as fashion, goods, music, and mass-media coverage, still happens through the same “institutional networks” responsible for the “creation, classification and distribution of cultural knowledge” (ibid., 118). In other words, subcultural resources are not simply connected to dominant culture, but they depend on it and are structured by it. In some cases, subcultural practices are even absorbed into mainstream culture as goods or commodities, such as the comical or romanticized yankii stereotype in Japanese mainstream media—something Sata’s Bad Boys persona also demonstrates.
This focus on the process of commodification complicated the subversive and deviant nature ascribed to subculture and began the third strand of thought, which has been developing through scholars such as Thornton, David Muggleton, Steve Redhead, and Paul Hodkinson. This strand argues that subcultures are a form of consistent commitment to distinction (Hodkinson 2002, 23). This distinction implies that a subculture, on a cultural level, is homogeneous enough that there exists, for both the subculture and dominant culture, a consistent idea of identity and autonomy. Thus, adopting the style and mannerisms of a subculture becomes a means for individuals to form their own identities as part of dominant culture, rather than as rigidly opposed to it. Another important critique this strand applies to the previous strands is that third-strand scholars actively “investigate the subjective meanings of the members” (Muggleton 2000, 12) and explore the lived experiences and motivations of subculture participants instead of ascribing an ideological or sociopolitical motive to them.
What this third strand emphasizes, then, is that the processes of distinction, commodification, and (re)absorption of subcultural aspects into dominant culture imply that the borders of a subculture are flexible. Subcultural boundaries are neither drawn to solely represent opposition or as a fixed line between insiders and outsiders, nor do they limit the exchange of information and goods as if it were a one-way system. In other words, currently, (sub)cultural theory largely acknowledges that a subculture is always inseparably entwined with the dominant culture’s media and industry, and that subcultural membership is fluid and differs per individual. What follows from this line of reasoning is that the identities that are formed through subcultures are not necessarily permanent either, but they remain part of an individual. In other words, Sata Masaki is not a yankii his whole life because he joined a youth gang when he was in high school, but he does carry his yankii past with him.
Japan’s yankii subculture contains a mix of deviance, resistance, and individual distinction that have remained its identifiers from its inception to its commodification as a (sub)cultural stereotype today.
As my brief and general overview highlights, the concept of “subculture” may refer to a group or community with their own rules and traditions, but it also refer to the complex matter of identity and society. This means the term “subculture” appears to fit a large variety of diverse practices but does not equate automatically with “lifestyle” or “hobby.” For example, when examining pachinko players, Thompson, Tanioka, and Fujimoto suggest that the popularity and community surrounding pachinko could mean “the players are sufficiently different from others that they form a subculture,” but after their research, they conclude that pachinko players lack the “dimensions” of consistent distinction needed to be called a subculture (2005, 593–94). What this overview also highlights is that these three strands of thought are not necessarily mutually exclusive, nor are the first two gone and buried. Instead, scholars remain in dialogue about what constitutes a subculture, and what its function is in dominant culture and to its members. For example, Japan’s yankii subculture contains a mix of deviance, resistance, and individual distinction that have remained its identifiers from its inception to its commodification as a (sub)cultural stereotype today.
Yankii subculture arose in Japan in the late 1970s and continued into the early 1990s. Its members were youth, often from less affluent backgrounds or more rural regions, who formed youth gangs and displayed various levels of delinquent behavior, from skipping school, smoking, and drinking, to vandalism and violence (Kersten 1993, 278). As with other subcultures that formed in those times, such as goth or punk, yankii subcultural membership was ascribed to “jaded, disenfranchised youths” (Kim 2016, 61). Yankii specifically were theorized to adopt “American youth culture” (ibid.), expressed through the dyed (bleached or red) and permed hair, jackets with group/gang mottos embroidered on them, and valuing aggressive “masculinity” (Kersten 1993, 286). Yankii were often assumed to be members of bōsōzoku (speed tribes), which consisted of youth engaged in illegal high-speed car or motorbike street races—or even aspiring yakuza or gokudō (organized crime) members—but while bōsōzoku fashion was yankii, not all yankii were bōsōzoku (Kersten 1993; Satō 1998).
Sata Masaki, born in 1978 in Fukuoka, is one of the few celebrities who speaks openly of his rebellious past and buyūdensetsu (battle stories) of the fights he used to get into with other schoolmates and youth from rival schools. As part of his Bad Boys comedy act, which is rooted in his youth persona, Sata long retained certain yankii visual markers, such as the bleached, red, and permed wavy hairstyle. In 2009, he wrote an autobiographical novel, Demekin (Goldfish bugeyes), which was subsequently turned into a manga, and in 2017 it was adapted into a film of the same name. In Demekin, Sata talks about being bullied for his appearance as a child and how, as a result, he got into fights until he was notorious for being the yankii who never lost a high school fight.
Yankii subculture was part of what is described in Japan as a “subculture boom” in the 1980s, with the most “commonly shared values” of all subcultures summed up by the attitude that “to rebel against the established order is cool” (Misono 2017, 235). They distinguish themselves visibly through dyed and/or permed, wavy hair, shaved temples or brows, pin-hiiru (pin heels) worn to make noise when walking, and wearing black and white and loud colors with mottos and slogans embroidered on them. In writings on Japanese subculture, yankii are portrayed as “low-life motorists” (Evers and Macias 2013, 39) and placed in relation to criminal and aggressive behavior and deviance “often associated with juvenile delinquency, including participation in bōsō driving” (Satō 1998, 108). This can be seen in Sata’s well-documented delinquent past as well. Not only was he the second president of the “Fukuoka Coalition” bōsōzoku, but he was also the former president of the genei (ghost) bōsōzoku, which claimed to be the biggest force in Fukuoka in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In addition to this resume, his detainment and housing in a juvenile classification center firmly established his identity as yankii. Sata’s contemporary Bad Boys act relies, in no minor part, on this yankii past and the yankii stereotype.
Yankii were not the only subcultural youth group of the time, but historically fit into the self-realization of “post–baby boomer children of affluent Japan [. . .] profiled as self-absorbed and cheerfully complacent with regard to the status quo” and seeking to distinguish themselves from this through the “selective consumption and manipulation of commodities and mass—mediated information, forming fragmented lifestyle tribes and subcultural groups” (Yoda 2017, 175). As the second and third strand of subcultural theory argue, merely sporting yankii fashion, using yankii slang, and exhibiting yankii behavior does not automatically make the individual a criminal or delinquent. However, the fact that an individual decides to dress, speak, and/or act in accordance with yankii practice indicates a form of deliberate delinquency to Japanese dominant culture, particularly because Japanese dominant culture’s regulation of appearance (down to hair length) means a small change to clothing or hair already denotes a deviance from the norm (Satō 1998,111).
As the presence of the yankii stereotype in contemporary mainstream anime and media demonstrates, both the visual markers (such as the hairstyle) as well as the delinquent aspects of yankii subculture (aggressive speech or behavior, sitting in a squat) have also partially been commodified and absorbed into mainstream culture. In the case of Sata’s career, this is visible, for example, in his media performances as an AKB48 show host—a role given to him when his popularity rose after crashing the idol group AKB48’s performance on stage in 2008 using the speech and manner of his yankii persona.
To clarify, the fact that yankii culture has been commodified does not mean that it has forever lost its initial rebellious and less desirable intentions or connotations. Subcultures are neither fixed, static objects, nor do all members live it in equal measure and in the same way, as Sata’s move from youth delinquent to popular mainstream performer demonstrates. When it comes to Japan’s visible and invisible subcultures, Azuma Hiroki’s (2001) Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals is often described as one of the “most influential works in the study of subcultures in Japan” (Kadobayashi 2017, 97). This is partially because it not only maps a previously undesirable subculture (the otaku, whose practices have also now been partially commodified into the mainstream), but because it also considered the complexities of otaku subculture in relation to identity. Since its publication, there has been a growing acknowledgement in Japanese media theory that “much of Japanese postwar mass culture has in fact been made up of subculture” (Looser 2017, 364), thus linking subcultures to dominant culture and mainstream industry. Similar to the evolution of subcultures themselves, academic theories grow and change over time. At the time of writing, current theory on subculture emphasizes the connection between the historical and sociocultural structures in which a subculture is formed and between the dominant culture with which it has a constant exchange of goods, ideologies, and participants. In the future, this may evolve to fit a different dominant cultural and academic idea of what subculture means, but what we must remember at all times is that a subculture has meaning to its individual members.
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