The Word Works

Consuming Japan


Yankee, Gal, Otaku and AKB48image

Published By: John on 09/24/12

“Yankee” (yankii in Japanese) originally referred to fashions worn by young Japanese who took as their models off-duty U.S. servicemen encountered in the 1960s and 70s. In the 1980s the look was adopted by members of biker gangs called bososoku, for whom dark glasses, Hawaiian shirts, baggy shorts, girls’ sandals?\all the antithesis of the helmets and leathers recommended by motorcycle safety courses?\signaled outlaw bravado. The bikers, however, also adopted tokkofuku “suicide squad uniforms,” modeled on military uniforms worn on mass rides or in confrontations with other gangs (the name suggests those worn by kamikaze in WWII). Yankee styles are associated with lower-class, blue collar and temporary workers. Why then has the Avex Group, one of Japan’s largest talent management and entertainment companies, been using the Yahoo!Japan top page to advertise auditions for yankiitsupparibishojo (Yankee punk beautiful young girls)?

That is the question with which a special session devoted to “Japan’s unique mass markets: Yankee, Gals, and Otaku” (Senden Kaigi, No. 845, September 15, 2012) begins.  Ryoji Aoki, the manager in charge of the project explains,

This project has been brewing for three years. The girls who became idols were usually straight, orthodox types. That left Yankees an untouched market. While preparing for the auditions, we conducted market research among Yankee girls living in the northern Kanto. We found that in Japan that there are still those that want to be “bad.”  Recently we have seen the emergence of the oraora “bad-bad” style, a blend of gyaru  “gal” (heavily made up and outrageously costumed) and the original Yankee style. In it we saw a foreshadowing of a full blown revival of the Yankee style that flourished in the 1980s.

To Aoki, the ideal image of a Yankee idol includes a military uniform or jumpsuit and a lavishly decorated car, in a blend of classic Yankee and modern idol taste. Seen from abroad as a kind of “cosplay” (costume play), the Yankee idol would be perceived as cool. The new girl group’s fans would include boys with the same oraora tastes, otaku deeply immersed in Akihabara culture, and “light otaku,” young men who may not at first glance appear to be otaku. Otaku and Yankee might appear to be opposite types [one passive, the other aggressive; one middle class, the other lower class], but they have much in common says Aoki.

The Avex Group aren’t the only ones interested in Yankees. The HakuhodoDY group has conducted its own research, using a sample of 800 men and women who are either former Yankees or former Gals, now aged 20-39. The sample was chosen from those who, when shown illustrations of typical figures representing the two subcultures, selected them as “close to what they themselves had looked like in high school.” The survey covered attitudes toward friends and family, information sources and media contact, and consumption trends. Results included closer than average attachment to people in the neighborhoods where they grew up and live and longer than average time spent watching television, but far less use of social networking sites (SNS). More than 60% say that they spend money when they have it and, while they have to scrimp and save, will spend on drinking and other treats.

Of particular interest is the emerging category of “Gal mamas,” who are now catered to by their own magazines. Marrying younger and having children sooner than other Japanese women, these former Gals are an attractive target for baby care, toy and other industries who have seen markets slump due to Japan’s low birth rate.

The special section includes a discussion by Koji Nanba (KN) and Satoshi Hamano (SH). Nanba is a sociologist and university professor who studies youth subcultures and the author of Yankii shinkaron (Yankee Evolution, Kobunsha, 2009). Hamano is a columnist for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper and the author of Aakitekuchanoseitaikei (The Ecology of Architecture, NTT, 2008) and AKB48 hakunetsuronso (The White Hot Debate about AKB48, Kobunsha, 2011). The following passages are selected and adapted from this discussion.

Yankees make up 20% of fans at AKB48 meet and greet events

Editor: Marketers tell us that we should pay attention to Yankee, but they find it difficult to create a convincing image of them as consumers.

KN: Most people who work in advertising or media are from white collar backgrounds. Without direct experience, they have a hard time coming up with a realistic image.

SH: You are talking about people like me who have never experienced the Yankee subculture.

KN: The music and dance group EXILE has been a major factor in the renewed interest in Yankee. There aren’t many people who call themselves Yankee. But there can be no question about it that Yankee taste has become a major phenomenon.

SH:  Yankee taste is part of the background to the success of AKB48 as well as EXILE. At events where fans get to meet AKB48 members, 20% of those who show up are Yankees. They come with the names of their favorite members of the group stitched to their uniforms.

KN: They seem to be imitating the bodyguard/ardent fan style from the 1980s. We thought the era of Yankee chasing after their favorite celebrities was over, but the new idol boom appears to have stimulated a Yankee resurgence.

SH: There is also the Majisukagakuen series on TBS, in which AKB48 members appear as Yankee characters, who fight, hit and scream at each other. (The third season is currently being broadcast from July to October.)

SH: Of those who show up at AKB48 events, only 10-20% are classic idol-otaku (men with an obsessive interest in their idols). Another 20% are women in their teens or early 20s. The overwhelming majority are high school or college boys, including those who play at being bad boys.

Editors: In the HakuhodoDY survey, AKB is the seventh most popular group among former Yankees and former Gals. They rank only number nine among ordinary subjects in the same age band.

KN: AKB48 may be why we see Yankee becoming involved with idols again.

White collar stagnation casts spotlight on determination to survive.

Editor: Yankee and otaku are sometimes seen as polar opposites. How has each type changed?

KN: In most cases the Yankee characters depicted in recent manga and movies have serious, practical issues to confront. In the video series,“Saitama Rapper,” things don’t turn out too badly in first two episodes, but the third and last episode is grim.

SH: In the manga series Yamigane Washijima-kun (Yamigane can be literally translated “Dark Money) has been made into a movie that typifies this “dark Yankee” trend. In it AKB48 member Oshima Yuko appears as the freeter (casual worker) heroine.

SH: To me these films reflect the effects of the recession and the recognition that hoowever hard the work, you have to do it to survive. When Japan seemed to be a “100 million middle class” country, everyone wanted to escape from blue collar lifestyles. White collar stagnation has made Yankee, the most visible blue collar subculture, attractive again.

KN: From a university professor’s perspective,you can’t help feeling the youthful strength and energy it he way that Yankee characters are depicted. Nowadays, university graduates without specialized skills, especially those with degrees in the humanities, get assigned to sales in the companies at hire them. But those with Yankee tendencies are likely to be better salespeople.

SH: The more I read your book Yankee Evolution, the more I am persuaded of the similarities between Yankee and otaku. Both have adopted bits of foreign culture but transformed them in a Japanese Galapagos way. Most Japanese manga and anime have their roots in SF or Disney.

KN: Yankee fashion is a mixture of the styles worn by off-duty American GIs in the 1960s and 70s with Japanese outlaw culture.

Desire to live real life to the full and school castes set the stage

Editor: How is Yankee consumption behavior changing?

SH: The earlier versions were fundamentalists or serious avant-garde. The ones we have seen since 200 are “otaku lite.” The AKB48 fans belong to this category.

KN: We no longer see those who are absolutely committed to their Yankee identity. I remember from a previous interview your using the expression “tagging”  to describe what has happened.

SH: It used to be that Yankee embodied a strong lower class consciousness. Otaku were also clearly defined as the unpopular ones by school caste systems. Now otaku lite are coming out of their shells and looking for something fulfilling in real life. As media coverage of Yankee items has risen,  it has become increasingly possible for otaku to think that simply purchasing certain items is the key to acceptance as one of the gang.

Consumption for the sake of relationship. Even otaku can belong to the gang.

SH: AKB48 illustrates how otaku turn out for concerts and chances to meet their idols. Genbashugi (an ideological committment to “being there”) makes participation in events and buying memorabilia part of who they are.

KN: The otaku lite are really different from the classic otaku who stays home watching anime all the time.

SH: They want to have a relationship, to be part of a group. Dentsu is now promoting its SIPS (Sympathize, Identify, Participate, Share and Spread) model for understanding social media. At the core of the SIPS process are relationships created by “chasing what is interesting” or “being bad.” One good example an Ezaki Glico confectionary campaign in which parts of faces from different AKB48 members are mixed to create a portrait of the ideal AKB48 girl.

KN: Whether Yankee or otaku, fans of the same idols have something in common that creates a relationship and makes communication possible. Adding a Yankee flavor to AKB48 is sure to boost their popularity.

Reading this discussion, I find myself thinking about kachigumi (winners) versus makigumi (losers), a classification that reflects the growing class polarization of Japanese society. Taking pride in being a bad ass is not a bad way to maintain self-esteem if opportunities to get ahead and escape from a life of repetitive office or physical labor are increasingly scarce. And it’s not, of course, an option restricted to young Japanese.


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