Sukebans, Late 1960’s to Late 1970’s
A pack of tough-looking teenagers sits smoking cigarettes in a huddle near a Japan Railways train station. Everything about them, including their style of speech, is tough as nails. Hands clutch barely concealed weapons, including razors and steel chains, should a fight break out. And it’s only a matter of time until one does. Their collective body language bristles with a threat of imminent violence. Local yakuza gangsters proctecting their turf? Neighborhood bad boys daring straight, polite Japanese society to knock the chip off their shoulders? Well, almost. It’s a group of schoolgirls known as the Sukeban, Japan’s very first all-girl gangs.
The name comes from the Japanese words for “female” (suke) and “boss” (ban). Althought they enjoyed only a brief vogue in the early 1970s, the Sukeban made for a truly unforgettable social disease: shoplifting, pickpocketing, and rivaling the very worst of the menfolk for misbehavior and outrageous acts of violence.
Why weren’t they all rounded up and thrown into the slammer? Says bad-teen historian Nobuaki Higa, “In Japan, outlaw society is right out in the open. Yakuza gangsters can even have their own office buildings. Even though you are unacceptable, especially if you are young. The cops know it’s just a matter of time before bad girls will grow up and walk away from the lifestyle. Being in a gang is something you can graduate from.”
Today, classic Sukeban fashion, typified by a long, flowing skirt and immense Afro-like hair, is considered woefully out of style. But the Sukeban’s way of life- a revolutionary mix of to-the-death sisterhood, ironclad rules, and an underworld-style flair for organization- continues to influence Japanese schoolgirls whenever they gather in packs.
One major aspect of Sukeban styke can be seen to this day. Indeed, it is major contribution to the universally accepted image of the Japanese bad girl. The Sukeban religiously wore their school uniforms, of the Sailor Fuku variety (the classic forces female students to wear), no matter what manner of naughty behavior they engaged in. The tradition has struck with generations of girls since, from the Kogals of 1990s right up until today’s Shibuya District Gals (although the skirts have since gotten a whole lot shorter).
The Sukeban gangs did not appear in a vacuum. When they first began sprouting in Japan during the mid-1960s, the girls took their inspiration from numerous bad-boy gangs that surrounded them. Male classmates who would have once joined the yakuza were instead beginning to forms their own local gangs in a pint-size imitation of the grown-up underworld. Fierce territorial battles with other rival schools and hoods soon resulted.
Such all-male groups and their members were “Bancho groups” (the Japanese term for schoolyard boss was Bancho). They had power and status, and it was only a matter of time until the girl’s demanded a piece of the action for themselves.
The first Sukeban gangs probably began with just a few girls sneaking cigarettes in the school bathroom. But within a few years, the ranks of female gangs began to swell and organize with impressive virus-like efficiency.
During the mid-’60s, the gangs ranged in size from Tokyo’s United Shoplifters Groups, which numbered eighty girls in all, up to the Kanto Women Delinquent Alliance, the single biggest Sukeban organization, made up of some twenty thousand girls from across western Japan. Like a real corporate entity, the alliance boasted within it’s ranks a president, an adviser, and even an accountant.
The Sukeban phenomenon peaked in 1972 with the emergance of the single most fearsome Sukeban in histiry. Hailing from the Tokyo suburbs of Saitama, K-Ko the Razor commanded a private army of fifty women warriors. Her nickname came from her weapon of choice: a razor tightly wrapped in cloth and tucked between her breasts, whipped out with superhuman speed to slash her enemies’ faces.
Few Sukeban cast quite as menacing a shadow as did K-Ko, whose exploits became an urban legend of sorts, but physical violence of one sort or another was an everyday fact of life for many. Not only were there plenty of rival factions to tangle with, but there was also ample opportunity to inflict damage on members of one’s own gang. Breaking the rules (and the Sukeban loved to make rules) could result in a physical sanction known as “lynching.”
Lynching involved several degrees of punishment, beginning with a lit cigarette applied to bare skin, which was considered getting off easy. The same cigarette applied to more- intimate parts of the body ranked as ”medium.” The hardest of punishments rival anything in the annals of the Spanish Inquisition and are simply too terrible to mention here.
Reasons for lynching were numerous and different from gang to gang. They might include showing disrespect to the senior members, speaking to “enemies,” or being caught doing drugs (although sniffing paint thinner for a quick and cheap high was common among Sukeban and, indeed among bad girls and boys everywhere) the most common cause of a lynching was fooling around the opposite sex. Cheating on a boyfriend (inevitably a bad boy or a Bancho gang member himself) would surely lead to a lynching-that is, of a member even bothered with guys in the first place. Because of the emotional nature of the relationships between the girl-gang members, jealousy and crushes on other members could lead to intense, soap opera-style drama.
In spite of all the petty crimes the Sukeban casually indulged in, the girls themselves were convinced that they were living by high moral standards. Perhaps the chasteness of the Sukeban (take those long skirts, for instance) was a reaction to the permissivess of sexual revolution of the 1960s. Dressing sexy and wearing too much makeup were frowned upon. These girls who wanted to look and act tougher and older then they actually were. but the chain- and razor-packing Sukeban were surprisingly conversation when it came to matters of dating and romance.
You wouldn’t think so based on the “Sukeban” films churned out by the exploitation-minded Toei Studios. Full of nudity and Switchblade Sisters girl-gangs mayhem, the movies probably said more about the fantasies of male audience and filmmakers than they did about the lives of the girls themselves. Still, the films are a heck of a lot of fun.
Even as the actual Sukeban gangs began to decline in numbers, their myths continue to endure in pop culture. The long- running Be Bop High School comic books, animation, and live-action films and television shows serve up comedic bad-boy and bad-girl action for the masses. There is also the Sukeban Dekka (Sukeban Cops) franshise, which depicts undercover teenage police women in sailor suits fighting crime with razor-sharp origami cranes and yo-yos.
But the actual Suken phenomenon itself had gone on the skids by the mid-1970s. Gang members were growing up, graduating from “the life,” or slowly becoming integrated into society. And next generation of teenagers would soon be dancing in the streets intead of just sitting in them.
-Source, Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno