From Gal to Lady – Gender, Language and Japan’s Kogals

From Gal to Lady –  Gender, Language and Japan’s Kogals



From 2001 to 2002 I spend one year as a second-grader at a Japanese high school in the Kansai area. It was about the time when schoolgirls my age, 16/17 years old, were only taken seriously by other girls if they wore the latest type of “loose socks” (stuck to the legs with glue paste), dyed their hair a lighter color (which remained secret for teachers by spraying on black hairspray before school), and rolled up the regulated school-skirts (although there would be sanctions for it). My blond-haired friend Miya (blue contact lenses, mini-skirt, white eye shadow) was the most extreme in this- and the trendy girls all had similar customs like her that somehow tied them together. However, I always felt one of the most important things that identified them was not necessarily their appearance, but the way they spoke. Because they spoke in a certain way, they were able to identify who belonged to their group, and who did not. Their community, in this way, was marked by their language. My fascination with Japanese girl’s language started here.

The term “kogal” was coined around the beginning of the 1990s to address this group of young Japanese women who stand out in society not only because of the way they choose to dress, but also because of how they challenge dominant models of gendered language (Miller 2004: 225). Generally, the kogal is seen as a more extreme form of the “gal”, which was a considered a broader subculture (Gagné 2007: 132).

Here I want to explore how the use of kogals’ language identifies a certain subculture, and how their identity is reflected in the way they speak. I will use some examples of kogals’ speech to build on. I will firstly, however, bring in the theoretical framework we are dealing with: that of gender and linguistics, and more specifically: gendered language in Japan. The red thread, eventually, is kogals’ identity through language, and her place in Japanese society today.


Gendered Language in Japan


Gender & Language

What actually is gender? Whilst sex is a biological categorization that is based on the reproductive potential we already have at birth, gender is not something we are born with or have. It is something we perform (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 2003: 10). In other words: we “do” gender, we don’t “have” it. Gender builds on biological sex. In Holland, for example, this already starts when we eat toast with pink sprinkles to celebrate the birth of a baby girl and blue sprinkles to celebrate that of a baby boy. The minute a baby is born, in this way, the process of “genderizing” starts. As Eckert and McConnell-Ginet put it: “There is no obvious point at which sex leaves off and gender begins” (10). Gender is a social construction where certain qualities are ascribed to being male or female.

Language is essential in the social construction of gender. Gender is a system of meaning, and language is the most important way through which old and new meanings are maintained, challenged, or constructed (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 2003: 6). We can think of the way a parent talks differently to either son or daughter. Eckert & McConell-Ginet use Gleason’s research (1994)to emphasize this point. Gleason found that parents use more diminutives like “kitty” or “doggy” when talking to girls than to boys, along with using more words that touch upon one’s feelings, like “happy” or “sad”. On the other side, boys are more often talked at with prohibitives and emphatic prohibitives (“Don’t do that!” or “No! No! No!”) (Gleason 1994). It is crucial to point out that these usages have nothing to do with the way the children behave (Bellinger&Gleason: 18). And so it has much more to do with the way we think of a gender instead of with the actual sex of the child.

Given the gendered environment in which children are raised, it is not surprising that males and females grow up to develop different ways of conducting language. Since evidence for sex-linked brain differences is still based on very small samples and not that much is known about the connections between brain physiology and cognition, it is problematic to hold brain-differences accountable for these differences (2003: 12).

The example of voice backs up the idea of gender performance. Although children have identical vocal apparatus, boys and girls start to use different frequencies in their voice from 4 to 5 years of age. Girls start to speak with a higher pitch, while boys lower theirs. In addition, boys tend to round and extend their lips, lengthening the vocal tract, whereas girls shorten their vocal tract by spreading their lips (with smiles, for example) (2003: 18).

This all points out that the study of ‘gender and language’ as a separate category is of great importance to both the field of linguistics as to gender studies.

The case of Japan

Within the study of gender and language as a special category, Japan deserves proper attention. Most cultures or nations have some sort of “women’s” or “men’s” language. As Lakoff suggests (as quoted in Eckert & McConnell), women have a different way of speaking from men in general.

Women’s language then has more mitigators like “sort of” or “I think” and inessential qualifiers (“really happy”, “so beautiful”) than men’s language has. In Japan, the hegemonic constructs that this type of gendered language is part of, are widely spread as linguistic norms in Japanese society, both through popular media as through language policy makers and linguistics (Okamoto & Shibamoto 2004: 4). I am not suggesting that the Japanese language is different from other languages that construct gender through language, but the way the nation deals with this idea of a “feminine” or “masculine” language is of particular interest. As Sreetharan (2004) puts it:

(…) both Japanese women and men easily and quickly articulate ideas and images of what is masculine and what is not. This is interesting because, in their articulations of linguistic styles and gender, Japanese people reflexively position themselves and others within or outside the traditional gender structure of Japan by referencing stereotypical male and female language styles (2004: 82).

This “traditional gender structure” Sreetharan speaks of, is especially noticeable in the Japanese “women’s language”. As Japanese nationalism grew stronger in the first half of the 20th century, the traditional speech style of Japanese women also became growingly important in society. As one prominent linguist wrote during WWII:

It is now being noted that the way of Japanese women is beautiful and superb, standing out from the ways of women throughout the world. Related to the way of Japanese women, Japanese women’s language also seems to be a rare phenomenon in the world (Yukawa & Saito 2004: 24).

Scholars in National Language Studies (kokugogaku) assume that Japan has a distinct women’s language, and that all Japanese women speak it, or should speak it (Yukawa & Saito 2004: 24). Through time, Japanese women’s language has been turned into a national symbol (Inoue 2002: 393).

What actually is this “women’s language” we speak of in the Japanese case? Firstly it is important to note that it is not entirely clear where the “women’s language” came from. Was it that women actually spoke a kind of language that later was identified as their language, or was it that some use of language was considered “feminine” and thus said to be “women’s language”? In her article, Inoue (2002) explores this question. Although scholars of kokugogaku date the origin of women’s language back to the fourth century, Inoue tries to show that particular types of speech were selected and constructed as women’s language in the light of Japanese growing nationalism and modernization in the late 19th and early 20th century (Inoue 393-395). The main characteristic of this type of language is that it is deferential; the proper honorific speech is used. Furthermore, females are expected to use a high pitched voice to represent a feminine image (Ohara 2001). In addition, certain final particles (like wa) are considered especially female, since they indicate softness. Inoue indicates that various particles were originally gender-neutral, which further exemplifies the idea that “women’s language” was created rather than being a natural order.


Cho Beriba! – Kogal and Her Language


It has been since the middle of the 1990s that a new trend in Japanese women’s language emerged. This new type of slang was used by girls that were labeled “kogals”. The last part derives from the English ‘girl’, transliterated as gyaru or garu, usually rendered in English as “gal”. It is disputed where the prefix ‘ko’ comes from. It could come from the English ‘cool’ or ‘colored’, but most probably it refers to the Japanese ‘ko’ as in ‘high school’ (koukou) (Miller 2004: 228).

“Kogal” commonly refers to high school girls who buy branded goods and often hang out in Shibuya, one of the most famous downtown areas of Tokyo (Tanabe 2005: 1). This type of high school girl was the center of attention during the 1990s. Apartfrom similar consumption patterns, the girls also share a similar appearance: they bleach their hair, wear “loose socks” and put on a distinct type of make-up, as the image below demonstrates.


The kogal has two key characteristics. Firstly, her look is transnational. Her style is eclectic; it is a blend of, amongst others, Caribbean themes, black culture and L.A. beach style; the kogal is culturally hyrid. According to Miller (2004), we could see this ‘globalist’ style as a disturbance of mainstream notions of national identity; it represents a statement that Japan is not as pure and homogenous as it supposedly is (229). Secondly, technology plays an important role in the life of a kogal. The prominent use of cell phones and cyberspace is the most common practice among the girls (Tanabe 2005: 1). These characteristics have both contributed to the distinct style of kogals’ language, that mixes up styles and is partly formed in cyber-space.

Making it up

Kogals’ speech is full of special words and expressions. As Kazuko Tanabe (2005) says, most of these irregular expressions sound Japanese but are unintelligible to the average Japanese person (2); the jargon is created by the gals themselves. Here I will elaborate on the specific types of jargon created by the kogal.

1. Emphatic prefixes. The frequent use of emphatic prefixes and other intensifiers is a characteristic feature of the kogals’ speech. Examples are the liberal use of majicho, or meccha, meaning ‘really’. A well-known expression is cho-beri-ba, a mixture of Japanese and English meaning ‘very bad’. The other variation to this is cho-beri-gu, meaning ‘very good’. (Miller 2004: 232; Tanabe 2005: 2).

2. Lexical truncation or clipping. Both initial as back syllables are often clipped in kogal speech. Kimochi warui (‘bad feeling’) is shortened into kimoiuzattai (‘noisy’) clipped to uzaimuzukashii (‘difficult’) turns into muzui (Kazutaka 2006: 100)

3. Compounding. Kogal speech is also known for combining and blending words together, both Japanese words and Japanese and English words. An example of mixing Japanese words is shibutaku, which came from an outlet selling public lottery tickets (takarakuji) in Shibuya (2004: 233). The ubiquitous convenience store ‘’ was mixed into anpan by kogals (2006: 100). A well-known example of how Japanese and English are mixed is the word ikemen; iketeru (‘cool’) combined with the English ‘men’, meaning ‘a cool dude’ (2005: 2).

4. Affixation. New words are also created by attaching the verb-class suffix ru to words. Makuru is a word made up of English and Japanese, meaning ‘to go to a McDonald’s’. Another form of affixation is adding ‘a’ to a word; this derived from the English ‘-er’ (as in master or learner) that is pronounced as ‘a’ by Japanese. In this way, there is naruraa to refer to the fans of the singer Namie Amuro; kurabaa (‘club-goer’) or furitaa (‘free-lancer’) (2005: 2; 2004: 234).

6. Ra-deletion. The process of ra-deletion, or ra-nuki, is common among kogals. The avoidance of certain infixes is an example of kogals’ structural changes to Japanese (2004: 234, 235). The potential form of ‘to eat’, taberareru, then becomes tabereru.

Sharpening it up

Apart from bringing in specific jargon or made-up words, kogals’ speech also has another distinct character; the kogal, as other new female identities, “challenge prescriptive norms of gendered talk” (Gagné 2007: 132). These norms of gendered talks are longstanding and deeply rooted in Japanese speech. In their own way, kogals break this “tradition” and sharpen up their language by creating new forms of expressions and acquiring a “masculine” form of speaking. Using the masculine first-form pronoun boku is a clear example of this form of speech, as is using the gender-neutral atashi instead of the more polite watashi (2007: 132).

Kogals’ speech is also linked to some type of vulgar language, as they claim some taboo words as their own (Miller 2004: 236), as ‘female masturbation’ or ‘my own fetish’ (teman and mii feichi). They do not only openly disregard traditional female forms and speak out taboos; they quite openly express their sexuality. In the magazine dedicated to gal subculture, Egg, an article appeared on “how to have sex in a kimono” (Japanorama 2007). Along with this, they flout honorific forms of Japanese speech (Eckert & McConnel-Ginet 2003: 330).


To the Gal and Beyond


We have now demonstrated some examples of the unique style of kogals’ speech. In order to explore the place and meaning of the kogal and her language in present-day society, we have to ask ourselves what has happened to the kogal and her speech style, and where it goes from here.

In the 1990s and 2000s youth cultures have continued to spring up, and then disappearing just as quickly. What started as “gal” culture, went from “kogals” via “ganguro” (black-faced girls) to “yamanba” (an even more extreme form) (Japanorama 2007). The ganguro and yamanba stand even more apart from the crowd through their radically different skintones. The media has put a spotlight and a magnifier on the gal-subculture. TV shows have been going to Shibuya to go ‘kogal-spotting’, and have overly exposed all aspects of gal culture.

Positioning kogals’ speech

Kogals have invented new jargon, have mixed up words, have avoided honorific use of language and have developed a tendency touse ‘vulgar’ or taboo terms. What does it matter?

In fact, it matters a lot. Kogals and other gal-subcultures have, in their own way, affected the discourse of “women’s language” in Japan. We have previously mentioned how Shigeko and Shibamoto (2004) say that Japanese people reflexively position themselves and others within or outside the traditional gender structure of Japan by using stereotypical male and female language styles. In this way, the kogal has clearly placed herself outside the traditional gender structure by using new words and acquiring a speech that was not considered feminine, and thus not considered to be part of Japanese “women’s speech”. There has been a great deal of worry about this kind of speech in both the media as in the (Japanese) academic world. Kazutaka’s article (2006) uses the word midare (‘disarray’, ‘disturbance’) to address this issue. However, the author says, we need not “worry” about this type of “disturbance”, since it is a natural thing and many regard change in language as inevitable (2006: 105). Although I agree that change in language use is unavoidable, I do not believe this is a “natural” thing; resistance to existing gendered language forms does not come accidentally or naturally; it is a conscious process.

The women’s liberation movement in the 1970s started off women’s resistance to gender norms in language in the 20thcentury. The women’s movement started to recognize and act against the oppressive force of language that, as Inoue (2002) indicates, was in fact constructed in the light of growing nationalism. These women started to challenge traditional gender ideologies, and called themselves uuman ribu (from the English “women’s lib”) (Yukawa & Saito 2004: 25). What is important to note here, is that these women were very aware of the fact that they were represented in a derogatory manner, and that, as Yukawa and Saito mention: “(…) feminine speech style forced them to speak as respectful subordinates and prevented them from forcefully asserting themselves as the equals of men” (2004: 25). What started with the uuman ribu evolved and eventually helped the kogal build further on this idea of self-assertation. The language she used helped creating a new identity.

The identity of the kogal was both condemned and applauded by media. Whilst some media would trace down kogals sitting on the streets and express disapproval of their life-style[1], other media would latch on to terms commonly used in kogals’ speech. Many television programs, for example, started using the term cho beriba (Miller 2004: 238). Another kogal aspect that caught the eye of the media was the exploration of their sexual identities. The idea that some kogals offered sexual favours to elderly men in return for money (commonly referred to as enjo kosai, ‘subsidized companionship’) both fascinated and irritated the media and the Japanese people. What started with a group of girls hanging out in Shibuya district, ended in complete media frenzy.

In positioning the kogal and her speech in the broader perspective of “women’s language” it is key to understand that the kogal is a screw in a wider construction. The kogal has contributed to the process of making a new construction of “women’s language”. Although many media suggest it all started with the kogal, it actually did not. In addressing the objectification of kogals’ speech, Miller (2004) remarks how media ignore at least four decades of construction and domestication of language that preceded the kogal. The kogal is not the beginning, nor is she the end.

From Gal to Lady

As old subcultures slowly die out, new ones come up. As the media lavished on the kogal, she slowly disappeared from the sceneas her identity no longer belonged to her own “community”, but was taken by the whole nation to be objectified and made into whatever the people wanted. The “kogal” now is mainly sexualized; a short search on Google shows that the term “kogal” now is mostly linked to erotic entertainment or vulgar images and words.

An article by the Yomiuru newspaper in 2007 named “The original kogals who have left Tokyo” (Tokyou kara ijuu no gen-kogyaru) explains how former kogals (gen-kogyaru: ‘original kogal’) now have grown up to be young mothers who want something more from life than hanging around Shibuya. The article features an original kogal who has moved to a village and works in the ricefield every day.

The power of kogals’ speech was that they created a “unified speech community” (Gagné 2007: 134) that created their own community. Now that their speech is spread throughout the nation, and now that the former “gal” has grown into a lady, this specific kogals’ speech is slowly vanishing.

Vanishing, in this sense, however, does not mean extinguishment. Kogals’ speech has contributed to the discourse of “women’s language” and to a different construction in the speech style of modern Japanese women. In a small way, the kogals may contribute to the way Japan “thinks” gender. Furthermore, she has disturbed mainstream notions of national identity, and has stated that Japan and Japanese “women’s language” are in no way homogenous, but multifaceted.

Growing from gal into lady, the kogal has revolutionized her own gendered consciousness, and has, in this way, found her place in the discourse of Japanese “women’s language”, which is, after all, a work in progress.




My friend Miya has turned 25, and is now wearing a neat office skirt and wears natural make-up, as she started working behind an information desk at a big company. She does not continuously use her old language anymore, although a shimmering of the kogals’ speech will shine through when we go out drinking beer. She, along with a lot of other former kogals, has grown into a self-assertive lady. Although the former kogal might not use the exact same speech as she did ten years ago, something is different from before: she has become conscious of the language she speaks, and what this implicates for her role in society.

The kogal has gone beyond the traditional ways of women’s speech, and has created her own language. In a way, this is a Catch 22, since her non-traditional language has now, through the media’s frenzy, indeed become a part of Japanese “women’s language”: most modern evaluations of Japanese women’s language dedicate a part of their work on the language of young Japanese girls. Nevertheless, it is all right for the kogals’ speech to get her part in the historical discourse of women’s speech. If nothing else, it at least shows that the history of “women’s language” is in no way singular.

“Women’s language” knows many histories, and the kogal, in her way, has written her own colorful chapter in the discourse of Japanese women’s speech. Which is definitely cho-beri-gu.


Bellinger D. and Gleason, Jean Berko. 1982. Sex differences in parental directives to young children. Journal of Sex Roles 8: 1123-1139.

Eckert, Penelope and Sally McConnell-Ginet. 1992. Think Practically and Look Locally: Language and Gender as Community-Based Practice. Annual Review of Anthropology 21: 461-90.

Eckert, Penelope, McConnell-Ginet, Sally. 2003. Language and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Gagné, Isaac. 2007. Urban Princesses: Performance and “Women’s Language” in Japan’s Gothic/Lolita Subculture.Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 18 (1):   130–150.

Gleason, Jean Berko et al. 1994. The baby talk register: parents’ use of diminutives. In Handbook of Research in Language Development Using CHILDES, ed. By J.L. Sokolov and C.E. Snow, 50-76. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Inoue, Miyako. 2002. Gender, Language, and Modernity: Toward an Effective History of Japanese Women’s Language.American Ethnologist 29 (2): 392 – 422.

Japanorama. 2007. Gyaru: Bad Girls. Presented by Jonathan Ross. Created by Hotsauce TV. BBC. Season 3, Episode 6.

Kazutaka Sasaki. 2006. 現代日本語の「乱れ」とこれからの日本語  [in Japanese] [On the “Deviant” Use of Present-Day Japanese and Its Future]. Foreign literature (55): 97-106.

Miller, Laura. 2004. Those Naughty Teenage Girls: Japanese Kogals, Slang, and Media Assessments. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 14 (2): 225-247.

Ohara, Yumiko. 2001. Finding one’s voice in Japanese: A study of the pitch levels of  L2 users. In A. Pavlenko, A. Blackledge, I. Piller & M. Teutsch-Dwyer (eds.),  Multilingualism, Second Language Learning, and Gender. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Shigeko Okamoto and Janet Shibamoto Smith (eds.) 2004. Japanese Language, Gender, and Ideology. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Strurtz Sreetharan, Cindi. 2004. Students, sarariiman and seniors: Japanese men’s use of ‘manly’ speech register. Language in Society 33: 81-107.

Tanabe, Kazuko. 2005. Speech Patterns of Japanese Girls or Gals: Symbol of Identity & Opposition to Power. Occasional Papers Advancing Linguistics 3: 1-12.

Yomiuri. 東京から移住の元コギャル[in Japanese] [The original kogal migrating from Tokyo]. Yomiuri Online. July 15 (Accessed May 17 2010)

Yukawa, Sumiyuki and Masami Saito. 2004. Cultural Ideologies in Japanese Language and Gender Studies. In: Shigeko Okamoto and Janet Shibamoto Smith (eds.) Japanese Language, Gender, and Ideology. Oxford: Oxford UP:  23- 37.


1. See, for example, the You Tube fragment from 2007 on ‘gal circles’ in Shibuya:
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