Bankara – Meiji Japan’s Anti-Fashion Movement

Bankara – Meiji Japan’s Anti-Fashion Movement

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Bankara - Meiji Japan’s Anti-Fashion Movement
As the era of the samurai ended and Japan rushed towards modernization, a rough-scrabble fashion movement called the Bankara rose in opposition.

How did bankara, Japan’s anti-fashion movement, get started? In a sense, it all began with United States commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry.

The arrival of Western fashion

In July of 1853, Perry first caught sight of Edo bay aboard his warships. Then, Japan was still a country of samurai, peasants, and merchants wearing hakama, kimono, and geta. But that changed a scant few decades of Perry’s mission to “open” Japan to Western trade. By then, huge swaths of the country wore suits, ties, and bowler hats.

Perry’s mission was a success. Japan opened to the West and began its hurried modernization from the 1850s onwards. One of the most visible signs of change came in the appearance of the people of the country themselves.

The process began first with men’s fashion. Shaved pates and topknots gave way to European-style cropped hair. By the mid-1880s, 90% of Tokyo men wore their hair in a faux-European “randomly cropped” (散切り頭) fashion. Shoes and even sneakers replaced geta – the wooden clogs of old. Suits, hats, and ties supplanted hakama and haori.

In high society, Western-style finery became the most conspicuous example of living by the watchwords of the day: Civilization and Enlightenment (bunmei kaika, 文明開化). The taste-makers and bureaucrats of Japan sought to create a genteel, clean, modern look for the people of their country. In 1898, this top-down shift in fashion became known as the “high collar” movement.

Bankara youth in Japanese-style clothing stride through a gate in the early post-war era. 1949, Takushoku University.
Bankara youth stride through a gate in the early post-war era. 1949, Takushoku University.

But as the clothing and stylings of old shifted to a new form of Western-influenced refinement and respectability, a counter-movement rose to defy the tastes of the high collars. These were the Bankara: the rough and artfully disheveled men of the “barbarian collar” movement.


The Bankara Barbarians

Everything about the Bankara strove to stand in contrast to the staid high collars. Indeed, the name itself (バンカラ) was a joke on the “high collar” term. It combined the kanji for “barbarian” (ban, 蛮) and the phonetics for the foreign word “collar” (kara, カラ).

These ruffians wore their hair long, wild, and purposefully unkempt. They allowed their clothing, whether Western or Japanese, to fray and tear. They cultivated an image of resolute neglect.

Their creed was that the quality of a man’s soul was what mattered, not his appearance. (Of course, the Bankara put just as much thought into his fashion as any Westernized bureaucrat. The sheer flamboyancy of his attire pointed to this mixed messaging.) Bankara wearing thick capes strode about town on wooden geta long after either had fallen out of fashion.

In doing so, they sought to draw a line between the Japan they saw emerging and their idealized version. They were between masculine and feminine. Between nationalistic and internationalized. Between the “morals” of traditionalism and the “decadency” of modernism. Their iconoclastic fashion-based stand influenced over a century of right-wing youth counterculture.

Watch our documentary version of this essay on our YouTube channel.

Modernization; Modified Appearances

The rush towards the adoption of Western clothing styles by Meiji era leaders represented a mixed sense of anxiety and admiration for the European powers at Japan’s doorstep. There were those for whom Western “enlightenment” held true moral and societal promise; chief among these was the incredibly influential thinker Fukuzawa Yukichi (whose face currently adorns the ¥10,000 bill).

For others, however, anxiety may have the driving factor. Even as Japan opened for trade and foreign legations began setting up in ports like Yokohama and Hakodate, Japan remained on the back foot.

Numerous European emirates had forced Japan to sign reviled, unequal treaties. Foreign residents even received extraterritoriality that made their conduct immune to Japanese courts of law. Early Meiji leaders believed that transitioning to a specifically European framework of “civilization” would make them equals. As clothing and manners were the most visible mark of European-style modernity, that would be the place to start.

Clothing wasn’t the only visible sign of the shift towards Europeanization, as brick buildings built on Western lines quickly appeared throughout the newly renamed capital of Tokyo. After a devastating fire raged through the eastern parts of the city in 1872, rebuilders swept the ashes of Ginza away.

The so-called “Ginza Bricktown” arose in their place. The drafty European-style buildings attracted few occupants, but the storefronts on the main street quickly became a hotspot for Tokyoites eager to catch a glimpse of modernity. But in terms of representing this era of accelerated Westernization, one building stands out even more than Ginza itself.

An 1880 ukiyo-e print depicting Ginza Bricktown. Like most ukiyo-e of the time, it makes use of a startling vibrant color scheme.
An 1880 ukiyo-e print depicting Ginza Bricktown. Like most ukiyo-e of the time, it makes use of a startling vibrant color scheme.

Socialites and Scandals at the Rokumeikan

In 1883, the Rokumeikan opened its doors to the bureaucrats and socialities of Tokyo – and, more importantly, to foreign dignities. The state-owned, two-story Italianesque wonder was built on land in Hibiya formerly owned by the Lord of Satsuma domain, and featured a vast ballroom, billiards, and suites. All these extravagances served the purpose of ostentatiously displaying just how modern the upper crust of Japan had become. As a symbol for the era, the Rokumeikan was unmatched. (Even if it did little to convince foreign dignitaries to agitate for the repeal of unequal treaties.)

Yet as a symbol of top-down modernity, the soirées at the Rokumeikan cut both ways. Newspapers oriented towards the opposition of the Satsuma-Choshu-dominated Meiji government latched onto scandals emanating from its vaunted halls; bureaucrats in stuffy Western garb dancing with foreign dignitary’s wives were portrayed as foppish imitators more concerned with lavish European diversions than improving Japan’s place in the world.

Journalists constructed a narrative in which the Rokumeikan was a site for illicit sexual affairs. And this narrative extended past the walls of the building itself, most notably in major a sex scandal involving leading Meiji statesman and modernizer Ito Hirobumi. The affair did much in establishing negative stereotypes of westernized dandies – Ito himself has been called “the father of high collar.”

The definition of high collar (sort of)

A 1901 satire humorously defines just what those negative stereotypes entailed. To be a high collar, one had to:

  • “Embellish one’s dress above all else
  • Never open one’s mouth without citing the case in foreign countries
  • Enthusiastically speak foreign languages
  • Compliment one’s own wife in the presence of others
  • Spend half the day making up one’s appearance
  • Grovel before one’s superiors
  • Make a habit of mentioning that you dined with Ito Hirobumi
  • Peer at others through your pince-nez while smoking a cigar
  • Refer to geisha as “geisha-san”
  • Become totally shameless
  • Forget how to speak Japanese” [1]
A caricature of a high collar gentleman - everything the Bankara stood against. Tokyo Puck, 1907.
A caricature of a high collar. Tokyo Puck, 1907.

Bankara Precedents: the Soshi Ruffians

As the perception of the Meiji government as dandified philanderers grew, an outsider youth movement emerged to meet it. These were the originators of many of the social signifiers that would come to define bankara: the sōshi (壮士). Often sons of former samurai on the losing side of the Meiji Restoration, sōshi were young, restless, and politically motivated. Their defining ideology was abiding hate of the Meiji oligarchy and a willingness to use violence to bring about political change. Said political goals were twofold: more access to political power for the average citizen, and an assertive foreign policy. Sōshi were recognizable by their masculine posturing, purposefully ragged kimono, long hair, and rolled up sleeves. Their threadbare disregard for the fashions of the day made them stand out – and marked them as the masculine antithesis to the high collars.

In 1887, Meiji journalist and historian Tokutomi Soho described his feelings towards the sōshi thusly:

“That they are pusillanimous, narrow-minded, obstinate, and eccentric is not something for which they deserve special praise; but when one witnesses their righteous indignation, dauntless integrity and bounteous patriotic spirit, and when one tuck up their sleeves, proud of being Japanese men (Nippon danji), they do become extremely appealing.” [2]

Many sōshi were not merely content to cause political ruckus in Tokyo, however. As the age of Japanese imperialism began to ramp up, many made their ways to the Asian mainland. There, they took to adventurism, engaging in brawls and local intrigue (and ironically making use of Japanese-favoring extraterritoriality to get out of trouble). Their most notorious act came in 1895, when a group of chauvinistic sōshi brutally murdered Queen Min of Korea in cold blood. Coming from a viewpoint within the sōshi cult of manliness, the assassins had been enraged at the idea of a woman wielding such great political power.

Sōshi handing out pamphlets and singing political enka.

Women in High Collars

Indeed, conceptions of gender lay at the heart of the conflict between “high collar” and bankara.

Men in the new capital of Tokyo had been quick to adjust to Western fashions following the Meiji Restoration. Women, however, were another story entirely. While women of the highest classes may have been seen at the Rokumeikan dancing rigidly while wearing western dresses, the average woman would still come under considerable scrutiny from her peers for too readily embracing European attire. This meant that the image of Japanese women imitating Western clothing styles was not as associated with westernization for some decades into Meiji.

By 1902, however, women were starting to be associated with the concept of “high collar” as well. This was the year the “high-collar schoolgirl” (ハイカラ女学生) style was born. Girls would wear their hair in a Western-style pompadour tied up in a ribbon; by the last years of Meiji, the highly modern image of schoolgirls riding to class on bicycles, their hair done up and wearing maroon hakama, became ubiquitous. And these young women didn’t just take on outwards affectations of modernity; they also read Western literature and perused magazines demonstrating the latest fashions. They were thoroughly modern and increasingly cosmopolitan in their outlooks.

What this meant, however, was that the once-stuffy world of the conceived “high collar” male bureaucrat was now shifting to something more directly feminine. It was also now a pejorative that could be aimed at westernizing people of all classes, not just the highest levels of society. And opposition – towards foppish westernization and gendered consumption – would soon expand in turn.

A classic representation of a high-collar, modern girl of the late Meiji-early Taisho eras.

Rise of the Bankara

The late Meiji period saw the rise of the bankara as a mass counter-culture movement. Whereas the sōshi were often of samurai stock, their general aesthetic and masculine fixations could now be adopted by male youth at large.

Many drew inspiration from the rugged “adventures” enjoyed by the unruly sōshi on the continent. Stories of bare-knuckled adventuring in Asia and during the Russo-Japanese War in the pages of boy’s magazines like Boken Sekai (Adventure World) extolled manly virtues and decried the soft effeteness of contemporary Japan. That magazine, first published in 1908, went so far as to encourage rowdy male students to physically punish the high-collar classmates in their midst.

Waseda University and Keio Universities, the first private universities in the country, appealed to many counterculture youths of the era for whom public universities were too associated with the reviled Meiji state. Students at these schools would argue the benefits of “barbaric” societies, and disparage the perceived weakened and feminized state of Japan. One such student from Waseda wrote that:

“The temperament of the ronin [masterless samurai] must be the life of Waseda. You must understand how awful it is that the superficial high-collar temperament is breaching the iron walls of the private schools. … This is not just about our dearest Waseda. It is a question of the true life of our country.” [3]

Boken Sekai contrasts an effete high collar student pining after his love with a swaggering bankara dreaming of fighting for his empire.
Boken Sekai contrasts an effete high collar student pining after his love with a swaggering bankara dreaming of fighting for his empire. “Which group do you belong to?” 1908.

Disheveled Masculinity

If Waseda and Keio were the Bankara universities of choice, they found their antithesis in the “high collar” schools. These included the likes of Sophia, Rikkyo, and Aoyama Universities in Tokyo – notably, all private Christian universities. The adoption of school uniforms also meant that bankara needed to apply their aesthetics to the required Western-style clothes rather than the Japanese wear favored by the sōshi. This led to the classic bankara look of disheveled black gakuran uniform and battered school hat.

Shoddy clothes and a churlish appearance were not all bankara aspired to. They wanted their bodies to be martially fit as well, ready to fight at any moment. Bankara magazines like Boken Sekai consistently featured images of muscular men flexing, often in the form of shirtless bankara students. Every aspect of their appearance was geared to express their inner morals; their determination to physically strengthen their country. Such imagery prefigures the literal muscular posing of far-right nationalist author Mishima Yukio, who more than a half-century later would espouse a similar view of a Japan losing its masculine virility.

Like the sōshi before them, bankara held the semi-mythical concept of bushido in high esteem. As samurai were said to live only to serve their masters, bankara might desire only to protect and glorify Japan. This focus on bushido and other perceived Japanese moral traditions was likely intensified upon the publication of Nitobe Inazō’s seminal Bushido: The Soul of Japan in 1899.

Bankara high schoolers. 1929, Kumamoto.

War Comes for the Bankara

As Japanese imperialism proliferated in the early 20th century, bankara culture would have melded easily into the militaristic jingoism of the day. The 1920s to the war years saw the formation of numerous ultranationalist student groups espousing similar ideals the bankara, if perhaps lacking their fashion sense. Assassination plots against those in government viewed as too weak were rampant; in 1932, eleven young army cadets carried out the May 15 Incident, a failed coup d’etat that still succeeded in assassinating Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi. Like the sōshi who had murdered Queen Min, the young assassins believed the death of a few “evil” individuals could right all of society’s ills.

The assassinated Prime Minister Inukai. (1855 – 1932.)

Decline of the bankara

By war’s end, there was a growing sense that the machismo and ideals of the bankara had become divorced from the specific fashion styles that marked members of the subculture off from the rest of society. Schools had also implemented rules that banned threadbare clothing, and it became more difficult for the style to exist within schools themselves. In the postwar period, it became easier to obtain mass-produced clothing, and ragged wear seemed more and more an intentional fashion choice. Looks that once signified bankara ideologies now seemed mere fads.

Similar ideologies of youthful masculinity and abandonment of consumer fashions remained in Japan, of course; it would be hard to call these impulses unique to the bankara. Even the New Left student movement of the 1960s and 70s saw similar tendencies towards rejecting modern “femininity” in favor of rustic masculinity. Groups like Mishima’s own Shield Society represented related ideologies for youth on the postwar far right.

Enduring legacy

However, the aesthetics of bankara have had their own enduring legacy. One is in the form of university cheer squads (oendan, 応援団). Schools with prewar bankara traditions, like Waseda, still see students dress in stereotypical bankara wear and lead classic fight songs during sports matches. (Of course, these cheer uniforms are purpose-made or bought brand new.) Similar aesthetics also made their way into the rough delinquent (yanki) fashions of the 1980s. Manga, anime, and TV carried on with the bankara look, with characters as famous as Jotaro Kujo being referred to as “bankara.”

So, what began as a counterculture movement in the 19th century lives on – at least visually. The aesthetics of the bankara remain striking, even if their politics now appear more distant. What strikes closer to home are the perennial civilizational pushes and pulls that continue to produce fashion trends urging a return to rustic simplicity and abandonment of material consumerism. The bankara are gone – but the basic societal forces remain.


[1] Sato Takezo, ed., Kokkei naru Nippon (Tokyo: Nanpikan, 1901). Cited in Karlin, 2002.

[2] Tokutomi Soho, “Shin-hoshutO,” Kokumin no tomo, No. 1. Cited in Karlin, 2002.

[3] Tokutomi Soho, “Yaban no kisho bunmei no chishiki,” Kokumin (13 July 1895). Cited in Karlin, 2002.

Main Sources

Jason G. Karlin. (2002). The Gender of Nationalism: Competing Masculinities in Meiji Japan. Journal of Japanese Studies, 28(1), 41–77.

Edward Seidensticker. (1970.) Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake.

Orbach, Danny. (2007.) Curse on This Country: The Rebellious Army of Imperial Japan. CORNELL UNIVERSITY PRESS. pp.101-128

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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