You know you’re old when the slang expressions so fashionable in your youth go right over the heads of 22-year-olds who stare blankly as though you’ve just spoken to them in ancient Egyptian. One remembers a time when mecchanko (extremely superduper) was the adjective of the day, used to describe everything from ramen to the cute guy in 10th grade. This was then replaced by the shortened meccha and later obliterated in favor of cho (which for some reason had to be enunciated in a high-pitched voice) and then later, cho (said in an ordinary voice). Ours is not to reason why; ours is to simply switch voice tones. And remind ourselves that, after all, the characters for ryuko (fashion) stand for “flow” and “go.”
It is with great relief that one stumbles upon a word that has remained unchanged in meaning and pronunciation for the past 40 years. Yankii (stress on the second syllable) is one such example. No matter how much the world moves on, yankii remain the same. They’ll probably outlast the Jiminto (Liberal Democratic Party) and they deserve to. For the yankii are one of the most tradition-bound segments of the Japanese populace.
So who exactly are these people? Suffice to say, yankii are high-school gangs, the cool variety with a thing for motorcycles, dyed hair and customized uniforms. They also have heavy-duty lungs, since yankii kick off their careers (usually around the age of 14) with excessive anpan (glue-sniffing) combined with moku (chain-smoking) — a hazardous undertaking usually conducted on the school okujo (rooftop). Yankii never say no to this, because theirs is a strict, hierarchical society in which the senpai (elder) reigns supreme. Younger yankii are expected to speak to the senpai in keigo (reverent speech) at all times, run their errands and observe the codes of honor particular to that yankii clan. All this must be conducted with konjyo (guts), seii (sincerity) and nyukon (dedication of the soul) — the three pillars of yankii behavior. It’s little wonder that many yankii grow up to be staunch uyoku (rightwingers).
Many make the mistake of lumping yankii in the same category as hikikomori (agoraphobics who never leave their rooms). But though they obviously share some common traits known to oya o nakaseru (make their parents weep), yankii are way above mere problem kids. They have their origins in the American “Yankee” GIs who gave the Japanese their first glimpse into the cho-kakkoii (super cool) world of rock ‘n’ roll, James Dean and Levis.
As a result, they’re usually good-looking and well-groomed, sporting fashion that’s years ahead of the rest of the world. Two decades ago, yankii boys and girls shaved off their eyebrows, permed their hair and customized school uniforms to look flamboyantly oversized: Exactly the things designer Martin Margiella did on the runway two years back. Ten years ago, boys shaved their heads, then dyed what there was of their hair in day-glo yellow and orange, then hitched up their pants to reveal their shins. If this sounds vaguely familiar, check out the style of soccer wonderboy Hidetoshi Nakata.
Finally, yankii are known to go for sokon (early marriage). True yankii will drop out of school at 17. When the local seijinshiki (coming of age) ceremonies roll around at the age of 20, they will show up with babies in tow. Yankii mamas, or yan-mama, are sighted around Shibuya with offspring tucked in baby strollers, buying platform sandals in the 109 building. The nation’s average first-time marriage age climbs steadily higher, but yankii will already have finished raising their kids by 35. On weekends they’ll pile into yankii Dad’s kaizosha (car specially customized with his own hands), rev up the engine and screech over to a freeway famiresu (family restaurant) for a jolly meal, while the rest of us who dutifully studied and went to college will gather to moan about the lack of datable men, how we may never get married and where we went wrong.