The History of: Visual Kei

Visual Kei is often described as a flamboyant and androgynous style, with glam rock, punk rock and kabuki theatre influences. It exploded in popularity in the 80s with the rise of bands such as X Japan, Buck-Tick, D’erlanger and Color. Visual Kei is one of the most distinctive and well known of Japanese subculture movements. The performances are theatrical and the band members sometimes take on personas to amplify their already out-there visuals. Imagine watching a live performance by a heavily glammed vampire! Let’s take a look at how Visual Kei came about.

X Japan is considered the pioneer of Visual Kei. The innovative group was co-founded by Yoshiki, who had listened to musicians like Kiss, Sex Pistols, David Bowie and Queen, which all influenced X Japan’s music, and look. Hence the combination of rock music with overly stylised makeup and clothing! In the late 1980s, X Japan introduced Japan to this shocking new look and sound, but nobody knew what to call it. Before the term “Visual Kei”, bands who adopted this outrageous look were called Okeshou Kei (makeup style). But this, according to SHOXX magazine Editor Seiichi Hoshiko, felt “too cheap” of a description. To only focus on the look and not the music or performance, did not do the bands and their fans justice. Inspired by X Japan’s slogan “Psychedelic Violence Crime of Visual Shock”, SHOXX magazine began to use the term Visual Shock Kei. Eventually it was shortened to “Visual Kei”, and became the go-to term to describe the genre.


Image courtesy of i-D magazine

There has been a lot of debate as to whether Visual Kei is a musical genre or a fashion style. The confusion probably lies in the fact that Visual Kei is so heavily tied to musicians that it is often limited to just a music genre. Like punk or emo, Visual Kei crosses the boundaries between music and fashion. In fact, Visual Kei spans many musical genres, and what ties it all together are the excessive visuals worn by band members.
According to SHOXX magazine Editor Seiichi Hoshiko, he considers it to be “an original Japanese musical genre” as well as a style. To him, their look is just as important as the music. Visual Kei artists themselves are undecided whether to classify it as a music genre or style. For example, X Japan’s Yoshiki, who said in an interview in 2011, “… Visual Kei is more like a spirit, it’s not a music style… I think it is a freedom about describing myself, a freedom to express myself, that’s what I believe Visual Kei is.”

Visual Kei fashion and music became more and more recognised by a larger audience. By the 90s the genre was quite popular and there were countless other bands joining the Visual Kei ranks like Dir En Grey, L’Arc-en-Ciel and Malice Mizer. These bands spanned different genres visually and sonically, but all ended up being referred to as Visual Kei groups. Notably, Mana of the group Malice Mizer was the one who started another style, Gothic Lolita style. This isn’t all that surprising, as fans of Lolita style were also fans of Visual Kei; therefore there was likely going to be overlap between the two fashions. After its peak in the 1990s, the hype surrounding Visual Kei began to slow down. During the early to mid 2000s, came the Neo Visual Kei movement, with the emergence of styles like Oshare Kei and Angura Kei. This movement placed the focus on band members’ looks and charisma over the music, much like mainstream Japanese idols.


Image courtesy of Amino Apps

SHOXX magazine ceased publication in 2016, spelling the end of the flamboyant era. It seems whenever new Visual Kei groups pop up, the same number disappears just as quickly. The scene isn’t completely dead though. With bands like L’Arc-en-Ciel putting on a live performance for hundreds of fans for their 30th anniversary, there is still much to celebrate for Visual Kei fans.


Written by Choom


  • 08/04/2024

    Not sure if you’re still responding to these, but I’d like to know which Yoshiki’s interview from 2011 you are referencing here. Would greatly help in writing my thesis! 🙂

  • 11/07/2022

    Since 1997 L’arc en ciel, Dir En Grey and Luna Sea can’t be considered a Visual Kei anymore, even X Japan also let go their Visual Kei gimmick around that time. In the end Visual Kei are nothing more than a visual gimmick to gain an edge and distinctive recognizition among competitors, maybe only Malice Mizer and their “disciples” like Versailles and Kamijo who still take Visual Kei to the heart


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