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Japan’s Fashion Subcultures

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New Emissary

Japan’s Fashion Subcultures

From Gothic Lolitas to French maids, Japan’s incredible fashion evolution is now being led by its young females.

Japan’s fashion-forward reputation has reached legendary proportions.

It’s all a result of more than 30 years of fashion evolution. In short, while the country’s fashion industry started to gain international acclaim back in the 1980s, with the debut of higher-end fashion designers such as Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo in Paris, Japan’s one-of-a-kind and quirky street fashions are reaching a whole new type of consumer.

I recently downloaded a talk by New-York based sociology professor and author Yuniya Kawamura, who spoke at the Asia Society late last year for an event called ‘Young, Rebellious, Stylish: Tokyo! Look!

Kawamura—who says she’s ‘fascinated by Japanese subcultures’—has done a lot of on-the-ground research over the years on the streets of Tokyo, interviewing young members of the various major subcultures and photographing their unique styles. And what she has to say on the current scene is fascinating.

According to her, in the past 10 to 15 years, Japanese have gone from being mostly consumers of Western fashion, to the producers of cutting-edge style. More importantly, it’s incredibly ‘interesting,’ ‘creative’ and ‘sophisticated’ Japanese youth, who are driving this movement, and making an international impact. ‘The world is now watching Tokyo,’ thanks to them, she says.

Within the core of the fashion movement in Tokyo, you can pinpoint specific geographic and ‘stylistically defined subcultures’ in districts such as Shibuya, Harajuku, Shinjuku and Akihabara/Ikebukuro. ‘The easiest way to understand Japanese subcultures is to divide it into different districts. And in each district, you find very interesting youth subcultures coming out of it,’ Kawamura explains, ‘It’s not just one, it’s sometimes two or three (subculture per district), and it’s spreading into different branches and different categories.’ (She adds that Koenji and Kichijoji are also emerging areas of interest for their unique second-hand fashion subcultures).

On Harajuku Lolitas

‘You come out of Harajuku station and there’s a small bridge next to the station. You go there on weekends…and you find a whole bunch of girls just congregating on that bridge and they’re dressed in the Lolita style.’

Japan's Fashion-Forward Subcultures

Kawamura says that Harajuku’s now renown Lolitas can be divided into distinct categories, and each has ‘specific regulations and rules’ that must be followed. The Sweet Lolita for example, Ama Loli in Japanese, wears pastel colours, and is generally innocent in appearance. Wa Loli, is another style that takes the classic Lolita look (frills, gathered skirts, trimmings), and combines it with some Japanese elements. A Wa Loli might therefore wear a cute ballerina tutu with a kimono blouse made from the traditional summer garment, but cut in half.

And what’s the difference between a Gothic Lolita and a Black Lolita? A Black Lolita must be dressed completely in black—from head to toe. If you’re a Gothic Lolita, you can have frills and white lace trimmings to embellish your black clothing, but a Black Lolita absolutely can’t. There are also other notable versions, such as Punk Lolitas.

Another prominent subculture in Harajuku, says Kawamura, is the Decora subculture that’s popular in this youthful district. Decoras adorn themselves with an excess of bright colours, using anime and cartoon characters, such as Hello Kitty or Disney characters like Mickey Mouse.

One important new development in the Harajuku Lolita subculture according to Kawamura is that ‘the trend on this particular bridge in Harajuku is actually declining.’

However, Lolita fans needn’t fret, as ‘this doesn’t mean the Lolita subculture has disappeared from Japan,’ she says.

Shibuya’s Tanned Gangs

The always bustling and modern Shibuya district is home to a ‘completely different’ type of subculture, says Kawamura. Here, the Gal, or Garu, phenomenon has really taken off. Garus are urban females who dye their hair brown or blond, wear short skirts and artificially tan. They also shop at a major mall called Shibuya 109.

Japan's Fashion-Forward Subcultures

Within the Garu group there are smaller subcultures that include Ganguros, (meaning ‘face black,’) who tan until they are dark brown and have an oft-described ‘frightening’ appearance. One branch of Ganguro that emerged several years ago was the ‘Amazonists,’ who had an appearance so extreme (darker skin, bright tribal make-up, long dyed, tangled hair), they’re virtually gone now, although this particular look has still been spotted this year.

Both Harajuku’s Lolitas and Shibuya’s Garus have their own definitions of beauty or kawaii (cute, pretty), Kawamura attests. The Lolitas make themselves look very kawaii on their own terms and for Garus—many of whom you can’t imagine fitting into mainstream ideals of beauty—are in their own eyes very kawaii and good-looking.

Another distinguished subculture in Shibuya is the male version of the Garu, called Garuo, who often dye their hair bright colours, such as green or red, and wear coloured contact lenses. They shop at the male version of Shibuya 109, aptly named Shibuya 109 Part II, which is an extremely popular haunt. Kawamura believes that the majority of these Garu and Garuo belong to youth gangs in Shibuya, and therefore need to look and act intimidating. Women need to blend in a bit of scary with their pretty, she says.

Small Devilish Butterflies

Shinjuku’s Agejo are the pale-skinned, ultra made-up young women who read Koakuma-Ageha (Small Devilish butterflies) magazine. ‘Within Shinjuku…there’s an area where you find many bars and pubs, and this trend or subculture emerged out of this particular magazine,’ Kawamura explains. Koakuma-Ageha, which was started by a former bar hostess in the district, targets readers who want detailed instructions on things like how to put five layers of fake eyelashes on and how to apply eyeliner with maximum impact. Whoever it is the publication is trying to appeal too, it’s working. Since it started up in 2005, Koakuma-Ageha—which boasts the slogan ‘You can never be too pretty’—is highly successful, with a distribution of about 300,000 copies a month.

Nerds in Akihabara and Ikebukuro

Kawamura suggests that while the major subcultures that exist in the Akihabara electronics district and around the busy Ikebukuro station aren’t necessarily fashion oriented, they’re definitely still important to include when talking about Japanese subcultures.

On the streets of Akihabara, or Akiba as it’s often called, it’s hard not to notice young women dressed in French maid costumes trying to lure introverted, anime and manga-obsessed Otaku, or geek/nerds, into coffee shops (maid cafes) to be waited on as a ‘master’ should be.

Japan's Fashion-Forward Subcultures

Female versions of Otaku have also begun to emerge and can be found in large numbers in Ikebukuro. They’re called Fujoshi (rotten girls) and like their male counterparts are introverted anime and manga fans, and all read BL (Boy’s Love) novels and manga. Fujoshi also engage in cosplay (costume play), and instead of maid cafes, go to butler cafes, where, according to Kawamura (who went to one herself), waiters use the greeting, ‘welcome home princess.’

Anyone who has travelled to Tokyo and explored the dense and diverse city has likely come across many of these unique fashion sub-cultures. It would be hard for any fan of fashion not to be inspired.

But Kawamura points out one more interesting element about Japan’s fashion subcultures: they’re ‘very much female-dominant.’ Indeed, unlike their Western counterparts, (punks in London, hip-hop artists and fans in urban America), the influential subculture-setters in Tokyo are mainly women.

It’ll be exciting to see what Japan has to offer the world next, as it moves into the next step of its fashion evolution. As for Kawamura, she sees a fusion of styles emerging now: ‘In fact, all of these boundaries between different districts, between different subcultures, are…becoming blurry. You find a mixture of all kinds of subcultures.’

All the more reason to get even more excited.


Images: Cara Photography (top), ThisParticularGreg (second), tinou bao (third from top), avlxyz (bottom).