Tokyo is known around for world for its pop-fashion– from disgustingly cute to twisted darkness, the themes have been revered as iconic symbols of Japanese street culture. The neighborhoods of Harajuku and Shibuya in particular have harbored the birth and rise of primary pop-culture communities, spurring attention from all over for their affinity for the unique and personalized.
Walking down the streets, some of the most archetypal fashion tribes are the lolitas,gyarus, yami-kawaii, and most recently, genderless-kei. Among these are countless subcultures and groups that pursue particular looks, striving for a way to self-express and find themselves in all shapes and forms.
Lolita, as the most recognizable trend on the streets of Harajuku, has been one of the more consistent styles within the sub-cultures. Since its establishment in the 1970s, the iconic fluffy skirts, petticoats, stockings and headdresses adapted from Victorian and Rococo styles can be seen dotting the main and back streets. Its name stemming from its doll-like style, Lolita fashion branched off into subtypes including gothic, classic, sweet and many more.
Though it is now seen as a dated style, the culture of gyaru was central in the building of Japanese pop-fashion. Peaking in the 90s and early-2000s, gyaru wearers were characterized by their prominently bleach-blonde hair, heavily tanned skin, highly decorated nails and excessive makeup. Now there exists ‘ironic gyaru’, or a residual subculture that maintains the style as a sarcastic homage to its excessive approach to fashion.
Yami-kawaii is a style that has risen from its dark roots in a burst of cute pastels. The subculture is meant to embody the cuteness of Harajuku fashion alongside life’s harsh realities. The twisted approach to yami-kawaii includes the recognition of gore, death, and mental illness in its purest and “cutest” form. The community uses yami-kawaii as an outlet for their own emotions and manifesting it through their art and fashion.
Many of these subcultures center around female fashion, but the recent rise of genderless-kei has revolutionized the gender stereotypes surrounding what it means for men to be cute. Genderless- ‘kei’ (kei translating to “style”) incorporates male and female beauty techniques to reach an androgynous look. The look typically involved makeup, dyed hair, contact lenses and cute accessories. The community, through their accumulation of conventionally cute qualities, strives for a new, genderless standard of beauty.
Despite the presence of these emblematic styles, the recent and most dominant trend on the streets has been a rather moderate one. Monochromatic wide leg pants, midi skirts and maxi coats are the mainstream, and divulge completely from the excessive frills and spikes that have been the previous face of Harajuku. This subdued cosmopolitan trend is hardly a part of the tight-knit fashion community; it can be said that it stands as a product of the waves of international and corporate influence that has been overtaking Tokyo’s fashion culture.
Though the subculture of Japanese fashion is an intrinsic component of the culture itself, tourism and gentrification have begun to diminish the estranged aesthetics of the styles. Since 2015, the number of Japan’s foreign visitors has boomed to 20 million and is only rising as the country approaches the 2020 Olympic Games. As a well-known pinnacle for modern culture, Harajuku and Shibuya get an insane amount of traffic along the already crowded streets. What was once a place for self-exploration has become an exhibition; kids who go there to experiment in a safe environment are now greeted by tourists who were promised the quirky characters that are portrayed across different forms of media. Tourism also contributes to the gentrification of the city– what had previously been a network of obscure backstreet fashion stores are now being forced out by big-name fashion companies that attract more revenue. Though the streets of Tokyo are known for their obscure yet paradigmatic fashion, the stores that source it are treated as zoos, getting only foot traffic as their sales plummet.
Despite this unfortunate shift in the self-expressive world of pop culture, Tokyo’s styles remain as an extraordinary approach to fashion. What makes pop-fashion so unique is the communities that are formed through it. Each style subculture, though wildly different, shares the kinship of artistry and imagination through clothing– their dwindling numbers only bringing them closer to protect and commemorate what has become an iconic face to Japanese culture. Pop-fashion and its subcultures are a statement: they allow individuals to find, express and be confident in themselves, the environment also contributing to being a welcoming and open space for all fabrics and colors.