In order to understand Harajuku (a district of Tokyo), one of the most exciting places to know Japanese fashion, I prefer to focus not on its sophisticated fashion trends but on its more casual and diverse “anti-fashion” styles which have no place to go. An objection against such an approach may be raised, saying that Harajuku has experienced noticeable changes. Large-scale construction of sophisticated apartments symbolizing a new urban lifestyle in the 1970s, expansion of brands and companies after the advent of “La Foret Harajuku” (a pioneering department store striving to be on the cutting edge), and development of Ura-Harajuku’s creative area as a mecca of men’s fashion, have all helped to form a “cool” reputation of Harajuku through Japanese and foreign media. Indeed, these observations could be true and I am not willing to ignore Harajuku’s contribution to high fashion trends. In this article, however, I will focus on rather unrefined or extreme fashions which completely deviate from the main vogue path. In fact, people practicing these offbeat fashions have devoted all their energy to the invention of their own creative styles. I believe observing this “anti-fashion” will lead us to understand “Harajuku-ness”, the essence of this quarter.
I will lay out three remarkable phenomena to illustrate exactly what happened in the realm of fashion in Harajuku. The first one is Takenoko-zoku (Bamboo shoot tribe), a phenomena of dancing groups on the sidewalk of Harajuku which became widely popular in the 1980s. The second is Gyaru*1, a subgroup of teenage girls that played on the schoolgirl image (miniskirt, knee socks), and dominated Japanese society in the 1990s. Finally I will discusss a third phenomenon called Lolita or Gothic Lolita in which girls, unlike Gyaru, live peacefully and aloof in their own dream world. Through these discussions I hope to show what Harajuku fashion or “Harajuku-ness” signifies.
In the first part, the history of Harajuku will be briefly explained. In the second part, I will interpret these three phenomena (Takenoko-zoku, Gyaru culture and Gothic Lolita) from the viewpoint of …. so that I conclude they are key phenomena to understand Harajukuness.
1. HARAJUKU – changing its identity just like changing clothes
No other city constantly changes its identity like Harajuku, while still managing to hold a place in mainstream Japanese fashion. Cities famous for fashion have often been developed by associating with traditional manufactures, by accumulating location-based results at maisons and ateliers. It takes long a time to form a characteristic fashion district. So once it has been formed, it comes to be durable with vicissitude. When it comes to Harajuku, this principle does not hold true. Much like high fashion department store mannequins perpetually changing their clothes, Harajuku took off what was just worn at lightning speed, always striving for tomorrow’s world. This is the way things were in Harajuku, but I believe it will never be possible to return to this old manner of constant re-invention. Why ? Consider this brief outline of the history of Harajuku.
Harajuku is located in Meiji Jingu Mae **1, in Shibuya ward, Tokyo. In the 1960s, during the Japanese post-war economic miracle, Japanese having admired the Occidental urban lifestyle built stylish mansions in Shibuya and Harajuku one after another. This brought a concentrated population, gathering fashionable people together into this area.
The dawn of Harajuku as a famous district for fashion dates from the 1970s where Shinjuku, the precedent centre of Japanese fashion, was replaced by Shibuya and Harajuku. Then, popular magazines for young people such as an an and non no introduced Harajuku as one of the most cutting edge places for fashion in Tokyo. In addition, La Foret Harajuku, a department store founded in 1978, became the heart of fashion with a sensibility to haute couture trends. Finally, in 1977, Tokyo Prefecture decided to open Sundays’ Hokoten (Pedestrian Zone, Hokosha-Tengoku) near Yoyogi park, which was a first clue to the flowering of Harajuku.
Explosion of movements – Harajuku Pedestrian Zone
Mentioning Harajuku in a historical context, many Japanese would recall a famous movement, “Takenoko-zoku“**2, in the Harajuku Pedestrian Zone in the 1980s.
In Japan, downtown streets are sometimes turned into pedestrian zones on weekends or for certain special events. Recognizing the importance of pedestrian zone’s roles is key to understanding the Takenoko-zoku movement. In 1977, near Yoyogi park in Harajuku district, a large zone became open to pedestrians on Sundays. In its early days, dozens of teenagers wearing extremely bright costumes in vivid colors gathered to dance there. Their exciting performance gathered such attention that the number of members rapidly increased, separating them into many small groups. Takenoko-zoku composed of more than 2000 young dancers attracted 1 million spectators at the peak of this craze. In addition to Takenoko-zoku, diverse collection of other styles popped up such as Rokkun-rora-zoku **3(Rock’n’roller’s tribe) imitating 1950s’ American music style. They flourished then fell into decay at the end of the 1980s.
My teenage schooling took place during the second half of the1990s, that is, after the disappearance of this dance phenomena. For me, the most strong impression of Harajuku is not that of young dancers in their costume. In the later 1990s Harajuku was dominated by Joshi-kosei, female high school students. Takeshita Street, located just in front of JR Harajuku Station, was filled with shops selling cheap accessories for wearing in original disarray on school uniforms. There were also specialized boutiques called “Tarento-shop” where young people could purchase various goods such as cards and photos of teenage popular stars. These high school girls were commonly called “Gyaru“**4. Gyaru was classified into a few sub-groups according to the district they were based. One of them was Shibuya-gyaru, who were characterized as mature and sexy girls, and featured on such magazines as Pichi-Remon (Fresh lemon) and Egg. In contrast, Harajuku-gyaru was supposed to be creative girls whose fashion style was represented in magazines like Zipper. Thus, Harajuku became a popular cool place for creative young people.
Since then, Harajuku has been turned into a sort of theme park or touristic spot in an extreme way. People who found the situation boring cut open a new path from Jungu-mae to Sendagaya along Meiji Street as well as the street leading to Shibuya (generally called “Harajuku Cat Street”) in order to form a new mecca for Mens’ Fashion. Ura-Harajuku (backside of Harajuku), which re-introduced a sophistication into Japanese mens’ fashion, began to develop.
Several years later, Ebisu-kei (popular fashion of Ebisu) based on Ebisu area next to JR Harajuku Station replaced Ura-Harajuku-kei (popular fashion of Ura-Harajuku) as the latest center of fashion. All that remains in Harajuku after these waves’ prosperity and decline is a traditionalized creative style: Cosplay (an extreme creative style that involves disguising as characters), and Lolita style was born around 1998 in this distinct. Harajuku remains a place to show off eccentric fashion and continues to attract domestic and foreign media’s attentions.
By the end of the 2000s, a novel, monstrous Joshi-kosei boom had worn off. Today, however some contemporary stars are categorized as Harajuku-kei (popular fashion of Harajuku) such as Kyari-pamyu-pamyu**5, Japanese fashion model and popular singer. Harajuku is considered a pioneer district in the revival of 1950s’ American culture and welcomes young people with unique creativity; with color contact lenses, colorful clothes and kitschy items as seen on foreign TV programs.
a. Takenoko-zoku – never taking the train in costume
Takenoko-zoku costumes are vastly different from typical fashion of that period. There was such a lack of taste that there was no chance of Takenoko-zoku being appreciated by a sophisticated crowd. Vivid red, pink and violet, were classic Takenoko-zoku colors, imitating Kimono or Chinese dress style. In addition to distinct colors, Takenoko-zoku was characterized by extremely gaudy, cheap materials cut extremely loosely. These clothes had no relation to general fashion sense and would certainly not allow for a leisurely stroll along a cool broad avenue. “Haremu-sutsu“**6 (Harem Suits), Takenoko-zoku‘s iconic apparel, were a typical style of clothing shop “Boutiuqe Takenoko” (Boutique Bamboo shoot) which opened in 1978. The “Takenoko-zoku” crowd derived its name from this boutique which was a hotspot for dancers to buy their costumes or find inspiration for their own hand-made costumes. Haremu-sutsu shared both style traits and behavior with other groups in Japanese society. Style similarities are evident in Yankee*2 and Tsuppari‘s loose-fitting uniforms or Tokko-fuku**7, motorcycle gang uniforms ( reference : film “Shimotsuma Monogatari, Kamikaze Girls“*3). In examining the groups’ behavior, Takenoko-zoku members sometimes had collusive relations with motorcycle gangs or yakuza, causing troubles that required police involvement. In short, the population that promoted the first Harajuku boom was young, dissident, energetic and anti-establishment.
It is important to notice in this Takenoko-zoku phenomenon that their costume was reserved for performance before an audience. Takenoko-zoku dancers travelled to and from Harajuku in their “ordinary clothes” and changed into their noble costumes, “Harem Suitsu“, exclusively when it came time to perform. They danced all day each Sunday not just for self exhibition, but also to let off steam, and for a vacation from the pressures of daily life, in the presence of an enormous, attentive audience. The Takenoko-zoku movement concerned a groups representation of self through their own special means. The Takenoko-zoku phenomenon followed an eccentric sensibility that was completely inverse to fashion trends at the time, allowing members to deviate from the social standard in the same way people today can choose to participate in costume parties or “Cosplay” communities.
b. School Girl’s Culture – Gyaru, Wretchedly made up creatures linger in the streets of Harajuku
Harajuku in the 1990s, after the collapse of the bubble economy, was occupied by Joshi-kosei, school girls. A typical Gyaru was a school girl wearing a miniskirt, loose socks, loafer shoes, dyed brown hair, careful makeup, and expensive brand-name bags or accessories (Louis Vuitton and Coach were in favor). The group rose suddenly to become powerful consumers in the apparel and cellular phone industries. The hottest trends of that period, such as the use of beepers and cellular phones, were determined by the Gyaru, making this group of girls the eminent leader in shaping cultural trends in Japanese society. These girls loved to wear school uniforms in uncommon ways. They exchanged, modified and arranged their uniforms, inspiring companies to begin mass-producing similar articles.
Joshi-kosei sometimes scandalized Japanese conservative society through their radical liberalism in open-minded sexuality, practicing casual sexual relationships with their young male peers, participating in paid dating (Enjo-Kosai) schemes, and selling their used uniforms and underwear (Burusera). Gyaru would be split into two distinct factions. The first is the typical Kawaii (cute) school girl style, the second includes types such as “Ganguro-gyaru“**8 and “Yamanba-gyaru“**9. These monster-like girls, while maintaining Joshi-kosei‘s pretty loose socks, brown hair, miniskirt and platform boots, altered the style into a crazy or even anti-esthetic fashion, which was hardly bearable for ordinary adults to look at. The majority of Japanese women are unquestionably interested in whitening their skin and avoid sunburn. On the contrary, “Ganguro-gyaru” (Ganguro means deeply sunburned) repeatedly visited tanning salons and applied deep-brown powder foundation, white eyeliner and white lipstick which contrasted with the artificial dark skin color. These vividly painted faces were never discreet. They stood out glaringly in a street scene. (photos) The expression “Yamanba” of “Yamanba-gyaru” means Japanese-mountain-witch-like monster. Like Ganguro-gyaru, “Yamanba-gyaru” were eccentric and unbeautiful. This group differentiated itself by looking like aliens. Their territory extended from Harajuku to Shibuya and Ikebukuro.
Unlike Takenoko-zoku, Gyaru did not reserve their costumes for certain days but wore their peculiar, extreme look on a daily basis. Their makeup-caked faces and their vulgar, tight-fitting clothes and platform sandals became a second skin, rather than a costume.
c. No more Yankee, no more Gyaru – the naissance of Gothic Lolita
Lolita fashion, one of the most well-known contemporary Japanese subcultures worldwide, was born in Harajuku between 1998 and 2000. One could hypothesize that Lolita fashion was inspired by certain parts of Western culture such as the Rococo in France, the universe of “Alice in Wonderland” or Nabokov’s novel “Lolita.” In part this is true, but the founders of Gothic Lolita built from this western inspiration and added their own influences drawing from gothic, Visual-Kei**10 and punk makeup and fashion.
Lolita’s extremely infantile style, along with other Japanese pop cultures such as cosplay and manga, has achieved a strong presence in foreign media. In Paris, for example, it is possible to witness many girls imitating Lolita and Gothic Lolita**11 style in Japan Expo and Tokyo Crazy Kawaii*4.
Like Gyaru, the Gothic Lolita’s “anti-fashion,” represents an opposition to social standards and imposed codes, but Gothic Lolita opposition to the standard is expressed in her own, completely different way. The Gothic Lolita is fiercely anti-gyaru fashion and also against school and social standards. She detests the violent and rude Yankee and despises the Gyaru practice of paid dating and coquettish, sexualizing behavior. She is indifferent to all attention, male or female, preferring to exist in her own personal dream-land. Refusing all codes, she has no way to go, and ends in meeting an impasse. Her severe detachment from reality makes her the most isolated of all. She uses European Rococo style and Gothic-literature inspired fashion to bring out her anti-ism. She rambles elegantly in Harajuku wearing her favorite frill dress.
Conclusion – Harajuku-ness in fashion
Multiple important fashion movements have occurred in Harajuku, making the city an attraction for fashion leaders worldwide. Despite Harajuku’s important role in fashion, my article has focused on unfashionable or aberrant vestments as the heart of Harajuk-uness.
One essential key to understanding the spectacular occurrence of multiple divergent fashion movements in Harajuku, is by remarking the aberrant, counter-to-fashion styles of dress. As Harajuku is geographically situated very near mainstream fashion centers (Omotesando or Roppongi), those who participated in various Harajuku counter-cultures were courageous in choosing to ignore the mainstream and propose alternative styles. There is a baseline of morals, philosophy, thoughts, and slogans behind visible, superficial elements of these phenomena. Takenoko-zoku, as well as Yamanba-Gyaru and Gothic Lolita would have disappeared without a trace if Harajuku had not been able to withstand their monstrous energy. Harajuku has accepted, saved, covered these subcultures. It is as if these people have escaped from reality and wandered into a different dimension, Harajuku.
The modality of dressing up has changed as time passed. While Harem-Sutsu of Takenoko-zoku was reserved like Cinderella’s dress for just one night, Gyaru maintained her odd makeup and eccentric vestments all day long and day after day. When it comes to Gothic Lolita, the fashion is no more the question of style, but permeates into her way of living, becoming a philosophy, a code to control her behavior. Overtime, the unusual costume assimilates into the performers’ body, representing their policy and becoming a medium of expression.
Where will they have to go after the successful assimilation of their costume into the body ? You might say that they have already made their dreams come true in the real world. Lolita girls have achieved their dream in wearing Rococo style dress as their everyday clothes. It is no longer a special costume reserved for wearing in a dreamland. All actions they undertake are towards continuing to perfect the transformation of their own personal dreamland into a reality. However, their challenge will often confront cul-de-sacs in this savage, violent society.
As it happens, virtual Cosplay and Lolita communities now provide members with a solution to breaking through these impasses, by serving as secret passage. In the same way, today, those who feel they move against the grain of their real-life communities can now find a place to be themselves thanks to new relationship-based online communities. These communities protect and support members from exposure to a warlike, homogenous society. Harajuku is no longer necessary for a unique person who seeks belonging. The internet now exists as a refuge. So, Harajuku is emptying, losing its strange cohesiveness, and being cleared of its ontological meaning, but, “who knows?” Harajuku may become its old self once again. Harajuku says that you wake up from a dream only to dream again.
It is a sort of catalyst.
*1 Gyaru, a transliteration of the English word “gal”, applies to girls in their teens or early twenties. The characteristics of these girls appear in their fashion and ways of thinking, associated with Japanese subcultures and economics like apparel, cellular phone, nails and cosmetic. There were various subcategories of Gyaru‘s style. The general appearance is shown in the pictures.
*2 Yankee: Originally an English word used to refer to Americans, “Yankee” has been applied to teenage delinquents in Japan since the 1980s. These are often junior high or high school students, wearing deformed school uniforms, behaving in menacing or rough ways, in order to appear dominant among other students. They wear a costume specific to the Yankee style called Tokko-fuku.
*3 “Shimotsuma Monogatari, Kamikaze Girls”(2004), a Japanese film describing the development of a friendship between Momoko, a Lolita girl, and Ichiko, a Yankee. This story takes place in the province, Shimotsuma, and brings to light the issues prevalent among Japanese subculture in such rural areas.
*4 Japan Expo and Tokyo Crazy Kawaii are cultural events in France contributing to the promotion and the presentation of Japanese pop-culture such as manga, game, animation and fashion. The 14th Japan Expo in 2013 welcomed more than 230,000 people and these events expand progressively year after year.
Miki OKUBO, born in Sapporo, lives in Paris. She studied aesthetics and contemporary art at Kyoto University. Since 2009, she studies and teaches at University of Paris 8, Saint-Denis, where she received her master’s degree in aesthetics, specializing in conceptual art and new media art. She participated as a student-researcher in artistic programs of École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, 2010-2013. Her main interest consists in analyzing and discussing “self-representation”, not only taking place in art world but also practiced by ordinary people on the Internet. She is the essayist of Yudoku Joshi Tsushin (Toxic Girls Review) edited by Hiroshi Yoshioka, professor of aesthetics. and also published many articles on contemporary art and fashion, artist interviews and exhibition reviews on her own website of art critique, “salon de mimi”. She is a member of Art Association ILYAURA, organizing art projects as well as creating performances.