Where Have Japan’s Fashion Subcultures Gone?

Where Have Japan’s Fashion Subcultures Gone?

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Harajuku cosplayers
Why have wild fashion subcultures largely disappeared from Tokyo's streets? Blame Uniqlo and the Internet.

“So many people, but nobody wearing anything cool…”

“All these places are starting to look the same…!”

These are some thoughts that pass through the minds of tourists and local fashionistas alike as they stroll through what once was revered as a haven of unique fashion styles and trendy subcultures.

Shibuya, Harajuku…even in places once regarded as the birthplace of fashion subcultures and the go-to spot to see these latest trends in action through the droves of youth decked out in DIY clothes, crazy accessories, and colorful hair, one would now be hard-pressed to find very many people wearing anything very eye-grabbing at all.

Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, these were the go-to spots for rebellious youngsters looking to flaunt their individuality and latest styles, as well as for those who wanted to see them. Roads were closed to cars on weekends to make way for the “Hokosha Tengoku” (歩行者天国), or “Pedestrian’s Paradise,” where these people freely walked the streets sporting their latest style, or admiring the styles of others.

But now, head to any one of these places and you are more likely to be met with masses dressed in very toned-down, casual outfits no longer reminiscent of the rebellion of youth. This isn’t to say that people are no longer fashionable. In fact, people still seem to value appearance even more than before, albeit in a much more subtle way. It used to be “in” to stand out. Now, more people are turning to mainstream fashion. While they’re still “stylish,” they seem to have lost their creative uniqueness. [1]

Where have all the cool kids gone?

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Fast Fashion and “Normalcore”

As expected with trends, the popularity of certain fashion styles tend to peak and die out. They usually give way to the latest big thing or whatever the newest celebrity is doing. However, while it most certainly is true that different (newer) styles did indeed infiltrate the Japanese fashion scene contributing to the decline of those more “unique” tastes, most of the blame is put on not one new trend in particular, but the boom of the fast fashion industry in general.

This boom came when the economy was in prime condition. The internet and social media were also seeing a massive surge, especially amongst the youth. This was true, not just in Japan, but around the world. (More on the Internet’s contribution to this issue below). [2]

Many people, especially the younger generation, began to focus less on high-quality, fashionable, and “cool” styles, and more on inexpensive, simple, and functional clothing. Providing a quick and easy solution to this new concern for a more functional and cost-effective wardrobe was Uniqlo, Japan’s quickly expanding (now international) clothing chain, featuring exactly that: simple, functional, cost-effective clothing.

Around the same time that Uniqlo began reaching massive popularity amongst young and old alike, Japan also began seeing the introduction of similar Western shops like Forever 21 and H&M dotting their urban streets, quickly drawing in large and ever-expanding crowds looking for not necessarily the next best thing anymore, but the next affordable, mainstream thing.

Because of this, along with the recent and current political and economic environment, people are generally wearing less vintage, less “intense” styles, and are less inclined to try anything “new” or “crazy,” thereby turning towards mainstream “normal” fashion, sometimes referred to as ノームコア, or “normalcore.” [3] Youth are also now rebelling in different, slightly more discreet ways (such as online activism) than, say, in the ’80 and ‘90s when it was obvious who was a rebel in the way they dressed (for example, the punk movement, and the Gyaru/Ganguro fashion of Japan).

As for the “veterans” of certain fashion trends, such as more hardcore styles like Ganguro, Decora, or Visual Kei, many of them have simply grown up, and are busy now with personal life issues such as work, family, and social obligations. This bends people toward more conservative and “safe,” neutral styles, encouraging them to hang up their frilly dresses and colorful tops for good.

With all these fast fashion stores appearing in all major shopping areas where people can easily shop on their way home from work, there is also a notable decline in “uniqueness” between different locations. For example, Harajuku was once known for crazy, rebellious styles, Shibuya for its flashy, girly styles, and Ginza and Omotesando for their upper-class, luxurious styles. With shops like Uniqlo popping up on every corner and Western fast fashion stores in every one of these locations, their associated fashions have in a sense merged together. [4]

However, it shouldn’t be thought of as much a shift in fashion-ability as it is a shift in people’s priorities. People are now more concerned about cost and convenience, and so are opting for styles that still look trendy and fashionable, yet don’t require as much thought, effort, or money. Of course, technology is another one of those new priorities, especially for the younger generation, and is also believed to be a major contributor to the so-called “disappearance” of fashion and subculture.

Style: There’s An App For That

Takeshita Street in Harajuku
Business on Harajuku’s Takeshita Street continues to boom, though the people crawling the thoroughfare tend to be less colorful than in previous years. (Picture: momo / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

The above-mentioned subcultures have seemed to all but have disappeared from the streets of once-popular areas of Japan like Harajuku and Shibuya. But it’s an exaggeration to state that they have become completely extinct. In fact, a quick search on Google or social media sites like Instagram prove that theory to be all but false. While you may not get much of a result or reaction when looking for specific subcultures by name, such as “Visual Kei” or “Gothic Lolita,” an Instagram search for “Harajuku,” which has come to be equated with the umbrella term including almost all of these styles, generates at least 3.3 million posts under the hashtag of the same term.

That’s a pretty big number for a fashion style that’s supposedly died out. Could it be that it never really died, but just relocated?

With the rise of social media and the advent of the selfie, it’s safe to say that fashion has claimed quite an enormous space in the land of the internet. With all these new outlets for expression, the instant gratification of having the world at your fingertips to supply a “like” or “thumbs-up” to your latest outfit, and the possibility of e-fame being only a few double-taps away, it seems fashion is becoming more important in the cyber world than in the real-life physical world. Fashion has become less about attitude, and more about who could pull it off better, and garner more social media cred.

This is also the primary reason why we are less apt to see interesting fashions out and about on the streets. The people who do still choose to dress in unique styles haven’t necessarily disappeared, they just don’t hang around outside anymore!

Social Media Over All

No longer do kids have to decide a landmark meeting point to gather after school and on weekends, as they once did with the Jingubashi Bridge in Harajuku. They can simply text their friends when they’re on their way, and meet in a Starbucks, or directly at whatever venue their day’s adventures are set to take place. People don’t have to walk around anymore flaunting their style hoping to gather a few compliments and possibly snapshots to be featured in fashion magazines – all they have to do is upload a selfie. They don’t even have to go out in full dress to make new like-minded friends – even those can be easily found online!

In a way, one can say that social media has desensitized the Japanese (and many others around the world) to fashion as an experience. The Internet has taken over the role of the streets to serve as the new fashion runway, the only stage and platform people need to express themselves and show their styles. Being stylish and popular has never been easier!

Of course, that is, only if you have “what it takes.” There is still a darker side to the fashion world of the internet, which could yet affect the other half of the equation, namely, those who have ceased to pursue a more stand-out look and have, in a sense, “died,” in terms of their fashion.

Cyber-Bullying: A Serious Problem

With an increase in Internet users also comes an increase in cyber-bullying. While those who have the confidence, and “the look” are only all too eager to exhibit themselves to the world, those with less confidence (and unfortunately, don’t meet the ridiculous mainstream beauty “standards”) are more likely to be bullied (sometimes for reasons as trivial as “those socks don’t go with that dress,” or as cruel as “s/he isn’t thin/tall/pretty enough”).

This disturbing, judgmental behavior is also obviously very discouraging, especially to youth and young girls, and can result in issues much bigger than just deciding to not dress a certain way, including depression and other mental health issues. Because of this, it is also believed that some people have been simply scared away from more edgy fashions, not wanting to be the next target of an online joke or to show up on some YouTube troll’s video poking fun of people whose style they just don’t like.

Another less cruel but equally discouraging facet of the internet fashion scene pushing young people away from trying new styles is that it is just too saturated, and while the internet does indeed make it much easier than before to become famous, or at least noticed, within a particular circle, it is just as easy to be drowned out by the masses of others who have either done it earlier or done it “better.” Many feel that it just isn’t worth it trying anything new that will go unnoticed, therefore turn to the simple approach of following mainstream fashion and “fitting in.” [5]

Whither The Tan Gyaru?

With fashion trends moving online, styles changing, the economy fluctuating, and interests shifting, there’s concern that though these subcultures haven’t fully died out yet, it may only be a matter of time until they do.

In recent years, several red flags have been raised causing panic within the related circles and followings, such as popular shops closing down or being replaced, brands going out of business, and magazines going out of print. Of these, possibly the biggest letdown was the termination of popular subculture and street fashion magazine, Fruits.

The magazine had a decent lifespan of 20 years. Its primary source of content was photo snaps taken of people’s unique outfits in popular spots like Harajuku. As the creator of the magazine laments, with fewer people walking around flaunting their interesting fashions, there just wasn’t enough content to keep the magazine going.

With everyone still involved in the scene now able to upload their OOTDs (“outfit of the day”) online on their own, there was no longer any need to print or buy a magazine dedicated to them. All you have to do now is follow them online.

Another popular fashion magazine, Kera, also recently ended print production, but chose to continue as an online publication, hoping to at the very least cling to the coattails of the latest up-and-coming subculture fashion trends now more easily perusable through Instagram images rather than bulky magazines.

The Fate (and Future?) of Japanese Fashion

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
Daring fashion continues to live on in kawaii culture and in the style of artists such as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. (Picture: Shutterstock)

Despite the apparent fall of “cool” and “unique” fashion and the dominance of mainstream casual, and fashion hotspots like Harajuku’s Takeshita Street evolving (or devolving?) into a promenade of souvenirs and tourist traps, Japan has still made several efforts at preserving its last standing remnants of its formerly reigning youth trends.

While you may no longer easily witness a scene from out of a Fruits magazine when walking through Harajuku, there are still plenty of fun and trendy places around that you can enjoy, and still hold on to a bit of that “old-school” vibe. It could also be fun to witness in person how the styles have changed, and get a first-hand look at what is currently popular.

The following site showcases some recommended spots in Harajuku should you find yourself visiting (as of May 2018):

Also, there are still many active social groups that meet up in full garb in various parts of Japan, and the opening of places such as the Kawaii Monster Café, a Harajuku-style-themed café opened in 2015 and designed by Sebastian Masuda, founder of popular Kawaii brand 6% Doki Doki and the mastermind behind many of the styles worn and presented by singer and leading “face of kawaii,” Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, show signs of still-existing interest. Though sometimes facing criticism as being not much more than fancy tourist attractions these days, such groups and establishments do present some hope for the continuation of these beloved trends, even if only as museums showcasing the golden days of fashion now long gone.

Fashion is always evolving, so even though one trend may no longer be seen, it’s always exciting to look forward to what springs forth in its place. And for those who can’t fight the nostalgia and sense of loss from the disappearance of these subcultures and styles out and about on the streets, there is some reassurance: Once something ends up on the internet, it can never really “die.” On that note, one could believe that the once-ruling monsters of Japanese subculture fashion trends do indeed live on, even if in the form of a stylishly-dressed zombie. [6]

Gyaru: The Brazen Fashion Rebellion of 90s Japan

FamilyMart Socks Take Over Japanese Social Media

Sources

[1] 竹下通りができる前、若者が知らない「原宿」の歴史【東京地名散歩】. https://tripeditor.com/16122

[2] 「ファストファッションブーム」って、いつから?https://ameblo.jp/kotoamano/entry-12228254264.html

[3] ノームコアとは?シンプルでもおしゃれな装いのヒント. https://mens.tasclap.jp/a1726

[4] ファストファッションの過去と未来. https://bit.ly/3xVJAOF

[5] 子供をネットいじめの被害者、加害者にさせない実践的解決法. https://japan.norton.com/net-bullying-7561

[6] TOKYO STREET FASHION AND CULTURE: 1980-2017. https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/ogKCPmGdPtB7Iw

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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