The district of Harajuku in Tokyo during the ‘90s and early 2000s was known globally for its outlandish fashion and countless subcultures. Harajuku fashion has been on my radar for a while but I had never really looked below surface level. Recently I bought Gwen Stafani’s 2004 CD “Love. Angel. Music. Baby” from Savers, and was a little surprised by the song “Harajuku Girls;” a five-minute declaration of love for Japanese fashion. She mentions A Bathing Ape, Hysteric Glamour, Comme Des Garcon, Yohji Yamamoto, and other prominent Japanese brands and designers that were hard to find in the states back in ‘04. At first, I thought this was pretty fly, but soon discovered that she would perform and make all public appearances with four “Harajuku girls” she had named Love, Angel, Music, and Baby… and it became clear that this is an example of fetishization rather than appreciation. The real girls of Harajuku were leading a fashion movement, a counterculture that married clothing with lifestyle, openly rebelling against societal expectations, and breaking every rule in the book. While it lasted, the streets of Harajuku could be considered the fashion epicenter of the world.
Historically speaking, Japan’s exposure to and acceptance of Western culture is a fairly recent development. Until the latter half of the 19th century, Japan was a nation politically, economically, and culturally isolated from most of the world. A change came when Emperor Meiji (1868-1912) deviated from this 200-year isolation and looked to the West to implement changes and modernize the nation. People embraced this change with enthusiasm, but traditional clothing (such as the kimono) was standard attire until the 1940s, while western influence on fashion didn’t go much further than some accessories to spice up said kimono. That all changed after World War II. People more readily adopted western clothing because it was fashionable, different, and lacked the formality of traditional dress. Denim gained popularity with the youth, businessmen wore suits, and trends inspired by Western media gained mass popularity. People looked towards the United States for direct inspiration within fashion, siting trends such as Dior’s New Look.
Countercultural styles began to emerge in the 1980s. One of the first big trends emerged as young people gained inspiration from the preppy looks of American Ivy League students (This may not seem crazy to us westerners, but this is not the west, so it was mad crazy for a whole age group to dress exclusively in khakis and tie sweaters around their shoulders). Japan saw an economic boom in the ‘80s, and the rest of the world started to pay more attention, leading to more cultural exchange between east and west. Streetwear styles developed surrounding genres of music, such as punk and hip hop. Kawaii also developed around this time, later birthing a myriad of subcultures. High School girls and young women were the pioneers of this movement, which makes sense. They really got the short end of the stick regarding freedom of expression, constantly faced with sexist and restrictive standards of dress in Japanese culture. At its core, Harajuku fashion is the rejection of these expectations and arose from a need for individual expression.
The Harajuku shopping district in Tokyo became the ideal place for these outsiders to come together, interact, and shop. In the 1990s, Harajuku was a Hokoten, or pedestrian paradise, because certain days were open only to foot traffic and public transportation made it easily accessible. Eventually, the youth flocked to Harajuku, resulting in a lot of people in one place frustrated by Japanese standards of dress, rejecting gender and fashion norms, and craving individual expression. Within this broader explanation of what drove the movement, countless subcultures developed in this experimental environment, each with its own aesthetic and ideology. Magazines like CUTiE, Zipper, and (most famously) FRUiTS documented street style, bringing widespread attention to the culture in both Japan and the West, as it was an accessible source of inspiration. Harajuku was a breeding ground of creativity, asking not “what should I wear… ” but instead “how should I wear it?!?” with creative energy fueled by competition and a constant search for something new, something different, and something shocking. The more outlandish one dressed, the better!
Decora, short for decoration, is arguably one of the most recognizable subcultures of Harajuku. It falls under the umbrella of Kawaii, the culture around anything and everything cute. The clothing and silhouette in decora fashion are not what defines it, instead it focuses on crazy color combinations and layering of as many accessories as possible. Excess is key. Why wear one barrette if you can wear fifteen? Decora styles are playful, colorful, cartoonish, and exaggerated. Some staples of this style include masks, tutus, bandaids worn across the nose bridge, and leg warmers. This subculture was heavily featured in FRUiTS Magazine, so often so, that it was mistakenly called “fruits style.”
Gyaru, a transliteration of the word “gal,” originated in the mid-’90s and reached its peak in the early 2000s. Said to be inspired by Pamela Anderson and American teenage party culture, the look consisted of very tanned skin, bleached hair, and heavy makeup. It was often completed with concealer as lipstick and maybe a gem or two or seven glued to the face. Short skirts and knee-high fluffy boots or socks were staples of this look. It’s trashy on purpose, to the extreme (think Snooki times fifty), and often had the crazy party girl attitude to match. Gyaru made a statement with its open defiance of traditional Asian beauty standards and gender norms, which at the time consisted of pale skin, dark hair, and a reserved, ladylike demeanor. Many Gyaru girls were heavily sexualized, as well as shamed for straying from the moral character of Japan, thus sprouting a new, more extreme subculture within Gyaru called Ganguro (think Snooki times fifty on acid). Ganguro meant even darker tans, colorful hair, white makeup, and excessive accessories. It was more of a fad than a mainstay in streetwear, but it is a good example of the consumption and complete transformation of western culture in Harajuku.
The Punk Rock subgenre of Harajuku may be one of the most deeply rooted. Inspired by the American and British punk scenes, punk has a place on the streets of Tokyo since the ‘80s. This subculture in itself was a rebellion against Japan’s more traditional views, especially as the anti-capitalist, anti-government scene drew in the lower class and LGBTQ youth. Their leftist ideology kept them from becoming as mainstream as other subcultures, as Japan did not see it as a resource to export; the ideology is not representative of Japan, and therefore not commodifiable. It is marked by its DIY approach, dark colors, dyed hair teased up into exaggerated styles, and clashing patterns (Plaid and stripes were a mainstay). Because of the lack of promotion, this subculture was not as imitated and has retained more of its original message, living on even after the death of Harajuku.
In 1999, Harajuku’s pedestrian zone closed. Since then, this culture slowly declined and eventually died. Smaller shops in this district have been taken over by huge companies like Uniqlo and Adidas, leaving a few small businesses that made the style possible. Harajuku fashion developed as it did thanks to the accessible, local shops that sprung up to meet the demand for something different, in which designers could get as creative as they pleased. The streets of Harajuku gave birth to some of the most influential, inventive labels in streetwear at the time: BAPE, Undercover, Hysteric Glamor, and Goodenough to name a few. Imagine hypebeasts without BAPE or archival fashion heads without Undercover. Seems unthinkable. We have Harajuku to thank for creating this culture around clothing as well as the many brands that continue to influence streetwear today. One thing’s for sure: Uniqlo, no matter how fairly priced or good quality, really lacks in the creativity department and is startlingly plain in comparison. The takeover by these fast fashion giants leaves no space for smaller brands to grow and experiment. FRUiTS creator and photographer Shoichi Aoki explained that he believes globalization and mainstream attention is what really killed it. Harajuku fashion coincided with the widespread use of the internet, and with the internet comes easy access to whatever our little hearts desire, leading to rising interest in Japanese culture throughout the world. Harajuku street style became mainstream. Aoki explains the impact of this by relating Harajuku fashion to a flow of energy, saying “If you picture it as the source of a river, then recently there have been factories erected on its banks, and businesses have appeared, but they stressed the limits of this little fountainhead.” It has been commercialized by corporations, celebrities, and imitated by many who thought it was SO Kawaii!!! (smh), but unaware of the actual meaning behind it all.
I think a lot of us can relate to this. When something you’re interested in becomes popularized or trendy, it’s easy for your interest to dwindle, and it’s time to start looking for the next thing. You can see it all over social media today with the ongoing beef between alternative people and those who imitate it (ahem I’m looking at you E girls/boys… even you femboys we see right through you.) Dressing goth and actually being goth are two completely different things, and the irony of it all is that many who imitate alt style probably used to bully emo kids in highschool. Many imitators try to argue that it’s just clothing, but the fact of the matter is you can’t dress punk if you love the government. This is what happened in Harajuku but on a much greater scale. The little fountainhead of counterculture begins to run dry when it is no longer seen as such, and the street style becomes associated with Japan in general rather than the fight against restrictive societal standards in Japan.
Western culture has been a huge source of inspiration in Japanese fashion, the bold street styles of this era emerged as a result of the pure innovation and creativity of Japan’s youth actively using fashion as a tool of rebellion and self-expression. Aoki recognized this importance from the beginning, describing the reason he started FRUiTS magazine was in part that “[Harajuku] girls had made a style that was completely theirs… I had never seen yellow hair before. These completely new girls appeared and seemed to have the potential to make a new style that had never previously existed in Japan,” which is exactly what they did. Let’s circle back around to our old friend Gwen Stafani and her “Harajuku Girls.” The way she chose to profess her love for the culture was fucked up, to say the least. She has refused to apologize for her use of Love, Angel, Music, and Baby even though she clearly used them as props in a pretty gross display of cultural appropriation. When Harajuku styles circulated back to the West it was not uncommon to be portrayed in a fetishizing, borderline discriminatory way, seen as a novelty form of entertainment. Not to mention, by the time this song came out Harajuku street style was already declining in Japan, but gaining popularity in the West. Asian representation in the US was problematic then and still is now, but it is fascinating to observe the cycle of said cultural exchange from east to west: Western fashion’s absorption into Japanese style created a fashion revolution, which has now circulated back to the West and it is America’s turn look to Japan for fashion inspiration. Today, Japan is arguably one of the most revered nations when it comes to overall fashion influence, and the girls of Harajuku deserve more credit.