What Japanese Street Fashion Is All About

Posted on January 28 2014

When it comes to urban street fashion, no place in the world can compare to Japan. What started as an emulation of Western fashion has developed into it’s own special being: Japanese street fashion.

Kjeld Duits is a journalist hailing from Holland who has spent the past 30 years in Japan. He is the founder of JAPANESE STREETS – the first blog to cover Japanese street fashion in English, and one of the very first fashion blogs on the net.

We got to pick Kjeld’s brains about what Japanese street fashion is all about.

What is so special about Japanese street fashion?Japanese Visual Kei band Ayabie

There is not just one type of Japanese fashion. The range of fashion is incredibly wide in both style and price. Fashion is less driven by designers in Japan, and more by the people that wear it. Japanese designers tell me that they get their inspiration from what they see on the street. People are influenced by manga, anime and the Japanese music scene. 

Visual Kei fashion (Visual Kei is a movement amongst Japanese musicians, who started wearing heavy make-up, flamboyant costumes and elaborate hair-styles) became big because Visual Kei bands wore that kind of fashion. People started to color their hair in all colors of the rainbow because of anime characters. It is this magnificent interplay between all aspects of modern Japanese pop culture that makes the Japanese fashion scene so energetic and creative.

Although in some Japanese fashion you see shades from the punk movement in London during the 1970s, the situation in Japan can hardly be more different. Punk was a political movement based on young people's dissatisfaction with conditions in the UK. There was a lot of anger among the kids that took up Punk. Japanese street fashion is not about anger. It is about being cool, a form of communication, a way of describing who you are, what kind of music you like, what you are interested in, etc. 

With Punk, you choose to join or not to join. Japanese street fashion has a whole range of choices. There are lots of different developments, not just a single trend. Sometimes, groups form around these different trends.

You had for example the Ganguro girls (in the late 1990s, early 2000s), the Center Guy (around 2003-2005), Decora, Gothic Lolita, Rock, etc.People following these different trends met in their own geographic areas. Gothic Lolita in the Harajuku district of Tokyo, Ganguro in Shibuya, and so on. People following different trends didn't meet, and probably didn't even understand each other. At the height of the Ganguro boom, you couldn't even find Ganguro in Harajuku, they stuck to Shibuya. 

Decora girls: Ran - Horie - Kurebayashi

These people use their clothes to meet like-minded people. There is little to no rebellion here. Many of the girls even go shopping together with their mothers. The kids speak just as politely as their parents and bow as deeply. There are people whom I shoot regularly who make their clothes together with their mums. That cannot be called rebellion.

Over the years clothing is used in increasingly less restrictive ways. A young woman may now wear Lolita on Monday, Punk Rock fashion the next day, and very conservative clothes the day after. She uses her clothes to express her feelings or mood.

How is Japanese culture reflected in Japanese street fashion?Japanese Kawaii Girl

Street fashion in Japan is deeply influenced by Japanese pop culture. Anime, manga, band members of J-Pop and J-Rock. Typical Japanese concepts like kawaii (“cuteness” in Japanese culture) are important influences. You also see influences from traditional fashion like kimono and yukata (a kind of cotton summer kimono). This expresses itself in layering, combinations of colors and textures and incorporates traditional Japanese clothing items. Other influences come from daily Japanese life, such as school or work uniforms. Sometimes, all of these are combined. Japanese designer Takuya Angel combines Japanese fashion of several hundreds of years ago, with concepts borrowed from anime and manga.

Judging from the street fashion, people seem very individual and expressive, while Japan traditionally is known for being group-oriented. Why do you think this is?

It has to do a lot with misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the Japanese group dynamic. Japanese people are often described, as “the Japanese,” as if they are one big group with the same interests and values. This is nonsense. 

There are countless subgroups, such as the departments at companies or  schools, among people with similar interests..Westeners usually derive their identity from their profession, many Japanese derive their identity from this subgroup. The identification of a person within this small group is extremely strong and loyal

Ryu Guouda - Aran Yoshioka - Atsushi Nagao

Its the same dynamic among young people who are into a certain type of fashion. Often there is a kind of a fashion or trend "leader.” This person derives his or her “leadership” from organizing parties or events, running a fashion boutique or plainly because of charisma and style. This person attracts people with similar style interests who gravitate towards them. As a result, these people have a support group of like-minded people.

At the same time, Japanese are relatively tolerant to people who are not members of their own group. There is a strong feeling of respect and "live and let live.” These two forces make it possible for extremely creative ideas to be born and flourish without them being squashed by the so-called tyranny of the majority.

The formation of groups around a specific individual instead of a philosophical idea is a defining aspect of Japanese society. You even see this in politics, political parties are organized more around a specific individual than around a shared political persuasion. If a particular leader leaves a party, a large group of people will follow him (“him” as there are still few female political leaders in Japan).

Harajuku Fashion Walk 2014


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