The streets of Harajuku have witnessed it all; the shifts, blends and twists that have gone into making Japan’s street fashion what it is today. As part of one of the world’s most exciting fashion capitals, Tokyo, Harajuku’s streets have given birth to diverse fashion trends, which stem from an interplay of western elements and unique individual tastes. With a splendid array of authentic styles, characterised by heavy accessorisation and experimentation, Harajuku has garnered attention from designers worldwide. The youth of Harajuku, in particular, has begun creating a free space of expression for themselves through the clothes they don. Vibrant and quirky, the Harajuku youth culture, both as a trend in fashion and a lifestyle reflects the constant struggle to break free from mainstream culture, which is marked by order and discipline and leaves little space for people to play with their style and fashion choices.
The world’s obsession with kawaii (meaning cute) is not new and with growing fame, kawaii has expanded beyond Hello Kitty products and plushies (which as a matter of fact draw their inspiration from fierce beasts!) to enter the world of fashion. As phrases like “that’s so kawaii!” emerged, adolescents embraced styles that gave them an innocent, childlike air. Against the backdrop of Japan’s mental health crisis and a cultural unwillingness to speak about it, some even went a step ahead to give their own twist to the idea of kawaii. Thus emerged a new look in the streets of Harajuku, called yami kawaii. Literally translating to ‘sick cute’, yami kawaii wasn’t the normal, conventional kawaii. Something dark and profound pervaded it. It dealt with sickness, a sickness that even though plagued the whole of Japan was one that nobody was and is still ready to talk about. It dealt with depression and suicide.
By fusion of the cute and the dark, yami kawaii produced fashion of a freakish nature, involving soft pastels and anime juxtaposed with guns, syringes, bandages. Underneath the facade of kawaii, the tshirts illustrated chilling messages such as ‘Kill You’, ‘I want to die’ and ‘F*ck You’. What makes such fashion intense is not the frightening imagery that it employs but the implication that underlies that imagery; these clothes were a desperate last resort for people to express themselves, an attempt at catharsis of a deep, deep pain.
Menhera Chan, a manga character, came to be seen as an important figure in the yami kawaii movement. This is primarily because Menhera chan is different from other manga characters. She has a dark cynical vibe to her, her arms are bandaged, she carries a blade with her and harms herself, she is anxious and depressed. Her despair and agony are what make her a strangely relatable figure to countless others, who experience a similar pain but have to shroud it with their silence. They see her as the personification of the feelings and desires buried in the depths of their hearts, a therapeutic mechanism to pour out the pain of hiding the miserable state they’re in.
Uncannily enough, yami kawaii has opened doors for a healthy dialogue in a society where profession and education overwhelmingly dictate every aspect of an individual’s life, where seeking help in order to tackle mental illness is still labelled a weakness. In the difficulty of having to reshape one’s life during the hard times, expression seems the only recourse, something that yami kawaii offers as a style. This, however, is not to be misunderstood as the glorification of suicide or depression. Personally, I find this style to be emboldening, simply because it marks a dissent from the ongoing discourse that reeks of bigotry and seeks to forbid individuals from expressing what they truly feel.
With negativity looming over the topic of mental health (which again, is partly responsible for the lack of dialogue) one remains fettered to live a life of lies. Constantly in the shackles of keeping up appearances, one has to project oneself as something they’re not. Those unable to take it anymore, seek their emancipation in suicide. Against the stifling expectations of society, where abiding by rules and etiquette are a must, yami kawaii offers a way out to people, in the form of catharsis. Yami kawaii gives a release to the inner turbulence they experience while helping one connect with others who feel the same way. It possesses a healing power of sorts, alleviating all those enduring the pain of masking their true feelings and enabling their style to speak for them. This makes yami kawaii empowering, fostering a new hope in the world for greater acceptance.
Using fashion as an instrument of their liberation, the youngsters of Harajuku have certainly begun to lay down the foundations of change, to break silence against this raging catastrophe. By providing an outlet to vent complex emotions through style, an embodiment of the self, they seek to urge others who are suffering like them to join this movement towards self-love. Yami kawaii tells one and all that they have nothing to hide and nothing to fear. Bold and beautiful, these youths, go about announcing their identity in the streets of Harajuku.
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