Harajuku Station, and the area surrounding it, was once home to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The area has morphed over the years to host competitions of an entirely different kind; it is now home to the teen Fashionistas of the city. Although there are no medals given out to these competitors, often the acknowledgement and attention is validation enough. The streets surrounding the station are full of all kinds of trendy stores and boutiques, yet it is the fashion displayed on the street leading from the station to the entrance of the Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park that is far more interesting, at least to me and countless other Western tourists.
On Sundays, anywhere from dozens to more than a hundred young girls can be found hanging out on the street with friends, eating, taking pictures, and trading stickers. All of this sounds routine and normal enough, certainly nothing out of the ordinary for teenage girls of many cultures; the only difference is that these girls are all in costume.
In the spring of 2002, I hopped on a plane bound for Tokyo to go visit a close friend who, like thousands of other twenty-something North Americans, had made the post-university migration to Asia to teach English in hopes of paying off astronomical student loans. I was, however, a bird of a different feather. It was unlikely that I would undertake the migration myself, but that didn’t stop me from being curious about the exotic new habitat.
My friend was teaching in a suburb of Yokohama, just south of Tokyo. I spent the first week exploring Yokosuka, going to class with her, and indulging my love of shopping and Japanese food. There was, of course, a little bit of culture shock, but it mostly took hold at the grocery store while I stared into murky buckets wondering what could possibly be in them that someone would buy and invariably eat. All in all, I was adapting well.
I had read up quite a bit before my trip, and I knew that Japanese society was fairly regimented. There were certain attitudes and etiquettes, which were not only expected but societally enforced. Foreigners, or gaijin (outside person), can usually get away with more simply because they are outsiders, but that didn’t mean I was going to flagrantly disregard local customs in the name of being a tacky tourist. I did my best to try and follow these societal expectations. The hardest of all being that it is considered rude to eat while walking. With so many tempting food stalls with little-to-no seating, what’s a girl to do?
The overall message from all the guidebooks that I’d read was that Japanese society was still very much hierarchical, and within the hierarchies there were many separate groups. Depending on the group to which one belongs, there is a certain acceptable way of doing things and all members are expected to conform. This goes as far as to include dress codes and/or uniforms. It is through one’s clothing that greater society can tell which group the person is a part of. From young children in their school uniforms to salary men in suits to women wearing traditional kimonos, each profession or social grouping has a typical style of dress, or unofficial uniform – unofficial in that it is not always officially required, yet almost all choose to wear it.
The one thing that many of the guide books glossed over was the fact that within the hierarchies and mass conformity there lay an anomaly; Japanese teenagers and early twenty-somethings seem to live by an entirely different set of rules. Just like me, they were birds of a different feather. With their bright trend-savvy brand-name styles, they stood out among the rest of Japanese society, like a flock of toucans surrounded by pigeons. I became insatiably curious about them.
Much like the thousands of English teachers who have taken up residence in Japan, so too have many Western trends and styles. Japanese youth are fascinated with Western culture, especially American culture, namely the fashion. Once it lands in their country, they adopt it wholeheartedly, yet always giving it a Japanese twist. A good example of this being a teenage girl I saw outside the Gap in Harajuku. It was obvious she liked Mickey Mouse, for she was wearing his likeness from head-to-toe. From her hat to her shirt to her skirt to her three pairs of socks layered on top of each other, even her shoes, all of it had the mouse’s smiling face on it. Strangely enough, this girl is not alone.
It turns out that the late teens and early twenties are seen as a time to experiment and to be free, before one must buckle down and face adult responsibilities. It is a time between the highly regimented school years, and the work and/or family obligations to come. Many Japanese youth explore and express this freedom through fashion. Since members of society are judged by what they wear, they can adopt different personas through their dress. They try on these personas, as they do clothing. It is a fairly harmless way to experiment. Because this freedom is societally sanctioned, the youth are not harshly judged for their outlandish fashions.
Of course, the fashion savvy masses that clog the sidewalks outside the shops in Harajuku are just the tip of the iceberg. The Mickey Mouse girl astounded me when I first saw her, which in retrospect is rather amusing since I now know what lay in wait for me up the hill in the Hoko-ten (pedestrian paradise).
I made my way up the hill slowly, wandering in and out of shops, mostly just looking since the Yen unfortunately put most of what I coveted well out of financial reach. As I made it to the pedestrian overpass, I could hear strains of music in the distance. It was as I made my way over the road that I caught my first glimpse of all the girls in their costumes. They all stood around casually talking with friends occasionally posing for pictures. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. As I made my way back down to ground level, I was overwhelmed, unable to figure out which way to look first.
They were everywhere. There was a girl dressed in a black and red wedding gown. Her friend was wearing all black lace and had bright blue feathered wings sprouting from her head. Others wore nursing whites or lab coats all sprayed in blood, often with bloodied bandages at their wrists. Another girl had huge Jamaican-style dreadlocks and wore a full leather bondage mask. There were two vampires that looked suspiciously like rhinestone-leisure-suit-clad-Vegas-style Elvises. Some girls were dressed like little dolls with ruffled dresses and knee socks, their hair in ringlets. One girl appeared to be wearing a communist-style khaki uniform, her face was painted completely white with the exception of her black lips. I made my way across the bridge, simply gaping and taking it in.
I wanted to take pictures of these girls in their intricate costumes, but I didn’t want to be rude. At first, I took a few on the sly. Gradually, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one awe-struck and interested in these girls, for they were all girls, not a single guy. There were dozens of other tourists, just like me, milling around, even posing with them. That was all the reassurance I needed. From then on, I was camera happy. I knew I’d need the pictures to show friends and family back home because I worried my words would never do these girls justice. At times, it felt very much like being a visitor at a zoo featuring exotic creatures of the likes I had never seen before.
I went back to Yokosuka later that evening excited by my discovery, as though I was an early explorer having discovered a tribe of pygmies in the deep dark recesses of the Amazon. Similar to the explorer, I was full of questions. Why did these girls dress up like they did? Every Sunday? And they don’t mind standing around being admired like creatures? Do they make their costumes?
The list of questions was endless. I thought it was great. In such a regimented society, my discovery of these outlandish costumes baffled and excited me. Despite the leniency towards the young, how did they get away with it, especially the girls covered in the fake blood?
Not surprisingly, I was drawn back the following Sunday. My interest hadn’t dulled. I walked back and forth again, taking even more pictures. It was that afternoon that I came across an Australian girl all dressed up among the Tokyo teens. I approached her with my myriad of questions. It turns out that the fashions sprang from the earlier inception of the Sundays in Harajuku when it was mostly bands that would gather to perform.
The music that grew out of the Sundays is referred to as Visual Kei, stemming from the fact that these bands adopted striking visual looks strongly rooted in goth, glam, or punk. It was as these bands became famous in their own right, and no longer played there on Sundays that their many fans took to dressing like their favourite performers, thereby taking over the Sunday ritual.
I left Harajuku that night, and headed back to the suburbs a little disappointed. On the one hand, my days in Harajuku would likely be ranked as a definite highlight of my trip, but, at the same time, the mystery surrounding the girls was gone. The fact that they simply dressed up as a means of emulating their favourite rock stars was not nearly as rebellious as I had imagined, nor as creative. It was really no different than the thousands of girls in North America who dress up like Britney Spears every Halloween, except a little darker in tone.
All in all, my temporary migration to Japan allowed me to do exactly what I had set out to in the first place, to see my friend’s new habitat. For three weeks, I did that very thing. I immersed myself in a culture so different from my own, and loved every minute of it for that very reason. My only disappointment stems from the fact that rather than finding a new exotic breed of local bird, I discovered a species of chameleon camouflaged as one. I realize now, however, that a chameleon can be just as interesting in its own right, and, in the end, makes for some great memories and pictures.