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NY Times on Harajuku Girls... Again


Since I’m not currently in the United States, it’s hard for me to gauge whether the size of Gwen Stefani/Harajuku Girls‘s stardom warrants all this press attention, but here is a NY Times article on Stefani’s limited-edition (oh, so 1998!) Harajuku Lovers Digital Camera.

Most journalists writing about the Harajuku Girls seem to be skimming the other articles on the Harajuku Girls for the “truth” on Harajuku, so again, this kind of statement shows up:

[T]he identically dressed Japanese girls who surround her like so many props in her videos hardly seem to represent the individuality that is perhaps the most praiseworthy aspect of what Stefani is singing about.

Highly-detailed, extravagant colorful street fashion in the West is a very rare phenomenon, and without explicit instructions for constructing this look, must be a somewhat individualistic self-project. However, we should not project these assumptions onto the kids at Harajuku. A vast majority of the girls in that neighborhood achieve their appearance through perfectly following consumer style guides like Cutie and Zipper. While some subcultural spin-offs from consumer lifestyles have occurred (perhaps early Goth Lolita), the bulk of what Stefani loves could be easily replicated through picking up a couple of choice magazines.

Therefore, the Harajuku look is not a “subculture” as much as as media-guided “consumer lifestyle” (see this). So when the NY Times‘ Rob Walker writes, “It’s about figuring how to remake a subcultural style into something salable on a mass scale,” it makes absolutely no sense because the Harajuku look has always been something “salable on a mass scale.”

We shouldn’t necessarily respect the Harajuku girls less just because they wear a pre-determined uniform, but we shouldn’t also assume that they are creatively manufacturing their own style to separate themselves from the rest of society.

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

13 Responses

  1. rachael Says:

    but in the other extreme, a sea of perfect black suits is pretty depressing. to see a bit of colour and pattern and cheek is heartening.

    while it’s not necessarily a counterculture in itself, i wish they’d carry it on well into their twenties, instead of joining the black suits. they seem to disappear after the age of 21 or so, or at least from what i can tell from those style manuals, i mean magazines.

  2. marxy Says:

    Cutie graduates into Spring, and then if they join the work force or go “o-nee-kei,” will go to work suits and luxury products.

    I’m all for the Harajuku look, whether or not it’s “individual.” I’m sad to see a lot less of it these days.

    (Marxy’s linear theory of Japanese girls fashion – coming soon!)

  3. Momus Says:

    It’s nice to see you rejecting the tendency of the Western media to project Western tropes like “individuality” onto Japan and call them virtues. When will we see your defense of collectivist culture, though? Will you deal with the paradox that Western individualist cultures produce people who all try to look the same, whereas Asian collectivist cultures produce such a flamboyant array of styles?

  4. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    Some pics of a sub-cultural gathering going on not far away as we type, the Sun & Moon festival over
    at 西部講堂:

    I didn’t stick around too long. It’s strange to be asked to pay admission for this sort of thing.

    I think this tribe probably come from places like

  5. marxy Says:

    When will we see your defense of collectivist culture, though?

    Let’s not call these “cultures” as much as “institutionalized strategies for coping with modern capitalist economy.” Collectivism only really works when the groups’ aims are the right ones. They are inherently conservative and slow to change, so if things go wrong, new ideas take a long time to fix the problems.

    Individualist production strategies, on the other hand, always have problems, flux, and instability, but at least are quicker to move around troubles.

    Coming now from a different angle, Japan is interesting only as long as the top controlling the collectives creates interesting content, and I think we can safely say that has stopped happening. Harajuku girls are the best side of a collectivist culture, but Can Cam is the worst. Which side is bigger at the moment?

  6. jean Says:

    Linear theory of girl’s fashion? (I would love to hear this).

    What about the groups who don’t become suits (maybe designers, professional djs, artists, flower-shop owners) — do they stick to the ‘style manuals’? It sounds like there is such a one-way relationship, with the power in the hands of publishers, at least when it comes to generating desire, but isn’t there somewhat more of a dialectic between people and publishers? And what about influence of well-known individuals (maybe style icons, not on a purely commercial basis)?

    If Japanese fashion is international in any way, I’d believe there’s definitely a shift towards more self-conscious consumption, even sustainability / DIY, but you might still be right in saying that it comes from the top down.

  7. Naxuz Says:

    Words fail me.

  8. marxy Says:

    What about the groups who don’t become suits (maybe designers, professional djs, artists, flower-shop owners) — do they stick to the ‘style manuals’?

    I think dependence on fashion manuals declines as consumers get older, but if they take jobs as artists, professional djs (?), or other freeter types, they won’t have money to buy new things anyway.

    And what about influence of well-known individuals (maybe style icons, not on a purely commercial basis)?

    Fujiwara Hiroshi is certainly a style icon, but he used magazines as a way to legimitize his own style choices and own brands. That whole Ura-Harajuku “crew” used to appear in street fashion guides and “suggest” their own products. Kind of like gyousei shidou.

    If Japanese fashion is international in any way, I’d believe there’s definitely a shift towards more self-conscious consumption, even sustainability / DIY

    I don’t understand the logic here. Are you saying that internationalism will break up the top-down structure? I mildly agree, but need more information.

  9. rachael Says:

    i wanna hear about olive magazine if you are going to talk about linear theory of girls fashion. heh heh.

    i think its demise was indicative of the way things are going with the way fashion and culture are tied together.

    the olive girls of old would never be caught dead listening to uber-punk, nor lining up for the diets or surgery usually advertised in the back of most fashion magazines.

    not too many girls magazines would feature okuda tamio either! and of course, it had its earlier association with things shibuya-kei.

    (can you tell i miss this magazine)

  10. jean Says:

    Presuming fashion (mmm … paradigmatically) shifts on a global scale and presuming it does in the same direction as industrial design, environmental design, graphic arts, etc there is a global shift towards what some people call “arts and crafts” (i’m sure you know) which is not a sweet nostalgia-religious revival kind of thing — more of a change in value systems (nurturing localism, irony, less conspicuous consumption, less sexualized, more vintage, more eccentric). I was just guessing this kind of change might take effect aesthetically: not politically or as a lifestyle change, but rather, strongly influenced by media and retailers as an image. So … top down stays the same.

    And there’s a difference between professional djs and hobbyists!

  11. Chris_B Says:

    jean spaketh thusly: And there’s a difference between professional djs and hobbyists!

    Yes. it seems the professionals all avoid playing in Tokyo clubs…

    Seeing the masamania pics of those children brought back memories of living in Jingumae 4丁目. All bad ones. If I never have to deal with kids like that again in my life it will be too soon. They swarm in from the suburbs to litter, vomit, urinate and deficate on the few remaining residential structures in the area.

  12. PABLO Says:

    The Harajuku look is very flashy!!!
    This style has been out and about in the streets of Harajuku, Japan for some decades now. I think that now that Gwen Stefani is bringing their culture and fashion out into the scene people are just now noticing these “fashion know it alls.” People and the media see something out of the ordinary and right away start criticizing it. I LOVE THE HARAJUKU FASHION!!!

  13. m-chan Says:

    Iam an American teenager currently dressing in the goth loli and jrock inspired fashion seen in Harajuku. This article is interesting, as have I never before thought seriously about the street fashion in that it is so outrageous and colorful, yet culturally accepted and a normal part of society. Which is different from America in the sense that I, as an individualist looking to be creative and unique, attract a lot of stares and even shock when I dress in the kind of fashions seen everyday in Harajuku or even Shibuya.It makes me wonder if i would love this fashion in quite the same way if there were thousands of other kids my age dressed in the same styles, as outrageous as they might be. Still, I do greatly admire Japan for its fashion, which they seem to carry to almost the point of obssession.As an artist, I dislike the fact that the city I live in, large as it is, seems on a whole to have a cultural aversion to fashion. hehe. ^^ I hope that the streets of America will someday profess such colorful and beautifully dressed people!

    As for Gwen Stefani,I have noticed that she has become interested in many different cultural groups over the years. But she always moves onto something of the reasons Gwen is admired as a style icon. However, a lot of my “loli” friends and I feel that she is doing a great injustice to Harajuku portraying it as she does. She is copying certain parts of it to fit into her own personal style, and that gives a false impression to the rest of the world….in other words, we think she’s a poser…