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Real Harajuku Girls, For Real

Real Harajuku Girls

WWD: The Real Harajuku Girls

The greatest challenge in any social analysis is linking the macro (the big ideas, narrative, mass patterns, cultural phenomenon) with the micro (individual people, individual cases). A “trend” becomes visible in the movement of multiples, but often no specific person perfectly embodies it. In fact, many birds-eye observations will turn out to be a misunderstanding of the participants’ actual behavior and intentions. Sociologists (either academic or armchair) generally have to try to etch out clean trend lines that “average” a wide distribution of numerous data points. In other words, a particular individual may not singlehandedly tell the story of a trend but his/her point on a graph, when averaged with others, will contribute to a broader understanding.

Social analysis in Japan, however, can often be incredibly easy, as individuals’ behavior and attitudes almost perfectly correlate to central trends. Take the interview subjects of Amanda Kaiser and Kelly Wetherille’s interesting WWD interviews with girls in Harajuku linked above. (And bravo for not just focusing on the Stefani-approved candy-junk fashion girls who have become a minority in recent days.)

The first “girl,” Yoshida Ami, seems to tell a story of diverse style influences and mixed fashion items. If you know, however, that she is a Sweet reader — which she does not state but most certainly is — than you know that all of her self-descriptions adhere without exception to that particular style group. Rinka is the main cover model for Sweet. The transition from “gaudy” to “simpler” fashion is a mark of Yoshida’s movement out of more gyaru-influenced fashion to Sweet‘s adult gyaru/good taste hybrid. And this style group’s favorite brand of the last few years has been Miu Miu, which, of course, she loves. Also note that Sweet is the most popular magazine of the moment.

The next young woman Abiko Yui is a fan of high-fashion magazine Spur, and also, Spur‘s beloved runway model icon Agyness Deyn. Her favorite stores H.P. France and Candy are both domestically-minded high-fashion shops.

Meanwhile less-fashion ambitious Kurosu Risa, who spends little each month on clothing, shops at popular low-price street-casual brand Lowry’s Farm (part of the Point empire.) She, no surprise, does not like designer brands. Comme des Garçons offspring and Takemoto Novala fan Shinohara Aya has moved out of her hardcore Lolita days and on to what brand: the brooding, cute, but affordable Sunao Kuwahara. (Although her outfits in the picture look much more relaxed.)

The point of this exercise is to say something slightly obvious but important: In Japan, you can often judge a book by its cover. Consumers embrace a total, well-defined “taste culture” in which to consume, and once inside that group — usually defined by a specific magazine — they buy goods very faithfully to that culture. We should also remember that there is a certain predestination in which “taste culture” consumers gravitate towards. There are high correlations between the working class, non-Tokyo lifestyle and gyaru culture. And similarly, the girl in WWD whose mother worked at Comme des Garçons did not become a gyaru but an indie girl. (I would wager that no CdG employee’s children have ever become gyaru.)

In some cultures, following the script too closely can often mean being branded as a “soulless” stereotype. (E.g., the oft-berated “fashion punk”) But in Japan, there are few negative social repercussions for this behavior. In most cases, being serious in Japan means living to the script perfectly rather than taking the “spirit” of your chosen culture and spinning an individual take on it.

What is also interesting about this WWD article is the issue of capturing the actual “micro” in surveying/interviewing. People tend to give the interviewer, especially for articles that will be publicly distributed, an ideal representation of self rather than something brutally honest. No one, not even in Japan, ever says, “Oh this? I just bought this because everyone else was buying it.” In the U.S., where consumers actually do follow set social patterns and industry trends more than they would like to admit, the fashion crew will massively play up their most obscure influences in these kinds of interviews and deny any sort of social pressures/trends in making fashion decisions. They try to out-do each other in order to establish proof of individual will. These WWD Harajuku girls, in contrast, are not doing much work to sound like they are not just cut from a mold. Maybe they are downplaying individuality out of modesty, but for collecting information about the market, it’s usefully honest.

This all means that Japanese consumers are often much more predictable than in cultures where society requires a certain amount of chaotic extrapolation of cultural themes or has less strictly-defined culture groups. Once a macro principle is established in Japan, the individual data points fall very close to the trend line.

W. David MARX
September 9, 2010

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

Team Néojaponisme are a-okay. Thanks for asking.

7 Responses

  1. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    All this talk about the different styles—high-fashion, low-price street-casual, gyaru and so forth—makes me think of the labels in Shibuya-themed RPG Subarashiki Kono Sekai (“The World Ends With You” in the US release). The way it unapologetically embraces consumerism is odd and fascinating to me. Contrary to what I would expect, the game doesn’t advertise real brands; instead, the fashion items are divided in twelve fictitious “brands” (classified via Earthly Branches) that closely follow major contemporary trends. Would we ever enshrine the very act of buying clothes in a videogame like this, one that’s both non-ironic and not a viral marketing scheme?

    It’s as if these fashionable people see trends as something satisfying in itself.

  2. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    In most cases, being serious in Japan means living to the script perfectly rather than taking the “spirit” of your chosen culture and spinning an individual take on it.

    A lot of traditional Japanese hobbies (arts, music, whatever) have a theory of pedagogy where you do exactly what the teacher says, without trying to inject anything of your own, until you have it down perfect. At that point, the idea is, your personality will come out naturally within the traditional bounds, so you won’t be a soulless clone, but without that foundation of repetition you wouldn’t be within the bounds and therefore wouldn’t be carrying on the tradition.

    Would you say that there is some equivalent in fashion genres, in the sense that there is room for originality but it can only be properly expressed once you have completely internalized the genre rules? So, the goal is not to just “be original” so much as to prepare an original take on the strictly defined conceptual materials you have?

  3. W. David MARX Says:

    Yeah, that pedagogy applies here and almost everywhere.

    If you read a magazine for older Japanese men, like Leon or Free & Easy, there is definitely a higher standard of “individuality” in the editorial expectations of readers. Not to say that older Japanese fashionistas aren’t also predictable — they all love vintage Red Wing boots — but it’s much more flexible.

    One thing that has happened though is that for any “genre” or fashion group, the amount of allowed possibilities has greatly expanded. If you read a magazine like Sweet, almost anything is allowed as long as it’s done in the right way. ViVi used to have basically three completely different looks (a soft cute one, a hard dark one, and a high-fashion glam one) all in the same magazine.

  4. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Okay, follow-up question: another tenet of this traditional Japanese pedagogy is that you can’t learn to do it from a book or instructional DVD or whatever. You have to have a real, live teacher. Even if your skills end up just as polished, if you don’t have a teacher you won’t get respect from your traditionalist co-hobbyists. (Of course you can counterbalance this by getting respect from non-traditionalists as a wild zen talent or whatever, and either way there have been “how to [insert hobby here]” books available for centuries, but that’s the basic idea.)

    On the other hand you often talk of fashion trends in Japan being defined by magazines. Are the magazines a substitute for live teachers in this analysis, or is there also an in-person requirement that must be fulfilled? Is Sweet so specific and so authoritative that reading it closely enough will make you a master, acknowledged as such by your peers, or do you actually have to go to Harajuku and pay your dues in person?

  5. W. David MARX Says:

    Culture changes, and in the case of post-war Japan, we have seen countless times where the authorities tweak traditions when the production system demands a change. Consumption used to be a great vice and the government intentionally started a “消費は美徳” campaign. Suddenly consumption was a virtue.

    In the same vein, the sheer scale of mass culture means that you can’t have a teacher for everyone, and therefore, magazines and store clerks become a substitute for that kind of authority. Here again, tradition morphs into a new form due to the production logic.

  6. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    I guess one of the things I’m specifically curious about is the role of consumer-to-consumer communication in all of this. The fashion-magazine model seems to imply a lot of centralization, maybe with extra sub-hubs in the form of stores + clerks, but generally one-way communication from the center to the periphery. How does a novice fashionista get feedback on fine personal details, like, say, “those shorts are an inch too long for your legs” or “that shirt is too bright for an overcast day like today” (or whatever, I don’t do fashion). And of course there must be people who misunderstand the magazines tragically and, from the fashion POV, need assistance. Is this handled by peer groups? Do clerks do this sort of fine tuning? Or does the “correct” fashion behavior emerge naturally when everyone just applies the rules in the magazines and hopes for the best?

    (I should note I’m not arguing with your model as such, just trying to clarify the implementation.)

  7. W. David MARX Says:

    There are basically two sources for “correct” info in the fashion market: the authorities (magazines, stylists, store clerks) and peers. As magazine influence declines, peer influence increases. (Although I think the peer culture still gets their influences from the authorities.) But I don’t think it’s really peer-to-peer communication as much as broadly “reading the air” about what is in style and proper. But I am sure a helpful friend will point wayward girls into the right direction.