On Fake Glasses in Japan

Over the last six months, there has been a precipitous increase in the number of young Japanese women wearing giant, thick-rimmed glasses with no lenses. These are somewhere between your garden-variety, Woody Allen ironic hipster glasses and toy spectacles worn by kindergartners in school plays. Just to make sure you understand what’s going on here, let me repeat: These glasses do not have fake lenses, they have no lenses. You can see them on women here and here although I observe them normally in the gyaru variety seen here and here (scroll down for myriad examples).

The lens-less frames are apparently an Asia-wide trend, and I have been in a few Twitter spats with people assuring me that everything must have started in Taiwan or Korea. I personally am fine with a theoretical non-Japanese origin for Asian fashion trends, but I remain skeptical. Young Japanese women have basically zero opportunity to get information from the Taiwanese or Korean fashion media nor even see many images of Taiwanese or Korean women beyond K-Pop idols. (And at least in the post-war period, the Japanese have never really considered Taiwanese and Korean women to be style icons in any institutionalized way.) Meanwhile both Koreans and Taiwanese are avid readers of Japanese media (a few Japanese magazines are republished in Chinese), and based on this alone, I would guess the trend started in Japan and spread out from there.

But to make sure, I went back and looked at photos from my MEKAS. trend-spotting days, and the earliest visual record I have of these fake glasses is in late 2007, worn by an incredibly colorful CUTiE-esque shop staff girl at a party (click on the Photo Gallery icon). The article’s main conjecture — that Harajuku cutie style and hardcore Shibuya gyaru style were starting to blend — has held up to be relatively accurate, and over the last few years, we have seen a lot of trend overlap between these once rival subcultures. The giant lens-less glasses definitely look more like a prop from the crazy Harajuku wardrobe, and I assume that they drifted slowly over to mainstream Shibuya style, likely through the magazine PopSister, which is solely dedicated to building a bridge between the two adjacent Tokyo neighborhoods.

Even Japanese fashion insiders, however, have been stunned by these women’s bold rejection of cures for myopia. One of my favorite Japanese fashion bloggers Dale at Elastic did a piece last October about his “culture shock” at seeing gyaru mag Jelly state “It’s common sense to take the lenses out of your fake glasses.” Jelly claims two reasons for this practice. First, lenses tend to smash against gyaru’s enormous fake eyelashes. Second, the reflection from the actual glass in the frames ruins photographs. This may sound familiar: The editors’ logic is explained identically in the Michael Jackson video for “Bad,” where the goofy guy in Wesley Snipes’ gang says that his giant fashion glasses have no lenses because he won’t have to worry about the reflection from the flash when paparazzi snaps him. Needless to say, the guy’s explanation does not feel particularly convincing — at least to Michael Jackson’s character “Daryl.”

Whatever the exact origin, these lens-less glasses are interesting in that they illustrate a core principle to Japanese women’s style: Fashion in Japan is explicitly costume. We’ve read enough FRUiTS over the years to know this to be true in the deep backstreets of Harajuku, where the history of fashion signifiers frolic and intermingle in a mostly meaningless lysergic whirlpool of color and pattern. Yet even with the gyaru — who wear a uniform of sorts based in working class delinquent subculture — everything about the style is allowed to be obvious play as long as the adherents use approved symbols (leopard print, heavy makeup, dyed hair, general gaudiness). Extreme costume, rather than natural aspect of their daily lives, marks the affiliation.

Compare this to the implicit rules of Western fashionistas, where clothing, outfits, and accessories must all be worn with plausible deniability. If someone were to comment, “I like that dress,” the fashionable individual must reply, “Oh this? This is my mom’s. I found it in the attic.” No matter how immaculately coordinated the look, the trendy wearer must make it sound like the entire thing was lying on her floor when she woke up and her random and lazy assembly of garments that day just happened to all work out for the best. The fundamental philosophy here is that (1) the individual is naturally blessed with excellent taste and that (2) the individual is not trying to look fashionable because trying to look fashionable is not cool.

For these very reasons, lensless glasses don’t work in the Western cultural milieu. Giant hipster glasses with lenses can be explained away under a variety of reasons: medical need, hand-me-downs from parents, “the glasses I wore when I was thirteen,” “I found them in a living room drawer under my dad’s college ribbons,” economic expediency, etc. Giant hipster glasses with no lenses are so clearly beyond the pale, so clearly for costume that no excuse would sound remotely plausible. The wearer absolutely, positively woke up that morning and said, today I will wear a pair of giant glasses with no lenses to be fashionable because I am trying to be fashionable.

This is, of course, completely a fine statement for gyaru because the entire point of getting dressed in the morning is playful allegiance to a certain subculture and peer group. And it’s fine for zany Harajuku girls because their entire concept of fashion is “wearing the most insane things possible before taking on the dull responsibilities of adulthood.” More importantly, Japanese society has not been affected by the “cool” concept: the slightly poisonous value set where effort itself is suspect. The primary way to succeed in Japan is to try very hard, and the secondary way is to look like you are trying very hard. Allegiance in Japan requires effort. Affectation is a dirty word in English, but the idea of going the extra mile in fashion — perhaps through glasses with no lenses — is a perfectly correct move for the Japanese subcultural woman.

W. David MARX
July 19, 2011

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

70 Responses

  1. My Kafkaesque life Says:

    I see the same trend in Taipei. I think it’s awesome, makes my daily commuting more interesting by adding few wtf moments :)

  2. a reader Says:

    I actually agree that there have been Korean influences seeping into Japanese fashion for some years now. Picking out concrete examples takes too much time, but it really is true. The one trend that originated in Korea that I remember the most is an austere reinterpretation of the 80s. It was big in Korea for about half a year or more before it began showing up in mainstream Japanese publications bit by bit.

    If you spend some time, say, a year, closely following avant garde Korean street fashion sites and mags while monitoring the changes of directions in the Japanese avant garde, every now and then, the Japanese side does pick up fresh aesthetics from Korea and tweaks it to make it a more natural evolutionary extension of the Japanese trends. Sometimes a trend is adopted exactly because it’s antithetical to what’s currently “in” in Japan. And very mainstream Western designers sometimes also get influenced by the Korean avant garde. This is true in both men’s and women’s fashion. The subtle, continuous stylistic conversation among all sides is interesting to watch.

    And I think, in Japan, there is an organic element to the adoption of seemingly extreme trends. Examples like lens-less glasses, Lady Gaga hair bows, and elaborate tights all first made their debuts in — guess where — Kera. While locally Kera is in effect a shopping catalog for unfashionable people who are trying to stand out sartorially without knowing anything about fashion (my apology to all Western Kera fans who imagine Japanese Kera readership to consist of highly fashionable and adventuresome and beautiful people, but that’s really just your imagination. Its models and stylists are, but not its average readers), amongst the often cliched subcultural wares, its stylists try out very fresh, interesting ideas in its pages, probably precisely because most of its readers don’t get it, which makes it more risk-free for the stylists to experiment. It’s sometimes a stylistic theme that a whole issue wraps around, or just a tiny 4-page featurette, but there’s always something new. Ideas that can be adopted as everyday stuff are often then picked up by Zipper, Fudge, and Soen, which then upstreamed to Vogue and occasionally SPUR, and then onto Vivi and other truly mainstream publications. While the readers of the very mainstream mags follow the dicta of the magazines closely, they surely would have seen those trends floating around them on the street long before their respective fashion bibles declare them okay to wear. The prior exposure to the trends would have made whatever seems extreme at first blush far less so by the time the editors at the magazines greenlight it for its readers, which is often a full year after the trend first made its micro appearance in Kera/ Zipper/ Fudge.

    I’m not saying that Kera is the creator of all trends in young women’s fashion, but it is the birthplace of many. That is my conclusion after closely following them all for more than two years. Trends in men’s fashion seem more confined to stylistic circles and become wide-spread less often.

    And, a response to grz: My observation is that, in the last few years, to many self-professed “very fashionable people” in Taiwan, especially the under 35 set, fashion did begin to equal explicit costume. The more out of place you look, the more “fashionable” you are. While older people don’t dress by that principle, they too seem to agree with it. Even my 80-year-old, very conservative grandma takes pride in her obsurdly dressed grandkids, and so do my other older relatives. This attitude arose as the trend of distinguishing oneself by very visibly possessing what others’ don’t have became mainstream. When Taiwan first became rich (or just not dirt poor), showing off one’s newly found wealth meant owning what everyone knew was expensive. As Taiwan got richer (or, really not poor anymore), owning what everyone knows became easier, so people have moved onto owning what others know are different because they have never seen it before, not becuase they “knew” it’s different. The interesting consequence is that the self-professed avant garde are often wearing what’s long become passe or mainstream abroad and feeling snob only because they have never seen anyone wore it “in Taiwan.” After going to my cousins’ on a near daily basis for a year on the pretense of visiting my grandma but really to observe and eavesdrop on the small bastion of self-professed fashion avant gardians that flow through the place, my conclusion is that perhaps none of them “know” what the stuff they wear means. They usually wear something simply because they have seen someone in some foreign magazine or online picture wear it, and it’s something they have never seen before. The result is sometimes unintentionally funny and self-satirizing if put into a more complete context.

  3. a reader Says:

    Forgot to mention: I also noticed that, after something upstreamed to ViVi, it often moved onto Western street snaps territory, as this trend did: http://www.manrepeller.com/2011/07/trendspotting-expose-yourself.html

    If I recall correctly, this was the big thing that ViVi readers with a hipper sensibility were after about four months ago.

  4. Will B Says:

    Going along with the costume thing, I wondered if the no lenses thing was to remove all doubt that the wearer might actually need corrective lenses. Maybe just my personal experience, but Japan seems to have very negative attitude toward eyewear in general. In other words, glasses have such bad connotations that they had to be ‘costumized’ before they could be fashionable.

  5. LQ Says:

    Lensless glasses were at least briefly done in the 80s in the US–I remember considering buying a pair in a fashion boutique.

    At any rate, I currently have a fashionable young Korean guy in one of my classes wearing a pair of these thick black lensless frames. It looks entirely odd to me; I can’t help it.

  6. a reader Says:

    @Will B:

    Wearing glasses with lenses can be a very good thing if you have the “right” kind of trendy looking frames. This has been the case way before lensless frames became en vogue, and this is also why Japan has so many periodicals devoted to fashionable frames targeted at a general readership.

    Most East Asians who are high achievers are myopic (I maybe have three friends who are normal-sighted. I don’t think there are even three of them. Probably just one.), the close association of glasses-wearing and high social status should explain why it’s far less a stigma to be visibly myopic in East Asia than in the US.

    But, come to think of it, I think you do have a point if you add gender into the calculation. Girls who wear lensless frames are girls who wouldn’t want to be caught wearing lensed glasses, in part because bespectacled = you read a lot of books = you are smart = girls assume guys don’t like smart girls –> lens off, and brainy threat is off too. (It’s still true that even most of the very highly educated guys in Taiwan are deadly uncomfortable with girls who don’t disguise how smart they are and don’t bother to lessen the threat by being kawaii at every possible opportunity.)

    I fool around elite college campuses a lot, where I’d say at least over 95% of the students are myopic, yet I still see a lot of college girls wearing lensless frames. I always wonder how many of them are also wearing contacts.

  7. Chuckles Says:

    It would help if commenters who claim that Marxy is wrong viz: adoption of fashion trends from Korea could actually provide like 3 (not a lot) concrete examples. Popping in and out and saying “this is just wrong” over and over again from a couple of people is weird. Heres a format:

    Fashion Trend,
    Mode of Transfer,
    Evidence it was adopted on any significant scale in Japan.

    Cuz most of my Japanese friends tell me they dont find Koreans sufficiently fashionable, so I tend to agree more with Marxy here, lacking any concrete evidence.

  8. W. David MARX Says:

    Plus the comment above seems to be focusing on high-fashion which is not really the sphere of this lenses-glasses trend. High-fashion has an indirect influence on gyaru/cutie fashion but by no means a strong direct one.

    I would also guess that Korean and Japanese high-fashion are influenced by the same global high-fashion trends rather than by each other.

  9. M-Bone Says:

    In a discussion like this, I think that it is especially important, if claims about Korean origins of Japanese trends are to be made, to establish that both are not simply influenced by a Euro-American trend or that the Japanese trend is not simply a revival of an earlier one. There have been several reinterpretations of the 80s since that decade – was there something so distinct about the Korean trend that Japanese fashion elements can be traced directly to it?

    And how does one really prove these kinds of things anyway? Japan has so many fashion magazines that it seems difficult to say whether something that showed up in Korea in month X and a Japanese mainstream magazine in month X+6 wouldn’t have been in a minor magazine in Japan in month X-6.

    I’ve seen plenty of assertions that manhwa are having a big impact on this or that popular manga, but it normally turns out that there is simply a common ancestor in Japan (Kamui, Akira, etc.).

    Korea and Japan seem a bit like Canada and the United States. It isn’t judgement of cultural “quality” – one simply hit a capitalist stride earlier than the other and thus Korean TV shows, comics, packaging, elements of urban space, etc. look very much like Japanese. This is an extreme example, but there are plenty of Canadians who think that Avril Lavigne took America by storm with a homegrown style. Doesn’t make it so. In a similar fashion, there are plenty of people online arguing that the gyaru/ageha look originated in Korea (ulzzang)! Right up there, I guess, with Chinese characters, Confucius, gunpowder, sushi, kendo, karate, jujitsu, Japanese swords, origami, and so on. Korea has plenty of good stuff (metal plate printing, its culinary tradition) and there doesn’t really seem to be a need for any of this….

    In the end, all of this only means that if someone can really prove with solid documentation that there is a significant Korea to Japan fashion pipeline, it will be pretty important work.

  10. LS Says:

    For the record what I meant above is that the praxy/doxy thing is indeed very true and productive.

    I notice that you tend to avoid value judgements about it. Your stuff is often focused on the top-down nature of Japanese pop culture — is this bad? Or is the spectre of infinite authenticity regress (Western hipsterism) actually worse? Or are value judgements out of place in these kinds of discussions?

  11. W. David MARX Says:

    I think there is a legitimate philosophical debate about whether culture should be controlled by elites or “grass roots,” because there are great examples of both creating great culture and really terrible culture.

    I would argue though that the most important thing is for those who are interested in culture and talented in creating it to be able to control the production of culture. In other words, music should be created by musicians, rather than corporate committees etc. If girls who love street culture run street culture magazines, and their followers are slavishly hanging on to those editors’ every word, that’s at least better than a magazine’s styling being controlled by purely corporate interests.

    In the case of these glasses, this was a true “from the streets” trend, but the way the style got transmitted was through normal top-down structures. But I am not sure in the U.S. even that you can see trends truly go from the streets up. Usually elite media sources pick it up and spread it around.

  12. Kyle Says:

    I think it’s significant that in English we speak of this accessory as “fake” glasses, whereas the Japanese term is “date” (vanity) glasses.

    Fashion in the West tends to be concerned with authenticity. Appropriation of an image is expected to have some commentary on its referent. If one wears a Rolling Stones t-shirt, they would be expected to either be a fan or an ironic anti-fan.

    In Japan, images are often appropriated for purely aesthetic reasons, with little concern for their “meaning” (English t-shirts, for example). A high school girl with a Cheburashka strap has most likely never seen the Russian children’s show. The character is not popular because of the Soviet ethics he extols; he’s popular because he’s cute.

    What shocks most foreign observers about the date megane phenomenon is the complete lack of concern over performance of a real. Gyaru who wear glasses without lenses do not even attempt to conceal that their accessories do not correct vision. They do not care that the image of their glasses shares no relation to the usual referent of bad eyesight. All that matters is how cute the look is.

    The funny thing is, Western concern over authenticity in the use of glasses often results in lies concealing their aesthetic use. An American hipster invents narratives for why he or she needs glasses when he or she doesn’t.

    At least their Japanese counterparts are honest about their vanity.

  13. W. David MARX Says:

    Sure, that works as a summary of the article.

  14. Japan: On Fake Glasses · Global Voices Says:

    […] at Neojaponisme gives an interesting insight [en] on the “lens-less frame” trend spreading in Japan. […]

  15. Japan: On Fake Glasses @ Current Affairs Says:

    […] at Neojaponisme gives an interesting insight [en] on the “lens-less frame” trend spreading in […]

  16. John-Albert Eadie Says:

    Fascinating. Now I understand why the girls in this Japanese area of Vancouver look like they do – it’s not genetic, they deliberately intend to look cute. Huh.

    Quite fetching too, I must say. I can even recall how mixed couples (Japanese girl, Canadian guy, for example) will borrow just a token part of their look from the other. *So* different.

    Mr. Marx, the points you make about cool vs. the Japanese values are most interesting. Cool as “the slightly poisonous value set where effort itself is suspect” strikes a chord immediately, although one does not entirely take it to heart: we are just talking about looks.

    In Western culture – famously so – we are brought up to regard the truth as only in the most innocent circumstances being identical with looks.

    In that sense I suppose the Japanese culture is truly oriented around honesty, particularly with respect to presentation. Serious stuff. Whereas we cool guys are a lot more devious and tricky.

    I’m old enough to remember “Anti-Jap” WWII propaganda. The “Japs” were said to be the devious ones. Huh. Other way around.

  17. final fashion » click click – 01-08-11 Says:

    […] On Fake Glasses in Japan – so interested in the phenomenon of stillborn trends – this post talks about why some trends work in Asia but not in the west. On the flip side, Why the Neo-Trad Trend Failed to Catch on in Japan. In both cases, it’s interesting to see that just because the media pushes it, doesn’t mean that the public will accept it. Thankful karma for all my internet sisters & brothers – […]

  18. saleem Says:

    Rough thought: Are you including traditionally black cultural groups in “the West”? (The quotes make that sentence look like an accusation, but I don’t mean it to be. Just curiosity.)

    Because there’s a lot of areas where people seem pretty okay with openly choosing things just because they are fashionable.

    Sunday hats in church culture, large chains and pristine sneakers in hip hop culture… Little attempt at plausible deniability. Just look real good.

  19. Mercy Says:

    Black American culture is where cool originated, so, I dunno. There’s definitely a class thing there, poorer communities are okay with gauche shit like fur coats that signals you have more money than everyone else (whereas to the middle class, it just means you spend the same money as everyone else in stupid ways). Which is maybe why social climbing blacks had to articulate “cool” as a philosophy, whereas it’s something that came naturally to old money whites.

    But anyway sunday best and pristine trainers don’t contradict cool, it’s all about being *smart* and taking care of your appearance in a way that isn’t affected.

  20. Person A Says:

    When I was in Japan, I visited Seoul to extend my visa. When I told my friends in Japan that I was going to Seoul, they said, “Oh, I’ve been there before. We usually go there to shop, because the fashion is different than what’s in Japan, and the clothes there are cheaper”.

    The mere vicinity and reasonable exchange rate, make the dispersion of influence far more plausible than you make it appear.