Cosplay Culture: A Study in Transculturation Gone Wrong?

By Victoria Mikolaski

Cosplay is a word that is becoming more well-known everyday with the exponentially increasing interest in everything that has to do with popular entertainment nowadays. The emergence of Marvel films and popular books and TV shows, and countless other franchises, has amassed fans from all over to each respective fandom. One thing that seems to link these fandoms is cosplay.

What is Cosplay?

The word “Cosplay” is an abbreviation for the phrase “costume play”, and is defined as a performance art in which participants dress up in a specific costume with accessories to represent a character or idea from their preferred TV show, book series, comic, anime and/or manga, movie, video games, or any other form of entertainment. This also includes music groups like Visual Kei rock bands, the most popular choice among cosplayers in Japan. Cosplayers buy, or make from scratch, their costumes and props, basing their character’s look on reference pictures taken directly from the source for greater accuracy in color schemes and costume design. All this effort is solely for the purpose of expressing their affections for existing narratives, an effort in reworking these stories through various media. A “fannish subculture”, cosplay culture is also closely linked to other groups set on achieving the same goals: fanfiction, fanart, and fan videos to name a few. Cosplay motivates fans to interpret existing works, and not only perform them but extend them with their own narratives and ideas. It is a way for fans to actualize fiction in everyday life, and in doing so subvert reality for a while.

History: Cosplay’s Origin Story

Forrest J. Ackerman showing off his futuristic costume at the 1st Sci-Fi WorldCon in 1939

Forrest J. Ackerman showing off his futuristic costume at the 1st Sci-Fi WorldCon in 1939

Curiously enough, the origin story of cosplay is still debated among cosplayers today. Based on photographic evidence, I will tell the version most likely to be true. Cosplay is agreed to have been around since conventions began. It is said to have started as early as 1939 in the U.S. with Forrest J. Ackerman when he attended the first World Science Fiction Convention in New York wearing a futuristic costume (made by his girlfriend Myrtle R. Douglas). That led to the ever-increasing interest in costume-wearing at conventions in the 1960s and 1970s, namely shown by dressing up not only as characters from the popular sci-fi TV shows Star Trek and Star Wars, but also characters from the classics like DC comics Batman. Soon after this hobby swept the nation, Nobuyuki Takahashi (founder of Studio Hard) traveled to the U.S. and attended the 1984 Los Angeles Sci-Fi World Convention and encountered costuming practices there. He promptly returned to Japan and wrote an article about his experiences at the convention, encouraging his readers to try the hobby and incorporate it Into Japanese anime and manga conventions. It was he who coined the term “cosplay”. The first appearance of cosplay in Japan was in 1978 at a fan event, so either Japanese fans had the same idea around the time American fans were increasing their practice of cosplay in the 1970s, or the Japanese fans heard about it from America earlier and the encouragement from one of their own celebrities around a decade later got cosplay enough traction to become a major practice in Japanese fan culture. Nevertheless, Japanese fans gained interest in making costumes for their anime and manga conventions and the craze spread from there, finally returning full circle to the U.S. with a distinctly Japanese vibe attached to it.

Cosplay Today: Not What it Once Was

Presently in the U.S., cosplay is restricted to limited and specific settings: conventions and other similar get-togethers separate from the rest of the community. The cultural practices attached to cosplay are intentionally separated from everyday life and the professional atmosphere. In Japan, cosplay is more intertwined with the public domain. For example, participants often gather in public parks of Akihabara and Harajuku districts. Cosplay is also a large part of consumption culture: shops sell wigs and full costumes, and costume restaurants attract fan customers. That cosplay is a professional practice shows that it has a more prominent role in Japanese society than that of the West. Such emphasis in the professional world also indicates that cosplay is a selling point for Japan’s economy nationally and internationally. There is an integration through advertising in which the Advertising industry now uses cosplay models, “Cosplay Idols”, to show off costumes for anime, manga, and video game companies. They are viewed as fictional characters in the flesh, thus encouraging the younger generation’s interest in whatever they are advertising and keeping that interest, as opposed to an inanimate object or character that inevitably falls under the category of fiction and ‘not real’ in its 2D-ness. In recent years these promotional models have been requested for other areas of commercial goods, such as food and beverage commerce as well as fashion stores, clubs, restaurants, and other franchises.

Cosplay/idol group Steam Girls cosplaying Yuki Jirushi Coffee’s café au lait Finalist Mascot Costumes (2013)

Cosplay/idol group ‘Steam Girls’ cosplaying Yuki Jirushi Coffee’s café au lait Finalist Mascot Costumes (2013)

Americans now associate cosplay with Japan. Anime and manga are immediately linked to cosplay, but not original material such as Star Trek or Star Wars. The two types of material have been essentially separated into two different categories despite coming from the same beginnings and engaging in the same cultural practices. U.S. and Japanese goods are even being sold side-by-side at conventions, and still cosplay is considered the “other” and inherently different from the U.S. cultural and national identity. Transculturation in this case complicates the notions of national and cultural identity. Is cosplay now inherently Japanese even through the concept seems to have originated in the U.S. and still practices the same things? I would argue that the West is relabeling this cultural practice as Japanese because it fits into what is considered to be “otherness”. Dressing up as a fictional character and role-playing could be stereotypical of Japanese “weirdness” and “quirkiness” (and often cult-esque behavior). The U.S. would then be Orientalizing Japan to distance itself from its own cultural “weirdness”. Japan is then taking advantage of this “otherness” and capitalizing on the brand nationalism that cosplay provides. This however, leaves the secondary category of cosplay in an odd position. It is not inherently Japanese, but it does follow the same practices.

Two sides of the cosplay coin. Is Deadpool destined to be the only character who can cross this barrier?

Two sides of the cosplay coin. Is Deadpool destined to be the only character who can cross this barrier?

By definition cosplay should be culturally neutral and odorless, because the way it operates is the same wherever cosplay culture occurs. Cosplayers go to the conventions, attend panels, participate in the Masquerade, and buy goods produced by the fandom and the original works’ producers. Cosplayers mirror typical fans in that they serve as consumers and producers simultaneously.  Western and Japanese-based cosplay practices occur in the same space at conventions, so why are they perceived as different? What’s more is that gender, class, age, and identity do not seem to have any bearing on who participates in this culture. All fandoms are welcome, so the range of interests includes all genders and age groups. Because all that is required is attendance and engaging in the fun, class also has no bearing on participation. Identity as a consumer or producer varies, a small but not insignificant portion of the attendees at conventions self-identify as both consumer and producer in the commercial context of selling their wares, which are mainly hand-crafted. Often larger conventions are national and international events. This means that there is no reason for there to be a distinction between U.S. cosplay and Japanese cosplay, as the participants are diverse enough to make the culture nation-less and culturally odorless. Ultimately, it is up to the cosplayers and fanbase in general to decide whether the origins matter.

 

Discussion Questions:

Transculturation is the process of globalization in which an asymmetrical encounter of various cultures result in the transformation of an existing artifact and the creation of a new style. As the products get circulated globally they become by default less marked, more culturally odorless, thus the origins become less important.

  1. By this definition, why has cosplay culture been re-marked as Japanese rather than become culturally and nationally odorless after being circulated globally from the U.S.?
  2. How should the Western category of cosplay be labeled now that the subculture overall has been culturally and nationally marked as Japanese?
  3. Is cosplay capable of transcending nationality and becoming culturally odorless?
  4. Can you think of another product that has undergone a similar transformation? If yes, what allowed it to happen?

 

Sources

Ackerman, Forrest J. “Through Time and Space with Forry Ackerman (Part 1)”. Mimosa 16: 4-6. (1994) Web. 20 Mar 2015. <http://www.jophan.org/mimosa/m16/ackerman.htm>

Baseel, Casey. “Coffee mascot event with cosplaying idols proves to be too much for some fans to handle”. Rocket News 24. (2013) Web. 26 Mar 2015. < http://en.rocketnews24.com/2013/08/09/coffee-mascot-event-with-cosplaying-idols-proves-to-be-too-much-for-some-fans-to-handle/>

Frankenhoff, Brent. 2011, “It All Began…. “. Beautiful Balloons CBG #1677. (May 2011). Web. 21 Mar 2015. <http://www.cbgxtra.com/blogs/beautiful-balloons/it-all-began-%E2%80%A6-beautiful-balloons-cbg-1677-may-2011>

Napier, Susan Jolliffe. From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Mind of the West. First edition. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Winge, Theresa. 2006, “Costuming the Imagination: Origins of Anime and Manga Cosplay”. Mechademia Vol. 1: 65-76. (2006) doi: 10.1353/mec.0.0084

Sacai: Fighting Fashion’s Western Dominance

by: Brooke LaRue

In 1999, Chitose Abe, a former design team member at Comme des Garçon, founded her own Tokyo based label, Sacai. Since then she has worked as creative director, maintaining full ownership of her company. The label has expanded from women’s wear to include Sacai Man and Sacai Luck, a more casual line of clothing. Far from the spotlight, she successfully built her business on a relatively small scale until 2010 when she made her international debut at Paris Fashion Week, launching Sacai into the global fashion market. Following its debut, Sacai has gained international acclaim in the fashion world for its innovation in design. In an industry determined by Western approval, Sacai proves that it will not be dominated by Western designers.

As a designer not based in the United States or Europe, Sacai is almost always labeled by its nationality. Very few articles fail to cite the brand as Japanese, and in many interviews, Chitose is posed with questions concerning Japanese influence. In an interview with Interview Magazine, she was asked if she envisioned a Japanese or European customer while designing. She replied, “I never really design with a specific person-or culture-in mind. I believe that design can be appreciated universally.” From this statement she quickly shifted the conversation away from nationality to the specifics of her designs, the focus of which is functional elegance through transformations of basic items. She has also been quoted saying, “Japanese-ness may be important for some when selling to Europe, for me it’s not important. I think it says something that I’m the only Japanese brand that many of my stockists carry.”

After just two seasons in Paris, Sacai had 15 clients outside of Japan including renowned boutiques such as Colette in Paris, Biffi in Milan, and Joyce in Hong Kong.  Three years later and her international growth has continued. Yet, the fact remains that as one of the prominent Japanese designers, her presence in the global market may always be partially characterized by her nationality. This is particularly true, when one considers the regional exclusivity of the fashion industry. The world’s fashion capitols are New York, Paris, Milan, and London. These are also the cities in which the most distinguished fashion weeks take place. For this reason, these cities are also home to the most influential fashion publications and therefore voices in the industry. However, with growing globalization the industry has begun to expand, albeit slowly, and Sacai is a significant factor in this growth.

AP088222In certain regards, Sacai has been potentially limited by the media’s simplistic categorization of its nationality, but in other ways it has offered the label unique opportunities. For example, this past fall the Parisian department store, Le Bon Marché, celebrated the 90th anniversary of Franco-Japanese cultural partnership with featured exhibitions and a showcase of Japanese designers. Sacai was at the forefront of this exhibit with a pop up store instillation on the 3rd floor that remained for nearly two months.  The label’s most recent Sacai and Sacai Luck collections were sold, in addition to a capsule collection exclusively designed for the event.  The timing of the installation overlapped with Paris Fashion Week, when the most influential people in the industry flooded into the city and when Sacai showed its Spring/Summer collection, augmenting the brand’s recognition. However, this recognition exclusively came from a connection with Japan.

Most recently, Sacai partnered with Nike to release an 8-piece collection as part of Nike’s NikeLab project. This facet of Nike aims at innovation by innovators and selects different designers from around the world to create collaborations. With the collection, Abe was able to bring her creative use of fabric to Nike and many of her signature design techniques, such as pleating and lace details. She worked with the Nike team, using Nike archive pieces as reference points for design. The collaboration will expose a broader range of consumers to her designs and demonstrate her range of creativity.ChitoseAbeandBinx_native_1600

The release of the collection has been surrounded by press events, however the most interesting included a dance performance featuring pieces from the NikeLab x Sacai Collection. Performed last week in London, dancers highlighted the movement and functionality of the collection. The theme of the production was to contrast different worlds. The noted contrasts were ballet verses street dance and artist verses athlete. However, it is worth considering the underlying contrast of East versus West that is present between Sacai and Nike.

Stuart Hall argues that globalization must acknowledge the West’s historical dominance and this point is extremely true in the case of fashion, where the West’s dominance still very much exists. Any designer based in the East is under the jurisdiction of the established Western market if the brand aims to achieve any sort of international presence. However, though the fashion industry is strongly rooted in a regional exclusivity, it lacks dominance from one single nation, which could possibly lend itself well to future regional inclusion.

Sacai’s relationship with the West and with Japan is somewhat varied by situation. It is hard to determine whether a contrast really exists or if the media and Western expectations socially construct it. It appears, that the designs are not based in an inherently Japanese aesthetic, that in terms of Iwabuchi’s arguments in Recentering Globalization Abe aspires towards a cultural neutrality; but contrastingly the brand has been continuously characterized as Japanese through the Western media and contains a sense of cultural odor in that it is positively associated with Japan.  Sacai will continue to grow and find its place within the international market. With this, public perception will develop to form a deeper understanding of the designer, but without a doubt the label will always be associated with innovative design.

Discussion Questions:

In class we discussed Stuart Hall’s argument that globalization occurs through connections by travel, trade, markets, capital and the flow of labor, goods and profits, which leads to a blurred lined between what is considered “inside” and what is considered “outside”.

  1. How does fashion both blur these lines, yet also enforce them?
  2. Do you think it’s possible for the East to overcome the distinction of insiders and outsiders in fashion? If so, how?
  3. How do designers like Sacai, whose designs aren’t aesthetically Japanese, change Western perception of Japanese fashion?

Sources:

Graham, Mhairi. “Watch Nike X Sacai Tear up London.” Dazed. N.p., 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 21 Mar. 2015.

Johnson, Rebecca. “BoF Exclusive | Nike to Launch Collaboration with Chitose Abe’s Sacai – The Business of Fashion.” The Business of Fashion. N.p., 18 Feb. 2015. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.

Phelps, Nicole. “Nike Celebrates Its Sacai Collab With a Kappo Masa Feast.” Style.com. N.p., 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.

“Sacai.” Sacai. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Wynne, Alex. “Le Bon Marché Celebrates Japan.” WWD. N.p., 10 July 2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2015

Loose Socks as Molotov Cocktails: Finding the Rebellion in Japanese Teen Girl Subcultures

Within examinations of Japanese girls’ culture, there lies a wide gap between a perception of traditional subcultures as docile, meaningless cultural consumption based only on non-Internet sociality, that belies the truth. Japanese female-driven subcultures have long been portrayed as more old-fashioned, in-real-life groupings than concurrent male subcultures. This is changing as female otaku become a more pronounced population in online communities and fandoms.
Most popular preconceptions of Japanese subcultures, especially in the Western world, tend to focus on otaku, which roughly translates as geek or dweeb. While the connotations of the word “otaku” have drastically changed in the past few decades, from a term loaded with derision and accusation, to one of pride, a constant element of otaku culture is that it (at least in the minds of both Japanese and Westerners) is mainly comprised of males. Most likely, this stereotype was driven into the public consciousness by the Miyazaki child murders (the so-called “Otaku Murders”) and other otaku-perpetrated crimes, and remains prevalent due to headline-ready, majority-male sub-subcultures, like the shut-in hikikomori.
While the advent of the Internet allows for female enthusiasts to enter the world of otaku fandom with far greater visibility, female otaku are not a new phenomenon. Contrary to the popular image of otaku as male, the market for female-directed doujinshi has been in full force since the advent of Comiket in the 1970s. The rise of otaku, commonly considered to be the 1970s, is concurrent to the rise of shonen ai (boys’ love) stories in shojo (girls’) manga.  Today, the market for manga and anime made for female fans is easily comparable to the market for male fans, and female otaku are becoming a much more vocal part of online fan communities.
In contrast to this reality, many prevalent notions of female Japanese subcultures are often much more traditional notions of what a subculture should resemble. Unlike otaku, subcultures like loli and kogals are seen has participating in a face-to-face group, with tangible artifacts, largely independent of the internet. Frequently, these subcultures feature a strong fashion or visual component, where the participant must posses a certain aesthetic, and a devotion to that aesthetic in order to be considered genuine. Frequently, these groups are demonized either for their perceived sexuality (as with kogals, ogals, and loli), or conversely, for their lack of sexuality (as with the kawaii and kigurumin). Additionally, the necessity of in-real-life interactions within these groups has somewhat faded in recent years, as the Internet enables these groups to form and evolve without ever meeting in person. For a brief overview of these subcultures and their general aesthetics, please left click  on the slideshows above, and select “View Image.”
Among the many subcultures formed by Japanese girls in their post-Bubble society, three have captured international imagination: kawaii, kogal, and loli girls. A few other such groups enter into this discussion of female fandom, like the lesser-known ogals/ganguro/manba and kigurumin. The subcultures described above have existed in Japan in some form for at least the past two decades, and are part of an international image of young Japanese femininity. Among those groups whose flame extinguished more quickly are the ganguro/ogals/manba family of subcultures, and the kigurumin.
While these subcultures might seem disparate, they all follow a few traits common among female subcultures in Japan. All employ cute aesthetics, although what is defined as cute might drastically change over time. Each of these groups has been demonized by mainstream Japanese society as a sign of society’s decadence, and the inability of youth to affect social change. Further cultural stigma is assigned to the girls of these groups if they are seen as either extremely sexualized, like kogals, or as purposefully asexual, like the original kawaii, as the desexualized kigurumin, and the seemingly repellant ogals.
Furthermore, these subcultures are widely seen in mainstream culture as meaningless consumption of culture devoid of value. The decline of post-Bubble youth is marked by their apparent failure to oppose the mainstream, with such youth revolt defined by the student protests of the late 1960s. However, Sharon Kinsella successfully argues that this consciously passive consumption of culture whose meaning is not defined by the mainstream is its own successful form of rebellion. Kawaii works as a reactive subculture because it does not register as particularly rebellious. Because the mainstream definition of youth rebellion is explicitly active, the mainstream fails to see a youth in revolt when girls tan, party, and don’t shower to excess. In other words, these girls are not seen as rebellious even as they utterly reject societal definitions of youth, aging, beauty, and femininity.
And while Dick Hebdige’s seminal work on subcultures in limited in its specificity to 1970s British youth and other Western groups, it still applies quite aptly in its discussion of subculture as an act of resistance. Hebdige’s discussion of drugs as aspect of style distinction is a bit less relevant in Japan than it was in 1970s Britain, but his definitional style elements like clothing, music, dance, and make-up are particularly appropriate when one considers the manba’s para-para dancing, and kawaii idols’ presentation within their own community. His trajectory of a subculture, from marginalized resistance to commercialized mainstream, is easily visible, especially within the everything-kawaii aesthetic visible virtually anywhere in Japan today, and the prevalence of loli subcultures outside the context of Japan. The marketing of cute, which has occurred concurrent to the emergence of kawaii, marked beginning of the end for that same subculture, as the opening of the Moi-Meme-Moitie brand similarly doomed the edginess of goth loli style. Furthermore, Hebdige’s ideas on subculture as an expression of rebellion against the raw materials of culture dovetail cleanly with the theory, as expressed by Anne McKnight in her work on French influences in Japanese subculture, that Japanese subcultures are a reaction against the American post-WWII Occupation.
Viewing all subculture as a form of resistance seems to help explain the motives for creating, entering, and consuming these subcultures. However, a single pat answer can never fully explain the complex motives behind self-identification. Chalking up all subculture, especially in the non-Western world, to some kind of rebellion ignores and dismisses other potential motivators, like a positive sense of belonging, a desire for a feminine, feminist space, or even more obscure subcultural sources. While the loli groups are commonly referred to as Victoriana-fetishists, who idolize all that is European, it is entirely possible that the loli aesthetic can also be attributed to the Japanese styles worn in the Meiji period, which, while Westernized, were rarely fully Western. What’s more, Japanese notions of what constitutes a subculture are quite different from Western ones, and the air of deviance that accompanies most Western subcultures is not necessary in Japan. Kawaii has progressed so far down Hebdige’s subculture life-cycle that it is now mainstream in everything but name, and kawaii goods are everywhere. In fact, kawaii aesthetics and manga are two alleged subcultures where it is far more revolutionary not to partake of them. Clearly, examinations of Japanese subcultures must be made even more specialized in order to analyze these subcultures within their own cultural context.
In Japan’s post-Bubble culture, young women and girls have frequently been pushed away from developing subcultures like otaku and its attendant online communities, while being pushed into subcultures which, through their non-Internet presence, tangible artifacts, and familiar set of distinct style elements, represent a more traditional model of subculture within Japan. Ironically, in maintaining seemingly harmless, meaningless subcultures built on cute aesthetics and seemingly meaningless style elements, young Japanese women are able to transgressively resist a mainstream culture that continues to work as a patriarchy, even as the wreck of the Bubble economy leaves other pillars of Japanese culture toppled.

Discussion Questions
1. Where do you think female otaku fandom and female subcultures might be headed in the future?
2. While not discussed here, how do you think Azuma’s database model might apply to female otaku? How might the system apply to non-otaku female subcultures?
3. How might female fandoms and female subcultures intersect?
How do you feel about the combined (Kinsella, Hebdige, etc.) idea of Japanese subculture as resistance, especially to the Occupation? How might resistance to the Occupation fit in here?

Sources

  • Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku, Japan’s Database Animals. Minneapolis, MN: University Of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.
  • Galbraith, Patrick W. “Akihabara: Conditioning a Public “Otaku” Image.” Mechademia. 5. (2010): 210-230. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. < http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mec/summary/v005/5.galbraith.html>.
  • Hebdige, D. Subculture, the meaning of style. Padstow, Cornwall: Methuen and Co. Ltd, 1979. Print.
  • Kinsella, Sharon. “Cuties In Japan.” In Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan. Lise Skov and Brian Moeran. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995. 220-254. Print.
  • Macias, P., I. Evers, and K. Nonaka. Japanese schoolgirl inferno, tokyo teen fashion subculture handbook. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books Llc, 2007. Print.
  • McKnight, Anne. “Frenchness and Transformation in Japanese Subculture, 1972–2004.” Mechademia. 5. (2010): 118-137. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mec/summary/v005/5.mcknight.html >.
  • Toku, Masami. “Shojo Manga! Girls’ Comics! A Mirror of Girls’ Dreams.” Mechademia. 2. (2007): 19-32 . Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mec/summary/v002/2.toku.html >.
  • Winge , Theresa. “Undressing and Dressing Loli: A Search for the Identity of the Japanese Lolita .” Mechademia. 3. (2008): 47-63. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mec/summary/v003/3.winge.html>.

 

Ura-Hara Street Clothing: The Rise of the Japanese Fashion Otaku

 

Many would be surprised to hear that at one point in time, Japan was quite possibly the world’s largest consumer of luxury goods. In 2008, the French luxury goods conglomerate, Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) reported that its sales in Japan alone accounted for 20% of their fashion and leather goods department.  A few of the well-known subsidiaries in LVMH include: Fendi, Donna Karan, Givenchy, Louis Vuitton, and Marc Jacobs. [1]

Additionally, the high-end Japanese streetwear industry experienced extreme growth in the early 2000s.  Companies such as A Bathing Ape were at the forefront of this expansion and dominated the industry for years. Despite their ‘street’ branding, t-shirts alone were and continue to be sold for anywhere from $80-$200 U.S. dollars in Japan.  Many producers and analysts cannot seem to understand this phenomenon, but a few point to the rise of a new otaku culture.

 

 

 

 

The Japanese Streetwear Industry

Streetwear fashion was created in the early 1980s from the surfer and skateboarder culture in the United States.  This brand is known as ‘streetwear’ because the skater and surfer street culture inspired the designers and their work.  Early fans of the style noted that most streetwear clothing contrasted from high fashion for this reason. Shawn Stüssy, the creator of this brand and most successful streetwear designer, started as a surfboard designer and began applying his designs and signature to clothing. In the mid 2000s popular rap artists such as Kanye West and Pharell Williams began wearing streetwear clothing they imported from Japan.  American rap artist Kid CuDi is even a former employee of the A Bapthing Ape store in New York City.  In Tokyo, the Harajuku district is known internationally as a fashion capital of the world for its unique styles and shoppers.  The area is most commonly associated with the Harajuku girl style.  However, the Japanese streetwear industry began in the back streets of  this same Harajuku district. [2]

 

Ura-Harajuku

Ura-hara, or ura-harajuku, refers to the back streets of the Harajuku region and the streetwear shops that slowly emerged in the harajuku district.  Teenage boys slowly dominated this area by introducing the skate and hip-hop cultures to the region.  The first A Bathing Ape store along with another popular streetwear store, Silas & Maria, are located in this area.  Teenage boys will come to these shops for hours just to earn the chance to purchase the newest clothing.  In a 2002 New Yorker article, author Rebecca Mead writes:

At certain popular stores, like Silas & Maria, a British skatewear brand, would-be shoppers are required to wait in orderly file in the street, as if they were on a bread line, before being permitted, twenty or so at a time, to rush in and scour the sparsely stocked shelves for any new merchandise. The next twenty customers aren’t allowed in until the last of the previous group has left and meticulous sales assistants have restored the shelves and racks to their unmolested condition. The whole cycle can take half an hour or more. This is what Japanese teenagers do for fun.

 Many would consider this store’s tactics to be a bit ridiculous, but it is clear that their customers do not agree.  Most Japanese streetwear stores and designers strive to create similar levels of exclusivity with their products.  They believe that this approach could maximize their sales and popularity. [3]

 

Streetwear Otaku 

Many Japanese streetwear companies focus on promoting the exclusivity of their products, rather than the products themselves.  The reason they do this is because no one has been able to quite understand when a company could suddenly gain popularity and be ‘in’, but they do realize that exclusivity is a part of the equation.  Producers have to always be ready to increase their prices as soon as their brands gain popularity if they want to capitalize on the moment. [3]

Before the company’s recent overwhelming success Comme des Garçons t-shirts could cost as little as $44, today they could cost anywhere from $80-$100.

 

In the past the term otaku was widely used to refer to men that were obsessed with Japanese anime and manga.  Since Hiroki Azuma first wrote on the otaku culture in 2001, more and more industries have started using the term to refer to their obsessive fans as well.  People have begun referring to these fashion otakus as such because they do things like wait in a line for hours to shop for twenty minutes, or because they obsess over which hat to wear with which pair of jeans, or simply just because they fell in love with this American surfer and hip-hop culture, despite having never seen a surfboard in real life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Attempt to Explain the Phenomenon

The biggest underlying question behind this industry and culture is, how do these high school and college students afford these prices!?  One common and fairly accepted answer is that these young Japanese men continue to live at home with their parents long after it would have been acceptable or expected of them to move-out.  Therefore they do not have to spend any of their salaries on food or rent and can afford to purchase these products.  Some feel as though young men are able to do this because the dynamic of the Japanese household has changed since the collapse of the Japanese economy.  Most fathers of the family take responsibility for this event and as a result, have a weaker level of authority than in past generations.  This allows the young men to continue living with their parents with few complaints from the fathers.  One of the most appealing aspects of the streetwear clothing to Japanese youths, is that the majority of these companies are started by DJs and surfers.  In Japan, it is often true that the DJs are more popular than some of the rap artists and therefore, their clothing brands would a generate a larger following.  Hiroshi Fujiwara may be the earliest example of a DJ that turned his attention to fashion design and has been called the godfather of Harajuku culture.

 

When Nigo, founder of A Bathing Ape, sold the company in 2009 for a mere 2.8 Million dollars, people took that as a sign that the company had met its end.  Over a period of time Nigo’s company became too mainstream for the likings of the Japanese fashion otaku.  Nigo used his company to create Bape hair salons, a record label, and children’s clothing.  He even went as far as to design t-shirts for charity, which sold for a mere $15.  The fashion otaku taught Nigo and the rest of the designers that no fashion dynasty was too big to fall. [4]  The new owners of the company learned from this and scaled back their overseas operations to focus on their Asian markets.  Fashion otakus, like all other otakus, expect to have their way.  Rather than aggressively give the designers their demands, they silently accept or refuse brands through their purchases.

Sources:

 1. http://www.economist.com/node/14447276

 2. http://factsanddetails.com/japan.php?itemid=1859&catid=20&subcatid=136

 3. Mead, Rebecca “Letter From Tokyo: Shopping Rebellion” The New Yorker. 2002.

 4. Marx, David “A Bathing Ape Takes Its Final Bath” NeoJapanisme. 2011.

Related Links:

Kawaii, Kogals, and Loli: Examinations of Japanese Female Subculture

Standing Out and Fitting In: Street Fashion and the Search for Identity and Power in Post Bubble Japan

 

Discussion Questions

Given Azuma’s work on the manga and anime otaku culture, is it possible that he would agree with calling these clothing fanatics, ‘fashion otaku’?

Could the fact that the Ura-Hara fashion world was founded in the back streets of Harajuku be a metaphor for the greater streetwear culture itself?

 

Standing Out and Fitting In: Street Fashion and the Search for Identity and Power in Post Bubble Japan

by Tori Szczesniak

Fashion is the means of expressing identity. Dressing is a ritualistic, symbolic, everyday practice that we use to situate ourselves in the chaotic, judgmental world around us.  The simple act of putting on a piece of clothing immediately conveys one’s position of cultural power, class distinction, gender, and subculture, all while participating in the global economy. Deciding what we wear matters, especially in an urban, capitalist society where fashion is a tool to distinguish ourselves from one another. On an international scale, the fashion industry represents an interesting view of understanding national power and identity [3].

Professional Designers Dare to be Different

The early 1980s marked an explosion of Japanese fashion in the global industry. The fashion world reacted strongly to the avant-garde, radically different ideas of the country’s designers. The new garments articulated different ideas of what fashion was and the relationship of clothes and body. Japan gradually became a genuine force of change, challenging tradition and introducing new artistic contradictions [3]. [Read more…]

Pop Psychosis: the Influence of the Bomb on Superflat Art

Takashi Murakami,

Murakami Takashi, "Gero-Tan" "I express hopelessness."

In the past several decades, Japanese popular culture has become inundated with a “cute” or kawaii aesthetic that is unique to the country. This imagery is present in media, advertising, and merchandise, and its appeal has expanded to overseas markets—the worldwide popularity of Hello Kitty being one of the best examples of this phenomenon. But when the bright colors, cartoon characters and whimsical subject matter began appearing in high art, it prompted a discussion as to why cuteness had developed such appeal and become so omnipresent. Japanese artists of the Superflat movement use the language of this pop culture iconography to explore what kawaii says about the Japanese people and their history. Takashi Murakami, founding member of the Superflat movement and author of its manifesto, views the development of kawaii as Japan’s response to World War II and the atomic bomb. [Read more…]

Takashi Murakami & Louis Vuitton: Superflat meets Superfashion

When these two giants met, things went wild. The first collection of bags Murakami designed for the fashion house (at the order of creative director, Marc Jacobs) rejuvenated the brand–Louis Vuitton wasn’t just high-end French couture anymore, it was kawaii!3lvmurbags460 Everyone loved the collection, and the West took notice–suddenly, Murakami and his Superflatness became a big name, and not just for those in the Art scene. In fact, Murakami was worried that his initial association with LV would mislead his new found fans into thinking he was simply a hand bag designer. In a TIME Magazine article, he said that he was going to take a break from the commercial and re-establish himself as a fine artist. This reaction is strange, considering that Murakami widely promotes his art as commercial–as only commercial–as if there was no difference between the two. He even included a mini Louis Vuitton boutique in his traveling  ©Murakami show, which toured around the US. It’s this idea of superflat and commercial consumption as indistinguishable that seems, well, a little more complicated than that. [Read more…]

Japanese Subculture: Kogals and Lolitas, Rebellion or Fashion

Blog Post: Japanese subcultures: Rebellion vs. Cool; Lifestyle vs. Fashion

Currently, Japan remains one of the most homogenous countries in the world with almost ninety nine percent of its population being ethnically Japanese; however, the homogenous quality often attributed to Japan underestimates the growing importance and presence youth subcultures within Japan. Two of the most prevalent and identifiable youth subcultures are the Kogyaru (young gals) or Kogals and Gothic Lolitas. The two groups use fashion or appearance to distance themselves from mainstream society. Clothing within Japanese society seems to be one of the few ways to differentiate a person from the mainstream; however, the “rebelling” individual tends to join a group that shares similar taste in clothing and behavior lessening the rebellion effect. The young person still wishes to belong to a group, just not the mainstream group. In addition, a person wearing the fashion of a certain subculture may not necessarily embrace its principles or behave according to the rules imposed by the subculture; however, for other young people, the subculture is a lifestyle choice and not simply a cute or cool fashion. The Kogyaru culture seems to emphasize outrageous, scandalous and shocking appearance and behavior while the Gothic Lolita culture stresses modesty, politeness and proper manners. Both groups possess rebellion elements. The Kogals seem to be rebelling against the meek, quiet school girl image of the typical Japanese girl. The Lolitas on the other hand appear to be rebelling against the “repugnant”, unladylike and garish behavior of the Kogals. In addition, the Lolitas possibly are trying to escape the pressures of adulthood and becoming the ideal Japanese housewife. [Read more…]