The Economic Crisis in Japan: The Loss of Grand Narrative

The Economic Collapse

In 1991, the Japanese bubble economy collapsed. Unsustainable economic growth and rampant speculation eroded the financial structure and security of the previous decade. Due to an increased governmental emphasis on centralization, millions flooded into Tokyo. As land prices skyrocketed to the tens of thousands of dollars per square foot in downtown Tokyo, a euphoric sense of optimism pervaded investors. Low interest rate loans from banks were given out with small chances of being repaid. Many investors borrowed extremely heavily from banks in order to invest billions in the new companies and real estate properties. The Japanese government, concerned about the unsustainable bubble exploding in Japan, made the banks sharply increase their loan rates. As a consequence, the Nikkei stock index crashed, and the bubble essentially burst. There was no money to pay back the banks, who subsequently had to rely on the government to borrow heavily and bail them out. There was no real recovery from this bubble collapse for the following decade, often deemed the “Lost Decade”. The Nikkei stock index continued to steadily fall through the 90s and early 2000s. Trillions of dollars were wiped out when the real estate prices dropped to less than 1% of the pre-bubble prices. This economic collapse brought with it a host of social and cultural changes.

 Azuma: Grand Narrative Collapse
In Hiroki Azuma’s work on Otaku, Japan’s Database Animals, he makes a compelling argument using a notion he calls the “Grand Narrative”. He uses the Grand Narrative to describe the database-like structure that manga and anime are composed of. The specific moe elements indicate a certain lack of participation in any sort of grand storyline. This lack of a morally encoded production symbolizes the Otaku’s way of not participating in the Grand Narrative of Japanese culture. This idea of the “Grand Narrative” can be applied to the economic and social collapse in 1991. Once the bubble collapsed, many people of the older generation looked for some reason or scapegoat to explain it. Several categories of people were attacked ruthlessly in the media.
Kelly & White’s paper called “Students, Slackers, Singles, Seniors, and Strangers: Transforming a Family Nation” argues that these are the main categories of social unrest. Students lack the ability to get jobs, often failing to transition effectively from the educational system to the workplace. Many are forced into low-paying part time jobs, signifying the slackers. Young men and women are tending to stay single for longer. The rapidly growing percentage of the population that is older and not working is a

This publication was one of the most controversial pieces of neo-nationalist literature. Published in 1998

social drain on the economy. The large non-ethnic Japanese population that conflicts with the early nationalism of “ethnic homogeneity” undermines Japanese societies most basic beliefs. All of these types of people are demonized for not participating in the traditional sense of Japanese society. They are accused of not belonging to and perpetuating what made Japan great prior to the bubble. Seen as the reason for the collapse, they offer a view of why the Grand Narrative was lost. By failing to participate in the Japanese societies moral codes, they fail to participate in the “Grand Narrative” of Japan. Incidences such as the Miyazaki child murders, the Kogal girl scandal, and many other highly publicized moral collapses show that the Grand Narrative was seemingly lost.

Neo-Nationalism: A Return to the Grand Narrative
As the decade dragged onwards, with continuously dropping stock prices, and the economy failing the recover, a new return to the Grand Narrative emerged. Neo-nationalism became a highly important and powerful faction in the political scene. Several important neo-nationalist decisions were made by prominent figures. The Japanese Prime Minister visited the highly controversial Yasukuni shrine in 2001, publicly acknowledging the sacrifices made by many war criminals of World War II. This symbolized for many other Asian countries the return of Japan to its nationalist roots which led to many conflicts before and during World War II.
The textbook controversy was a neo-nationalist propagated change to certain history textbooks in regard to World War II. It cast Japanese aggression in a more positive light, white washing many of the casualties. Certain events such as the Nanjing Massacre were described with questionably factual material. The neo-nationalist sentiments have gained much ground in recent years. Authors such as Kobayshi Yoshinori published entire volumes on the “truth” of the war. Most importantly, these books were aimed at younger generations of people. The same scapegoats that fueled media attacks on the loss of Japanese values were the targets of the neo-nationalist literature. The growth of these neo-nationalist youth movements represents a return to the Grand Narrative. However it is important to recognize that the Grand Narrative being supported by the neo-nationalists today is much more analogous to the pre-World War II Japanese sentiments of racial superiority rather than the

Translation: Peace. A festering peace. Nobody knows the true nature of peace

economic bubble Grand Narrative of hard work and national pride.

The Dispute of “Collapse”:
The term of “collapse” is often used to described the popping of the economic bubble. Yet “collapse” is not a neutral term. By taking Azuma’s idea of the “Grand Narrative”, collapse comes to mean a disassociation from the national narratives that guided the Japanese society into economic success. But perhaps the “collapse” wasn’t a collapse for everyone. For the individuals that did not want to participate in the Grand Narrative of everyday life, the collapse was not a negative thing. It symbolizes the post-modern world that they have come to live in. Lacking cultural directives and narratives, the “collapse” symbolized the evolution of society to a super-flat stage where the Grand Narrative had no place. Street art, fashion, internet phenomena, literature, music, and many other contemporary social outlets represent a new age of non-Grand Narrative.

1. Do you think the premise of the paper is strong? Can Azuma’s Grand Narrative actually be applied to this economic bubble collapse?

2. Why was it that the neo-nationalist movement was so attractive to young people? Does it seem like people still yearn for some sort of Grand Narrative?

3. Where does this posting fit on the website? Is it a single topic, or more of a synthesis of several topics?

4. At what point does Azuma’s Grand Narrative model stop working? Does it truly capture the nature of Japanese society?


Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Brinton, Mary C.. Lost in Transition: Youth, Work, and Instability in Postindustrial Japan. New York City: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Kelly, William, and Merry White. “Students, Slackers, Singles, Seniors, and Strangers: Transforming a Family-Nation.” In Beyond Japan: The Dynamics of East Asian Regionalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. 63-84.

Mitani, Hiroshi. “The History Textbook Issue in Japan and East Asia.” In East Asia’s Haunted Present. Westport: Library of Congress, 2008. 83-93.

From Plastic Toys to Plastic Boys: The Rise of K-Pop and K-Cool

What is the ‘K-Wave’?

SHINee is one of the most popular Korean boy groups. But what is it that makes them so appealing?

While Japan has often been thought of as an Asian cultural superpower — with its trendy fashion, tech-savvy devices, and irresistible anime — another Asian wave of culture is steadily encroaching upon Japan’s established ‘coolness’: the Korean wave. Also called hallyu, the Korean wave is a term used to describe the tsunami of South Korean entertainment and culture that began flooding Asia starting from the 1990s, and now recently into Western parts of the world. The Korean wave includes Korean TV dramas, films, and pop music, which is known across the globe as ‘K-Pop.’ These cultural products have become staples in Asian markets formerly dominated by Japan and Hong Kong.

The Korean government has promoted hallyu, using it as a form of soft power, a term American political scientist Joseph Nye calls the ability for a country to attract rather than coerce another country as a means of persuasion. The Korean Foundation was established in 1991, a cultural tool that was formed much more recently than The Japan Foundation in 1972. In addition to the Foundation, the Korean government has also created the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, as well as the Presidential Council on National Branding, which aims to promote Korea’s global image, to right its misconceptions about Korea, its culture, products, and people, and to raise respect to support Korean business and nationals abroad.

Famous American artist MC Hammer poses with PSY at the American Music Awards.

Though the Korean government has taken extraordinary measures to encourage its students to travel abroad, this article aims to focus on K-pop and its effectiveness in the West. Korean pop music is a blend not just of Western and traditional, but of new and old. The music features catchy urban beats, easy dance moves, and lyric hooks that are often sung in English. Neither the boys’ nor girl groups’ lyrics or music videos generally refer to overt sex, drinking, or clubbing — which are usually the most popular themes in Western music. From PSY’s kooky horse gestures to Girl’s Generation’s sleek and slender legs, how exactly did the K-Wave become so big in such a small amount of time? Part of the answer lies within Japan’s globalizing methods.



J-Cool’s Globalizing Methods

K-Pop’s sudden craze in the West isn’t anything new. Koichi Iwabuchi’s Recentering Globalization capitalizes on the decentering of Western influence and the dispersion of non-Western influences that are progressively gaining more global influence — specifically Japanese ‘J-Cool’ since the burst of the bubble economy. This transnational model highlights ideas that culture is not limited to a national framework, does not flow in only one direction, and transnational cultural flows do not displace a nation’s established boundaries, thoughts, or feelings. In the case of Japan, Iwabuchi argues that Japan has little to no cultural presence in the goods it exports to other nations. Japanese products, he claims, are ‘culturally odorless’ (mukokuseki), as they do not contain many traces of Japanese cultural features within them and instead these features are erased or softened.

Iwabuchi’s theories of transculturation and odorlessness can be exemplified through Japanese music companies and the ways in which they dominated the Asian music industry. In the early 1990s, Japanese music industry aimed less to promote its Japanese musicians in the East and Southeast Asian markets; rather, the industry sought out indigenous pop stars who could then be sold to pan-Asian markets with Japanese pop production knowledge. In other words, the Japanese music industries took a back-stage role, and did not overtly promote its own Japanese artists across Asia. Instead of a Japanese band or musician, a non-Japanese artist was found and promoted across pan-Asian countries who could connect more to other Asian nations than Japan itself.

A CD cover for Shanghai Performance Doll.

An example of this can be seen through spin-off groups of popular J-Pop groups in Japan, where the spin-off group members were non-Japanese. A group called “Shanghai Performance Doll,” for example, was a secondary group to Japan’s J-Pop girl group “Tokyo Performance Doll.” Shanghai’s mandarin-speaking group was immensely popular in China, while Japan had its own original Japanese group.

In all, Japan has established itself as a cultural superpower not only in Asia, but also in the West. Using its capital, its management know-how, and its marketing strategies, Japan had taken a dominant marketing role rather than the stage role in the music industry. By using indigenous Asians as their stars, Japan’s cultural presence seemed almost ‘odorless’ and invisible. However, while Japan sits on a formidable reserve of soft power, Korea’s music industries have built off of Japan’s methods, and have now perfected the process.


How K-Pop has Perfected Japan’s Methods

Jessica was born and raised in California, and eventually recruited to be part of Girl’s Generation.

While Japan had searched for non-Japanese stars, Korea is different in that it specifically scouts for singers of Korean origin. This, in effect, makes K-Pop far from being deemed culturally odorless. Three music agencies dominate the K-pop industry: S.M. Entertainment is the largest, followed by J.Y.P. Entertainment and Y.G. Entertainment. The agencies act as manager, agent, and promoter, controlling every aspect of an idol’s career: record sales, concerts, publishing, endorsements, and TV appearances. The agencies recruit twelve to nineteen year olds from around the world, through both open auditions and a network of scouts – though contestants who are of Korean origin and can speak Native English or Chinese are highly prized and preferred. In addition to singing and dancing, the idols study acting and three main languages: Japanese, Chinese, and English. Though on average, only one in ten trainees make it all the way to a debut.

Lee Soo-man, S.M. Entertainment’s founder, is known as K-pop’s constructor. Lee retired as the agency’s C.E.O. in 2010, but he still takes a hand in forming the trainees into idol groups, including S.M.’s newest one, EXO. The group consists of twelve boys, where six are Korean members who make up “EXO-K,” and the other six is a mixture of ethnically Chinese members or Korean boys who can speak Chinese that make up “EXO-M.” The two subgroups release songs at the same time in their respective countries and languages, and promote them simultaneously, thereby achieving “perfect localization,” as Lee calls it. An example of this can be seen in EXO-K and EXO-M’s release of their first single, ‘Mama,’ which attempts to sell the groups as boys who are gifted with supernatural abilities. In reference to promoting EXO-M, a group that is not all ethnically Korean, Lee adds:

 “It may be a Chinese artist or a Chinese company, but what matters in the end is the fact that it was made by [Korea’s] cultural technology. S.M. Entertainment and I see culture as a type of technology. But cultural technology is much more exquisite and complex than information technology.” — Lee Soo-man

S.M. Entertainment and other Korean music industries draw from Japan’s technique of creating spin-off groups containing members who are not of their national origin. They establish the Japanese idea of working behind the scenes when it comes to controlling the marketing and exporting techniques of the non-Korean group. However, while the idols sing in Japanese and Chinese, the sounds, style of the music, and videos adhere to Korean principles that had made them popular in Korea.

Members of boy group INFINITE practice their positions and gestures in a dance studio.

K-Pop companies further their success through manuals. In S.M.’s case, Lee produced a manual of cultural technology, abbreviated as “C.T.,” where he catalogues the steps necessary to popularize K-pop artists in different Asian countries. The manual, which all S.M. recruiters are instructed to learn, explains the camera angles to be used in the music videos, when to bring in foreign composers, producers, and choreographers, as well as the minute specifics, such as the precise color of eye shadow a performer should wear in a particular country and the exact hand gestures he or she should make. S.M.’s stars are made and perfected into idols according to a sophisticated system of artistic development.

Thus, K-Pop has been able to tap into Japan’s globalized music efforts and perfect them. They are so perfect, in fact, that Western artists are recognizing K-Pop’s prestige, like American artist who collaborated with Y.G. Entertainment’s English-speaking girl group 2NE1. Even Nicki Minaj is inspired by 2NE1, to the point that some of her music videos contain Korean influences.

 YouTube Preview Image


K-Pop Using Anime Fan Communities As A Start?

The members of VIXX. Starting from top left: Hyuk, Hongbin, Ken, Ravi, Leo, and N.

A large quantity of Japanese soft power derives from anime and manga — and lately, K-Pop groups are starting to tap into Western fan communities of Japanese culture. One recent example of this was at Otakon 2012, one of the bigger anime conventions held on the East Coast of the US. A rising K-Pop group called VIXX (which stands for Voice, Visual, Value in Excelsis) made their first Western debut in America at the convention, with concert, autograph sessions, Q&A, and all. The group was formed much like One Direction had been on Britain’s X Factor: they were formed by the judges, and then deemed the favorite group by the audience who voted for them in a popular Korean star-search show called My Dol.

VIXX even seems to portray itself as a group that comes out of a videogame, as seen in their latest music video, ‘Rock Ur Body.’

YouTube Preview Image

The group also has a video blog and video diary series on YouTube called VIXX TV, where fans can be updated of where the K-Pop members are, as well as see what they do on a daily life schedule. By having gorgeous faces and bodies, and by giving fans the ability to track their personal lives as a star, K-Pop groups almost seem as if they are fictional characters themselves from a pop idol anime — the only difference being that they are actually real, and in the flesh.


Who Is the Dominant Asian Cultural Superpower Now?

Though Japan has gained prestige as a cultural superpower in both Asia and the West, Korea seems to be catching up through its music industry. While Japan created a basic formula for dominating the music industry in Asia using mukokuseki, Korean pop companies have perfected Japan’s methods and have even popularized Korean music not only in Asia, but in the West as well. This brings one to speculate as to whether or not the K-Wave has the potential to take Japan’s place as the dominant Asian cultural power.



⑴ Could Korea’s effectiveness in the Western markets and in Asia be because of Japan’s ‘imperialistic’ history over Asian countries, and how Asia has harsh criticisms of Japan’s history?

⑵ Is there an overlap between K-Pop and Japanese anime/manga? Can K-Pop be seen as an easy transfer from anime/manga fans and be easier to be introduced to it? How?

⑶ K-Pop has imitated Japan’s music industry model, and has even started to tap into Japan’s fan communities of anime and manga. Can Azuma’s database model theory be applied to Korean Pop artists/singers/bands? (ex. hair styles, physique, legs, etc.) Why or why not?

⑷ Do you think it’s possible for both K-Pop and J-Cool to coexist? Or will one outdo the other in the future?

⑸ Is the J-Wave even on a decline? How so, or how is it not?



Bush, Richard. Public Diplomacy in Northeast Asia: A Comparative Perspective. 30 May 2012. TS. The Brookings Institution, Washington D.C.

Iwabuchi, Koichi. Recentering Globalization. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. Print.

Nye, Joseph. “Soft Power.” Foreign Policy 80.1 (1990): 153-171 Print.

Seabrook, John. “Factory Girls: Cultural Technology and the Making of K-pop.” The New Yorker. 8 October 2012. 25 November 2012. Web.

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?


  • 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. <>.
  • 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. < >.
  • Toku, Masami. “Shojo Manga! Girls’ Comics! A Mirror of Girls’ Dreams.” Mechademia. 2. (2007): 19-32 . Web. 11 Nov. 2012. < >.
  • Winge , Theresa. “Undressing and Dressing Loli: A Search for the Identity of the Japanese Lolita .” Mechademia. 3. (2008): 47-63. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <>.


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-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.




 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?


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Masami Akita, AKA Merzbow [1]

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Uh, ouch?

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Japan’s mythological creatures are a source of rich inspiration for the many anime artists who produce the pop culture which has exploded in popularity in the United States in the past two decades. The mystical creatures of this culture’s bestiary are a unique aspect of its gross national cool which differentiate it from the pop culture exports of other countries. These otherworldly creatures, which are so foreign to the Western imagination, contribute to the popularity of Japanese cultural products in the United States because of their novelty value. [Read more…]