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Social Studies Essay: Harajuku Style as a Response to Cultural Repression

Personal style has always been an opportunity for marks of distinction, but in the case of repressive cultures with oppressive standards personal style can be both weapon and armor. Japanese culture has always been known for its high levels of expertise and dedication to their own ideal, however after the devastation of WWII the Japanese people suffered a cultural and psychological break from their Shinto traditions. The shock and horror of two atomic bombs created a nationwide case of Stockholm syndrome, and since that time Japan has fanatically emulated the West.

Taking the consumerism and work ethic inherent in the American Dream to characteristic Japanese extreme, the entire nation was refitted for the international competition of commerce. The youth of the nation began to be funneled entirely into this goal with single minded perfectionism which created the fastest growing and strongest economy in the world. However, feeling the pressure building as their childhoods were shrinking some of the Japanese youth rebelled against their futures set plan with the Harajuku fashions which defy all convention (Donahue 116). This sample cultural essay demonstrates the custom writing services offered from Ultius.

Harajuku Style as a response to cultural repression

Named after the fashion district in which the style was born, Harajuku is characterized by Japanese youth turning themselves into living dolls. The movement began:

Finding its roots in the American post-World War II occupation of Japan, Harajuku culture and fashion was developed when the Japanese youth, hungry to learn about Western culture, managed to draw information and products from the military. Shops and services catering to the occupying military were established, and through business and trade, Japan’s Harajuku District was exposed to Western fashion and culture, igniting a wave of Western influence in Japan. (White 1)

Characteristics of Harajuku

The contemporary interpretation of Harajuku has been termed the Lolita subcultural fashion. Overblown makeup, hair, accessories, and complex fashions all combine in a harmonious cacophony of visual expression. The message of which is a cute scream “I will not go quietly into adulthood!” The Harajuku girls, “Hararjuku-kei” have one word to express the spirit behind their expression explosion-freedom (Imamura 1). While the Lolita subset of Harajuku is specifically about pastel colors, ruffles and lace in the Victorian style, the Harajuku style is set apart by a mish-mash of all styles and colors (Japanese Perspective 1). Characteristics of the Harajuku style are:

  • Colorful, exotic clothing, wigs, contacts, accessories, make-up, shoes, etc.
  • The “V” for victory Japanese peace sign
  • Cellphones with elaborate bangles
  • Stuffed animals either on person, in hair, as a backpack, or purse
  • Twins-two Harajuku girls dressed as one
  • Face masks
  • Furry elements, skirts, shall, bracelets, etc.
  • Elaborate hairdos; braids, dreadlocks, extensions
  • Fake eyelashes.
  • Umbrellas/Parasols.
  • Mix of punk and Goth with cute, or Kawaii (super cute)
  • Platform shoes for both genders
  • Piercings, spiky jewelry, but not tattoos
  • Grouping, Harajuku girls are rarely alone in their celebration
  • Glitter, rhinestones, and a bringing of the 80s style into the present
  • Frills, lace, and many layers of fabric

Much like the Japanese Kimono would wrap many layers to entice as well as conceal, the Harajuku fashions are intricate, often covering most of the flesh. In this way the girls are taking back their sexuality from a hyper-sexualized, media driven youth market, and making it more innocent through becoming dolls. Japanese model and singer Una, has been asked to describe what Harajuku is for her. She replied:

“Real Harajuku girls have strong self-esteem, so even if there is a big trend, they would arrange it into their own style. That’s why I see a little of Otaku and spirit of defiance in there” (Imamura 1).

This spirit of defiance is against the strong conventions of contemporary Japan, which often translates into exceptionally high academic and behavior standards for youth. Youths in Japan observe the stresses of their parent’s lives, and some decide to celebrate their youth while they can via the expressions of Harajuku. Harajuku style transcends appearance into an entire culture, with its own lingo and customs (Kawamura 65). In this way, the Harajuku movement is a reaction and a replacement of the stringent corporate culture of contemporary Japan for youths who do not like the single-minded determination of their future course (Japanese Perspective 1).

Economics of Harajuku

The Japanese have always been highly nationalistic, and put a lot of pressure on themselves to conform to the highest Japanese ideal. Ironically, the Harajuku and Lolita fashion styles are quite expensive to achieve, and many of the girls are relying on their fathers, “salarymen” – the very institution they are rebelling against. This is one of the powers of consumer culture which has the potential to subsume everything to its own ends, even rebellion. Often absent fathers, these salarymen of the Harajuku-kei may feel a lingering doubt or guilt at the cultural pressures they contribute to without being able to break away from the social conditioning which sustains it. In this way, their support of their daughters’ flamboyant and expensive celebration of the freest time in their lives may be spiced with wistful and bittersweet regret at the limitations of their own freedom in contemporary Japanese culture (Japanese Perspective 1). Within the Harajuku culture there are many subsets, many fashion styles, and many different groups who spend time in this area.

You may see people dressed in the following styles: Gothic Lolita, Decora, Kogal, Ganguro, Wamono, Second-Hand Fashion, Cyber Fashion. Decora comes from the word ‘Decoration’ and is a colorful style, usually with layered bright clothing and an emphasis on ‘cute’ and brightly colored accessories. Wamono is a style that mixes traditional Japanese clothing with western clothing styles. Visual Kei or Anime Cosplayers also gather in Harajuku. However, these are not fashion movements. (GoJapanGo 1)

Harajuku as a coping mechanism

Many Japanese youth see adulthood as a type of death, a belief which many adults have come to embrace as well. The difference in the coping mechanisms between young girls and boys in Japan is stark. While the Harajuku culture is dominated by girls, the new cultural and mental disorder known as Hikikomori affect primarily men. Hikikomori is a term meaning “pulling in” or “withdrawal” and it is used to describe the growing population of young Japanese males who are totally withdrawing from culture, and becoming shut-ins. While the Harajuku style was also a cultural emblem of the success of their economics, Hikikomori is a cultural emblem of the boom and bust economy which is the heart beat of consumerism. However, how Japanese choose to deal with these challenges vary greatly according to gender:

As much as 80% of these individuals are males, and many come from middle-class homes which are able to support them as they barricade themselves in their rooms, shunning friends and family. Left alone, some watch television, some surf the Internet, and some simply do nothing but think. There have been reported cases of obsessive compulsive actions amongst these individuals, such as cleaning their rooms over and over, or self-directed acts of harm, such as “cutting”; however, many hikikomori seem to lead quiet lives of isolated desperation. (Grisafe 1)

This choice is the result of the Japanese job market being flush, the recession, and the Japanese practice of keeping on older employees indefinitely. This downturn began at the turn of the Millennium, and today even though:

“50% of high school graduates go on to complete 4-year universities, up to 20% of them can only find low-paying jobs after graduation. This became even worse in 2003 when unemployment in 20-24 year olds rose to 10%” (Grisafe 1).

So far there is no end in sight for these trends, which is boding very ill for the next generation of Japanese, who are still being held to high academic standards, and once committed to a course are fanatically consistent.

Sociology of Harajuku

However, the Harajuku movement has inspired other women in repressive cultures to take on the mantel of baby doll. Muslim women have adopted the Lolita look as a way to embellish their required hijab. Twenty-five-year-old Muslim living in California, Alyssa Salazar took on the look in part because she would routinely be harassed by Americans who did not appreciate diversity. She reports:

“I get drive-by haters that say, ‘Take it off, it’s not Iraq,’ she explains in an interview with VICE. ‘But when I’m in Lolita, it’s different. People think it’s a costume” (Redfern 1).

While women in Muslim countries have begun to emulate this empowering movement, it is sobering to see that America can also be a repressive place for those who do not conform to the status quo. Researchers admit:

It makes sense – in a society which favours conformity, anybody who has the guts to stand out from the crowd deserves a high five. And in a society where Islamophobia seems to be on the rise too, it’s hardly surprising if some Muslim women feel relief if they find a way to distract from their headscarves. (Redfern 1)

The Harajuku and Lolita movements are ultimately feminist movements in the heart of Patriarchal global culture which continues to minimize the rights of women. Even the term Lolita, is a taking back of the term from the corruption connected with Nabokov’s 1955 novel, in which a:

“middle-aged man, becomes obsessed with a twelve-year-old girl named Dolores Haze, also called Dolly, Lolita, Lola, Lo, and L. Similarity, in Japan the term Lolita complex, often shortened to Loli-con, refers to a man’s perverse sexual preference for young girls” (Kawamura 66).

In this way, young women stand up to the debilitating stress of being consistently degraded into a sex object as a child, and flip the script.


Young girls are moving into more and more empowered positions around the world, and repressive cultural customs are crumbling under their determination and sheet cuteness. While the younger generation of boys do not appear to be holding up as well to the challenges of the age, perhaps they can gain inspiration from their sisters who face these challenges with a “V” sign and a smile. While Harajuku may be a place name in Japan it has come to mean also a perspective on life which is both fun and brave.

Works Cited

Donahue, Ray T. “Japanese Culture and Communication: Critical Cultural Analysis.” New York: University Press of America. 1998. Web. Viewed on 10 May 2016.

Grisafe, Michael. “Can Culture Create Mental Disease? The Rise of ‘Hikikomori’ in the Wake of Economic Downturn in Japan.” 16 Nov. 2012. Web. Viewed on 10 May 2016.

GoJapanGo. “Harajuku Girls.”, n.d. Web. Viewed on 10 May 2016.

Imamura, Eri. “What true ‘Harajuku fashion” is about.” Ignition, n.d. Web. Viewed on 10 May 2016.

Japanese Perspective. “Collaboration between Japanese Fashion and Muslim Fashion.” Japanese Perspective. 26 July 2015. Web. Viewed on 10 May 2016. Web. Viewed on 10 May 2016.

Kawamura, Yuniya. “Harajuku: The Youth in Silent Rebellion.” In Fashioning Japanese Subcultures. New York: Berg. 2012. Web. Viewed on 10 May 2016.

Redfern, Corrine. “Meet The Muslim Lolitas Changing The Face Of Harajuku Fashion, One Headscarf At A Time.” Marieclaire. 6 Aug. 2015. Web. Viewed on 10 May 2016.

White, Christopher. “Japan Harajuku Culture.” Guardian Liberty Voice. 19 Feb. 2014. Web. Viewed on 10 May 2016.

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