Harajuku Culture and Trends

Learn about the Harajuku culture, fashion and trends in Japan.
By: Michael Strickland

These days, Japan is as known for offbeat trends as it is for sushi. For the country that gave the world Tamagotchi digital pets, maid cafes and honey dolls, hordes of teenagers dressed up as anime characters and caricatures of Western culture memes are par for the course. The hub of this youth-oriented, street-fashion craze is the area surrounding Harajuku Station in Tokyo.

And it’s not a new trend. Harajuku culture got its start during the postwar Allied occupation of Japan, when American soldiers and civilians lived in the area. Curious Japanese youths came to experience a different culture and browse the Western goods in local stores catering to the Americans. Eventually, fashion designers and their entourages settled in the area, calling themselves “the Harajuku tribe.” The movement got a boost when the 1964 Tokyo Olympics brought in waves of tourists and shops that catered to them.

Today, the Harajuku area is not just the center for fashion-forward Japanese youth. It’s also one of the world’s fashion centers. Omotesando, one of the main streets, has been compared to Paris’s Champs-Elysees, with Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Prada recently setting up shop. The district's other main drag, Takeshita Street, is the focal point for gatherings every Sunday by Japanese youth dressed in the many different styles of Harajuku culture. These styles constantly change; as some are abandoned, others evolve and many are often combined. But these are some of the more popular and enduring styles you may see on any given Sunday:

Cosplay, or “costume play,” involves assuming the persona of a well-known character from a movie, game, band or manga (comic book). This means not just dressing up in a costume to look the part, but also acting the part.

This style carries none of the Western sexual connotations that the term “Lolita” evokes, instead embodying a modest look based on Victorian-era fashion. The typical Lolita wears a cupcake-shaped knee-length skirt with petticoats and knee-high stockings, though the style often includes full-length skirts, corsets and headdresses.

Inspired by the punk-rock era, the punk style features all the hallmarks of rebelliousness: leather, piercings, chains, zippers and boots, with clothing generally in dark colors or plaid.

A term transliterated from the English word “gal,” gyaru style is typified by an overtly childish, girly look, often seen as a caricature of the typical American teenager. Bleached or dyed hair, and garishly decorated makeup and nails are de rigueur. Clothing styles vary, based on which gyaru sub-style is chosen.

Ganguro style (roughly translated as “black face”) takes the girly-glam gyaru style to a whole new level. You can tell a ganguro girl by her deep artificial tan, hair dyed orange, blonde or silver and black-lined eyes surrounded by white eye shadow. This look is often accessorized by facial gems and stickers, false eyelashes, platform shoes and brightly colored clothing.

As if ganguro wasn’t unconventional enough, yamanba and manba styles carry ganguro to even greater extreme. The tan is much darker, often brown; the makeup is even more radical, almost clown-like; hair colors are usually neon, often in dreadlocks. This style’s name, unsurprisingly, originates from “Yama-uba,” a mountain hag from Japanese folklore.

Visual Kei
Visual kei (“visual style”) is characterized by the use of garish costumes, flamboyant hair and makeup and an androgynous look. Originally a movement within Japan’s music scene, the style was adopted by fans emulating their idols, making it in some ways a form of cosplay.

The popularity of Harajuku fashion and culture has gone international, with regular Harajuku-style meetings in many countries -- including a “Muslim Lolita” gathering in Malaysia and even a new “Harajuku Mini” children’s clothing line in Target stores launched by Gwen Stefani.

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