Fashioning Japanese Subcultures

September 13, 2012

For readers familiar with Japanese fashion, the eye-catching cover of Yuniya Kawamura's book may signal a link between this work and photographer Shoichi Aoki's long-running FRUiTS project. FRUiTS' monthly magazine and books present vivid images of Tokyo's dizzying variety of street styles, and indeed, Kawamura notes that her research developed after seeing an exhibition of Aoki's work. However, this book is not just about ways of dressing: it is also about ways of being, and the ways in which fashion becomes part of the construction of identity. Kawamura, a sociologist based in New York, delves into the stories behind her subjects, who are members of different subcultural communities in Tokyo, to explore the meanings behind their appearances.

She situates her scholarly examination of Japanese fashion subcultures in the context of an overview of various academic studies of subculture, against and through which she presents her own work. This research is conveyed in an accessible manner, and Kawamura draws connections between her topic and broader concerns, such as suicide, youth unemployment and changing gender roles.

The startling range of creativity in Japanese fashion subcultures, the desire to define and differentiate oneself through fashion and the search for belonging within subcultural communities are, Kawamura argues, responses to unstable social and economic conditions, where traditional values do not correspond to many young people's lived reality. Her careful observations of, and interviews with, members of various subcultural groups are effectively supported by an outline of contemporary Japanese society, using statistical data. Her examination of the meanings underlying the styles adopted by members of fashion subcultures, as well as the wider context within which those meanings are expressed, is perceptive and informative.

Dividing her empirical analysis into sections on specific Tokyo subcultures, Kawamura focuses on, among others: Shibuya district's gyaru (gals), whose fashion is "cute and erotic"; Harajuku's Lolitas, who dress in "the image of a Victorian doll", and of which there are multiple versions, such as "Punk Loli (Punk Lolita)", "Gosu-Loli (Gothic and Lolita)" and "Ouji (Prince for Lolita)"; and the "cosplayers" (who dress as anime and manga characters) in Akihabara and Ikebukuro. Along with examining the ways in which these subcultures express and enable resistance against the norm, Kawamura convincingly demonstrates that their success depends on interconnected support from institutions (such as retailers and the media) as well as members. She also provides insightful comparison of the processes of creation and diffusion in subcultural and high fashion, highlighting the "trickle-up" nature of the former's development.

There are, Kawamura says, two further aims of her research: to present an alternative model that challenges "male dominance" in subcultures, and to fill the gap created by "Euro-Americentricism" in subculture studies by focusing on a non-Western nation. In highlighting the creativity and influence of the young Japanese women who produce and disseminate subcultural fashion trends, as well as examining the ways in which female gender identity is expressed in fashion subcultures, Kawamura deftly achieves the first of these two aims. Empirical research conducted in Tokyo between 2004 and 2010 ensures that she also accomplishes the second, although in arguing that there is a void in research on Japanese subcultures, she overlooks key work such as Ikuya Sato's study of youth motorcycle gangs, Ian Condry's studies of hip hop in youth culture and Laura Miller's study of kogyaru (usually high school-aged gyaru), to name just a few. Considering these works might have helped to establish a clearer context for this book.

Fashioning Japanese Subcultures

By Yuniya Kawamura. Berg Publishers. 192pp, £55.00 and £17.99. ISBN 9781847889485 and 89478. Published 7 August 2012

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