Japanese Fashionology Vol. 01

Why Does the Theme “Japanese Fashion Draws Attention” Actually Draws Attention?

Asuka Watanabe
Asuka Watanabe

Doctor of Sociology and associate professor

Dr. Watanabe is an associate Professor at Kyoritsu Women's Junior College Department of the Science of Living. She graduated Kyoritsu Women's University with a master’s degree in Home Economics, later graduating from the Tokyo Metropolitan University Graduate School of Humanities with a doctorate in Sociology. She researches contemporary fashion based on street fashion with an emphasis on locations, people and backgrounds. Street Fashion Logic (『ストリートファッション論』,SANNO Institute of Management Publication Dept.), Fashion of Japan (『日本のファッション』,SEIGENSHA Art Publishing, Inc.)
Japanese fashion gets attention from all over the world. The styles seems to be only trends, like any other, but, at the same time, they spread in a unique way. What controls the rise and fall of these fashions? Japan has experienced 3 major fashion revolutions: the introduction of western fashion, the shocking extreme of Japanese fashion in the ‘80s, and street fashion of ‘90s. Japanese brands and fashion magazines’ existence have come into their own, but they have yet to be understood by western sensibilities. Asuka Watanabe (Doctor of Sociology and associate professor) answers the question “Why is Japanese fashion so unique?” by examining the social relationships and problems.(by XAMOSCHi staff)


’70s by Asuka Watanabe


Japanese fashion has drawn attention from all over the world.


In recent years, Japanese pop culture such as comics, animation, games, and movies has been enjoyed internationally, and fashion is no exception. When you go to department stores in Ginza or Shinjuku, you can see many tourists from all over the world buying Japanese clothing, goods, and cosmetics. When you go to Akihabara or Harajuku, it’s not uncommon to see the tourists dressed in maid uniforms or Lolita fashion. Japanese brands such as “MUJI” and “UNIQLO” are popular not only in Japan but also outside of Japan, and flagship stores can be seen in Paris, London, New York, and many other major cities. Speaking of Paris, there is an event dedicated to Japanese culture called “Japan Expo” (http://www.japan-expo.com/en/) since 2000. At this event many young people from not only France but from all over the world come and enjoy Gothic & Lolita fashion. Also, a public-private investment fund called the Cool Japan Fund Inc. (http://www.cj-fund.co.jp/en/) has been established in 2013 in Japan. This fund aims to commercialize “Cool Japan” and increase overseas demand, and schemes to develop especially the creative sectors are being rolled out.


’80s by Asuka Watanabe


So What is Japanese fashion?


So what is “Japanese fashion”? The Japanese started to dress in Western style quite recently, since the Meiji era, which was about a 100 years ago. Before that everyday clothing was a Kimono. Western-style clothing became more popular only after World War II, which has only been about 70 years. Japanese Western style clothing has been around for less than a human’s average life expectancy. But what makes Japanese fashion so special that it draws attention from all over the world?
In this column, I am planning to cover topics and explain about the real concrete examples of Japanese fashion, such as how the Japanese have a tendency of tapping into each current trend at such a rapid pace, the differences in fashion according to areas such as Harajuku/Shibuya/Ginza, the make-up obsession of young females, sale information, fashion for Hatsumode (the first shrine visit of the New Year) and Coming-Of-Age Ceremony, fashion for Halloween, and male fashion.


I plan to talk about these from next time, but for Vol. 01, under the assumption that “Japanese fashion has drawn attention from abroad” is a well-known fact, I would like to take a look at why Japanese fashion actually draws attention, through one of the iconic fashion adjectives: Kawaii.


’90s by Asuka Watanabe


Leaving It Up to the Others to Decide? Kawaii is a Word to Express Empathy.


According to the author of the book Theory of Kawaii by Inuhiko Yomokata(『「かわいい」論』四方田 犬彦,Chikumashobo Ltd.), the adjective Kawaii has been a kind of aesthetic in the 21st century. The word Kawaii (meaning cute, and adorable) has an image of something that is small, young, and at the same time has a nostalgic feel. This is a unique feeling that is very Japanese.
In fact, the Japanese are good at making cute fashions. The 1970s were the groundbreaking years for Kawaii fashion. The world famous Kawaii character, Hello Kitty was born in 1974, and brands such as the famous Lolita fashion brand MILK from Harajuku, and country style meets romantic fashion brand PINK HOUSE were born in the 1970s. Then came the 1980s. In the 1980s, the romantic fashion proposed by the fashion magazine Olive (MAGAZINE HOUSE,Ltd.) became a big hit among teens and the admirers were called Olive Girls. The following years, the 1990s, became the originating years for lacy fashion, GothLoli (Gothic & Lolita). In the late 2000s, natural and girlish fashion Mori Girl (森ガール,meaning forest girl) became hip, and the 2010s have become the years that have a pop, over the top, fantasy-like fashion, such as music star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu demonstrates. The word Kawaii is no longer just a Japanese word, but now a global word that can be used in other languages like how Wabi, Sabi, and Umami have been.


’00s by Asuka Watanabe


What Kawaii Fashion has in Common.


Kawaii fashion is different in every era or group. Kawaii fashion could be white and puffy, then at other times it could be very colorful, futuristic, and shiny. Or it could be an androgynous look, or even a pathological look. In some groups an unbalanced combination of romantic fashion with heavy boots or a motorcycle jacket would be considered Kawaii. There are many ways to define Kawaii, but there is one common element about these very different Kawaii fashions. That one common element is that the person wearing the clothes does not judge or evaluate the fashion, but someone else does, and this creates empathy.


For example, when you look at the young girls at shops or meeting areas, they ask each other “Kawaii?” more than saying “Hello” to each other. When they want to give compliments to a friend’s fashion, or when they see something at the shops that is cute they use the word Kawaii to share the feeling. Also when they see something fashionable on blogs, Instagram, and WEAR (wear.jp/, a fashion SNS that is a big hit in Japan), they ask if it is “Kawaii?”, and they hit “Like” and praise the fashion in comments.
By asking if it is Kawaii, the person who is asking is hoping that everyone agrees with this. They become very happy when everyone agrees and say it is Kawaii to them. This is used only on things and fashion, but it is never used on the actual person.
The Japanese fashionistas are able to build an eye for stylish fashion thanks to this passive approach of waiting for someone to evaluate the fashion and at the same time needing to evaluate if other people’s fashions are really Kawaii. This acts as a kind of training. Through this training, the Japanese fashionistas want to become more Kawaii, since they have been building an eye for stylish fashion, and, as a result, they become more Kawaii. This repeats, and thus it is thought to be one of the reasons why Japanese fashion has accelerated.


’10s by Asuka Watanabe


This is similar to when Japan is praised for being cool. When this happens, we Japanese think “Oh, Japan is cool? Really?” Then we finally realize that Japan is cool, and we want to make it better. This applies to why the theme “Japanese fashion draws attention” actually draws attention, too.
Another fact is that Japanese people doesn’t have their own system of evaluation, and wait for others to evaluate it. Everyone incorporates the fashion trend in their everyday style. I will discuss what is meant by this, and point out how seriously the Japanese do this in detail in my next column in Vol. 02.


’10s by Asuka Watanabe


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