lessons in originality from tokyo’s club kids
In the past, Japan’s paradoxical penchant for ultra-conformity spawned some of the most original style tribes in the world. Now, the next generation is taking things further. Why, in a country that prizes fitting in, does unique style thrive?
There is an overused saying about Japanese society that goes something like: 'the nail that sticks out will be hammered down.' It's a concept rooted in the perception of Far Eastern societies being at odds with the individualistic West - our equivalent saying is 'the squeaky wheel gets the grease'. Of course, the overriding view is that Japanese society favours the group, and not the individual - any Tokyo salaryman working 80 hours a week so as not to let the side down can attest to that. Why then, does the capital city of a country seemingly bent on groupthink provide a unique and fertile playground for people to stand out when it comes to fashion?
It seems part of the reason simply comes down to the clothes that Tokyoites have access to. Londoner Chloe Michaud, a recent expat to Tokyo and an employee at Harajuku's 'kawaii rebellion' store 6%DokiDoki, says that "there aren't really the resources [in London] to dress in the same way that you can in Tokyo - there are a lot of smaller businesses doing interesting stuff here. In London, you can't start a business like that because it would be doomed to fail." Michaud also says that the community of people that work in these places is strong: "Being shop staff in Harajuku is a huge deal because it means you're connected to everyone on the alternative fashion scene, and it's a way in." Although Japan's economy has seen better days and a lot of these businesses are threatened by increased gentrification in Harajuku, Michaud insists that "there's still a lot more opportunity to 'do your own thing' in Japan. People are really supportive of others here."
"Now that Instagram rules the international fashion kingdom, it's less about gangs of Lolitas and more about the individual game-changers who can build an image on their own terms with the help of the internet."
That support isn't lost on Tokyo's young style icons. Despite the majority of designers at Tokyo Fashion Week that are underrated by the mainstream Western fashion press, the city's street style is another story, with slideshows of Tokyoites a popular mainstay for many international fashion sites. Tokyo has a growing reputation for serving up some seriously pyrotechnic looks on the street each season, and the city often has terms like 'wacky' or 'wild' applied to it. Japan's cachet of cool runs deep enough that these usually-trite phrases ring true: Tokyo might be the only city in the world that might be described as 'fashion-forward' without eliciting raised eyebrows.
The word 'subcultures' also gets thrown around a lot because of the heydays of Harajuku, but nowadays things have moved on: now that Instagram rules the international fashion kingdom, it's less about gangs of Lolitas and more about the individual game-changers who can build an image on their own terms with the help of the internet. One of those game changers is Shoushi, a 20-year-old DJ and student at Bunka Fashion College, and a familiar face on any Tokyo street style blog worth its salt. With waist-length neon braids, a terrifying manicure of metallic 3-inch nails, and an invariably attention-grabbing style, Shoushi has coined his distinctive look as 'Neo Street Fashion', and sits at the frontier of Tokyo's street style renaissance. Still, Shoushi manages to keep his style grounded with a sense of humour: when I meet him, he is wearing a black sweatshirt emblazoned with Kim Jong Un's grinning face on it. When I ask him why he started dressing up, Shoushi cites his schooldays, and the strong sense of competition that is common among Japanese students. "The other boys didn't like me because I couldn't study and I couldn't play sports," he said. But there was one thing he knew he could beat them at. "I wanted to win at something, and I thought 'I can dress up!'" he laughs. "And I won at that." From there, he's gone from strength to strength on the Tokyo fashion scene. He is refreshingly unpretentious and savvy when it comes to his fashion sense, and openly admits that he dresses "to promote my style and my brand." Currently in his final year at university, Shoushi is in the process of launching an online shop called We Can Wear Anything. The concept is in the name, and Shoushi plans to use the store as a platform for young international designers who are offering something different.
"The kind of nights that provide an opportunity to go wild with your outfit are few and far between in Tokyo. In many ways the club scene here has a lot of catching up to do - it hasn't even been two years since Japan lifted its notorious ban on dancing in public."
Despite being a regular DJ on Tokyo's alternative nightlife scene, Shoushi notes that "In foreign countries people have club culture, so everybody dresses up at night, but Japan doesn't have that, so people don't often have a time where they can dress up." The kind of nights that provide an opportunity to go wild with your outfit are few and far between in Tokyo. In many ways the club scene here has a lot of catching up to do - it hasn't even been two years since Japan lifted its notorious ban on dancing in public. While the absence of a thriving alternative club scene might seem like a negative thing, it does mean that the sense of fun usually reserved for dressing up to go clubbing is filtered onto the streets instead. It follows that if Tokyo's club kids want to dress up, they have to find a way to funnel that creativity into the daytime as well as the night.
Unfortunately in other parts of the world, dressing up at any time of day often invites more than just funny looks. Part of the reason behind Tokyo's confidence has to do with the absence of fear: there's little risk of being beaten up for what you look like in Japan, so there is an unfettered freedom to dress how you want to. "I act really confident with how I dress, but in London I'd actually be really scared leaving the house half the time," says Chloe Michaud, who grew up in Walthamstow. "As soon as you go out, you know you're going to be exposed to people shouting at you." Thankfully, that isn't something that crosses her mind in Tokyo. The high bar for outré aesthetics set by Tokyo's subcultures over the past few decades means Japan's attitude towards young people dressing up is rarely hostile. In other words, there's none of the abuse shouted out of a white van that anyone who grew up in the UK will be familiar with. Of course, even in Japan people may still see you as a freak if you dress like one, but the incentive to bin the blue lipstick and start wearing chinos everyday evaporates when there's no hate crime to fear. In that sense, perhaps we should reevaluate our misconceptions about contemporary Japan, and rewrite those outdated maxims: contrary to being hammered down, the nail that sticks out in Japan may actually be in the perfect place.
Text Ashley Clarke