Japanese people are stereotypically considered serious and formal, but at the same time, Japan is also known for having a good share of weird subcultures and extravagant fashion. Why are there these two poles? 

Show host Kyota Ko explains how Japanese society has naturally served as a hotbed for subcultures like gothic fashion and Kabuki.


Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese bringing you a podcast about things I personally want to tell you about Japan and its culture. My name is Kyota Ko.

Do you care about what other people think of you? Because Japan and Japanese people do, a lot. 

If you get on a rush hour train on a weekday in a winter morning, you’ll think everyone on your car must be attending a funeral that day because everyone’s dressed in black coats. Well not everyone, but people in Japan generally refrain from wearing bright colors. 

Standing out in the crowd is culturally discouraged in Japan. You should distinguish yourself by the quality of your work, not by how you look – is the general way people think. I think it’s for this reason that the vast majority of schools in Japan prohibit their students from dying their hair, wearing make-up and wearing jewelry all the way up to the end of high school. 

So everyone in school has black hair, wears the same uniform and also girls cannot wear their skirts short, and boys who are in certain club activities like baseball and judo all need to shave their heads. If a kid doesn’t comply with these rules, he or she is looking for trouble. Your homeroom teacher’s going to tell you to correct yourself, your parents get a call, they go through these discouragements. 

There is a lot of room for criticism for restricting children’s self expression. When I was going through schooling, of course I thought all this is nothing but suppression of identity and exploration, but now that I’m older, yeah I don’t think changing the color of your hair or availing your undergarments for others to see would help your self-actualization much. If I went back in time, I would tell my teenage self to stop thinking about decorating my underdeveloped tree with ornaments, and instead focus on growing myself into a really big and pretty tree that people would naturally want to gather around. Then think about decorations. 

But of course teenagers don’t look at life that way. They want to show their classmates that they’re different. They want to gain an edge now. And here’s my point. The cultural suppression these Japanese teenagers experience at school has a lot to do with the many weird fashion subcultures that become a thing among young people in any given time.

Japanese youth fashion, especially of girls, can be classified into two big fashion groups: mainstream and subculture. The tricky point here is that the subculture population is huge and ridiculously diverse. As opposed to the mainstream girls who wear more conservative-looking outfits that would help them come across as career-minded people, and either keep their hair black or only color them into dark brown, girls in the subculture category go wild in every way imaginable. 

Some go for the gothic look by wearing maid costumes that resemble 19th century English housekeepers. Some keep the aprons and turn everything pink, including their hair color. In the late 90s there were a few communities of young girls who deliberately tanned their skin as dark as people of color, adhered white eyeshadow around their eyes so that they look like panda bears that got their colors the other way around and on top of that, colored their hair gold or silver. It’s said that these young girls tanned their skin because they genuinely felt black people were cool. But things got out of hand when they started putting on excessive make up.

You basically cannot tell what they originally looked like. 

Sociologists argue that their extreme fashion and transformation into a costume, really, is their way of showing dissatisfaction with all the control Japanese education exercises on them. 

It’s not just girls who go crazy with their fashion. In the 1980’s the 50’s Rockabilly music genre became a big fad in Japan, and many boys and men got pompadour haircuts like Elvis Presley. Pompadour is the hairstyle where your front hair has volume vertically above your forehead. The hairstyle came out of fashion soon, but the bad boys at school  decided to keep it because it looked bad ass. These boys with pompadour hair formed gangs and many grew the pompadour horizontally long and colored it yellow so that it looked like they had a baguette on their heads. They didn’t stop there. These gangs wore white long coats with big Kanji characters written on them, rode customized motorcycles that look like aggressive Disney parade floats, and made engine noises as loud as car horns as they rode into the night while being chased by police. So what they basically did, was, took the word elegance and shredded it into pieces. 

So these extreme alternative fashions are again, young people’s ways to relieve or deal with their frustration towards a society that only acknowledges a certain type of personality. Japanese culture favors people who don’t try to express themselves much because they would disrupt the harmony of society.

But then we need to remember that  these subcultures create new industries and markets. There are fashion magazines and clothing stores catering specifically for alternative fashion, there are automobile parts and decorations made specifically for the noisy and extravagant motorcycles. Cosplay is another alternative fashion statement that’s associated with young people who don’t really fit in in standard Japanese society. 

If you like an anime or manga enough to wear or even create costumes that resemble characters from it, with 100% probability, you are obsessed with that anime or manga. Having an obsession in an anime or manga means you will devote a lot of time and money on them, which means you are left with less time and money to spend on socializing with different kinds of people, and shopping for things that people your age would be interested in buying. So naturally, you become a member of an alternative subculture, not mainstream. 

But the cosplay industry is not small. Cosplay costumes are a 320 million dollar market just in Japan. That’s equivalent to the annual tax revenue of the Solomon Islands. It’s as big as a country’s tax revenue of a whole year. 

So although Japanese culture tends to look down on people who try to stand out by the way they dress, fashion subcultures have been part of socioeconomic activities in the country for a long time, at least as early as the 17th century, when Kabuki first started. 

The word Kabuki is derived from “Kabuku” which is an obsolete verb that means to flaunt, or dress or act in a conspicuous, showy manner. So there were these young people in the 17th century who dressed in overly elaborate clothing in urban areas like Edo, which is the old name of Tokyo, and Kyoto. So they were doing pretty much the same thing the subcultural young people do nowadays. Now, teenagers and young people dressed in costumes and extravagant outfits hang out in shopping areas such as Shibuya and Ikebukuro in Tokyo. These alternative fashion representatives are subject to ridicule by more ordinary, or I should say mainstream Japanese people.

Anyway, the ancestors of these crazy young people in the 17th century were strolling around town to get attention, and one day a young girl dressed in a radical kimono outfit decided to put on a song-and-dance performance in the middle of a busy street. The performance became widely popular, and soon came to be called Kabuki. 

Kabuki was acknowledged as an important intangible cultural heritage in 1965 in Japan, and was globally acknowledged as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2009. Kabuki now represents Japanese culture. So we don’t know. Maybe the alternative youth fashions will one day become recognized as something we are nationally proud of. 

Anyway in Japan, standing out in the crowd is looked down on, so Japanese schools have so many rules about what you should wear and how you should wear them. Therefore there’s not much room for teenagers to try out different looks in daily life. Because self-expression and exploration of personal identity is suppressed at school, young people who refuse to be suppressed just explode with their desires to explore on weekends, and come up with crazy ideas to reinvent their looks. Craziness goes to such an extreme that inspires others to follow, and therefore grows into a subcultural phenomenon that’s big enough to generate a new industry. 

Otaku culture – the anime and manga culture was also at first a subculture that was supported generally by people who didn’t really fit into the mainstream Japanese lifestyle because they were so obsessed with imaginary stories and characters. But now, it’s obvious that it’s helping to direct attention of people around the world towards Japan and it’s imaginary creations. The tourism industry in Japan is definitely benefiting from otaku culture creating and attracting otakus from around the globe. And being an otaku has started to be considered ok among young people nowadays. The subculture has already found its place in the youth population.

I personally think Japanese people owe to all the subcultures that were given birth by minorities who they once didn’t recognize or accept. Some of these subcultures help Japan to have an identity in the global community.

I hope you enjoyed this episode. See you next week.