Japan’s street fashion scene is famous around the globe for its ever-changing face - from over-the-top cute and colorful to extreme darkness, from haute couture to hardcore sneaker heads, from styles inspired by ancient fairy tales to looks from the cyber future.
The heart of the Japanese street fashion scene today is Harajuku - as it has been for decades. Long before brands like Comme Des Garcons, BAPE, and Undercover became household names in the West, they’d already made names for themselves on the streets of Harajuku. Countless designers, global trends, and fashion subcultures got their start in this small neighborhood of Tokyo.
While there are other places in Japan where street fashion also thrives, Harajuku is the undisputed heart and soul of the Japanese street fashion scene. To understand the state of Japanese street fashion in 2016, we need to take a look at the current state of Harajuku.
The general feeling on the streets of Harajuku over the last year is that big changes are coming to the neighborhood. Many people are optimistic, some are not. Time will tell what the future holds, but for now here are 10 things that you need to know about the state of Japanese street fashion in 2016.
1. Kawaii Boys / Genderless Kei
Harajuku is popular with both girls and boys, but Harajuku Girls have received exponentially more attention from magazines, fashion designers, the Japanese media, the international media, social media, and pretty much everyone else. Most of the famous Japanese street style subcultures have also been traditionally female-centric (lolita, fairy kei, decora, gyaru, dolly kei, mori, etc.). But recently a new Japanese style tribe has appeared on the scene, ready to smash centuries of gender stereotypes in a very 21st century way. We are calling these new arrivals the “Kawaii Boys” of Harajuku.
Kawaii Boys are cutely dressed Japanese boys who fully embrace the “kawaii” type of fashion that has traditionally been the (nearly) exclusive domain of Japanese teen girls. The Japanese media has dubbed these new Kawaii Boys “Genderless Kei” (“kei” means “style”), but that label applies to a bigger genre than just the Kawaii Boys of Harajuku. For full info on the Genderless boom, check out Genderless Kei - Japan’s Hot New Fashion Trend. For this article, we’ll focus on the Kawaii Boys sub-genre of Genderless Kei.
Though the Kawaii Boys’ styles vary, the most popular look is childlike rather than traditionally feminine. These are not crossdressers, most of them are not gay, and they are not trying to look like - or pass as - women. They are specifically aiming for a happy fun Genderless style. That said, none of these new generation of Kawaii Boys are afraid of incorporating traditionally female fashion elements and makeup into their looks.
There are two famous Kawaii Boys who have been key in defining and promoting this new Harajuku style.
Ryucheru rocketed to fame as the boyfriend of Peco, Japan’s hottest new kawaii star (see #2 below for info on Peco). Ryucheru and Peco appear on Japanese television together often. His trademark accessory is his headband, but his hair, makeup, and colorful fashion all contribute to his unique Genderless Kawaii Boy style. Ryucheru has built a strong following which has helped to promote the Harajuku version of Genderless Kei over the last year.
Pey’s style is quite similar to Ryucheru, and in fact they have sometimes appeared together in Japanese media. Pey works at the popular WC boutique on Takeshita Dori in Harajuku. The shop’s concept is a kawaii bedroom - and who better to share your kawaii bedroom than your kawaii Genderless friend? Like Ryucheru, Pey wears makeup, colors his hair, and loves nail polish. He has been described as a “Toy Boy”, which means that he likes cute colorful things like children’s toys.
There are more Kawaii Boys in Harajuku as well, but at this point Ryucheru and Pey are the ones setting the trend for others to follow.
Other popular Harajuku street snap personalities and idols who fall into the new Genderless Kei genre include Toman (XOX), Yohdi Kondo, Kanata (6%DOKIDOKI), Devil (Yusuke Hida), and Shoshipoyo. P-chan from the Tempura Kidz and Yuutarou (from the Harajuku boutique San To Nibun No Ichi) sometimes get included on lists of Genderless idols as well. While these models may fit into Genderless Kei, they are not the exact “Kawaii Boy” style that we are calling a trend on here. Please see our article on the wider Genderless Kei trend for more information!
When we first street snapped Tetsuko Okuhira - nicknamed “Peco” - in Harajuku back in 2013, she was an 18-year-old student from Osaka. She was cutely styled and very sweet, but there was no indication that a few years later Peco-mania would be sweeping through the streets of Harajuku.
Japanese magazines have dubbed her style “Peco Kei”, her fans are known as “Peco Girls”, and her makeup style is “Peco Face”. She has her own brand “Peco Club”, there are “Princess Peco” purikura (picture booths) on the famous Takeshita Street, she has her own YouTube channel, she appears monthly in Japanese fashion magazines, and she’s in high demand - along with her boyfriend Ryucheru - on Japanese television shows.
Known for her blonde hair and large eyes, Peco is at the forefront of the current “pop” style boom in Harajuku. Japanese media likes to say that Peco’s image is that of a “foreign schoolgirl”, likely because her style appears inspired by the movie Clueless, vintage cheerleader uniforms, and other cute Americana from the 1990s, 1980s, and even 1950s. Peco surrounds herself with pink and pastel kawaii items like Disney goods, Barbie, American candy, My Little Pony, vintage toys, and even old vinyl records.
From the outside, it would be easy to confuse Peco’s style with previous kawaii Japanese style tribes like Fairy Kei or Spank Girls - but this is something very new.
While Fairy Kei and Spank styles are sugary sweet, Peco’s style has an edge that parallels Bubbles Harajuku, the popular boutique that produces her “Peco Club” line. Both Peco and Bubbles add a bit of 1990s riot girl and post-social media attitude to the kawaii mix, setting it apart from previous kawaii Japanese styles. On the surface everything looks cute and pastel, but Courtney Love’s “Live Through This” and Tumblr bad-girl attitude lurk just under the surface. It’s not easy to explain, but neither Fairy Kei nor Spank Girls would ever use the word “fuckboys” in their designs like this next generation kawaii does.
One of the most popular personalities in Harajuku right now, Peco appears to have a lot of momentum. She’s at a place where Kyary Pamyu Pamyu was a few years ago (minus the interest from foreigners). Time will tell whether this is the beginning of a long successful career or if interest will eventually die down - but for now she’s definitely earned the nickname Princess Peco.
3. Bubbles Harajuku
For the last two years, Bubbles Harajuku has been the most influential shop/brand in Tokyo - maybe all of Japan - with trendy Harajuku-loving teen girls. That’s an amazing accomplishment, especially considering how relatively small and new the brand is compared to its competitors. Bubbles was founded in Harajuku in 2011 as a small vintage boutique selling one-of-a kind items. At some point in 2013, the shop evolved into a brand producing original kawaii fashion and accessories - and it took off like a rocket.
While Bubbles still only has three shops in all of Japan - Harajuku, Shibuya, and Osaka - long-established nationwide trend chains like WEGO and Spinns have found themselves chasing their lead. Bubbles original items regularly sell out on pre-order before they are even released, and the queues outside of the Harajuku shop for Peco Club events can be into the hundreds if not thousands of people.
Bubbles overall style is similar to Peco’s style, as described above. The items generally look very sweet and cute on the surface, but there is a subtle darkness or not-so-subtle attitude under the surface. Some of the attitude comes from 1970s punk, some from 1990s riot girl, some from internet memes and social media.
Bubbles is also a very female-centric brand, which is part of what makes it popular and part of what makes it hard to understand for the bigger male-dominated fashion brands in the same space. Bubbles was founded by a young Japanese woman, women hold important places in the management, and most of the young designers the brand has been adding to their roster are female.
The Bubbles brand appeals to a very specific demographic - uber-trendy teen girls on a budget - but that demographic is highly coveted in Japan’s fashion scene. Holding the number one spot in any industry isn’t easy, and it’s infinitely more difficult when your customers are the trendiest teen girls on the planet. As we look ahead at the next year, Bubbles is the brand everyone who markets to Japanese teen girls will be looking to beat (or copy).
4. Japanese-ness in Style
Lamenting the fact that roman letters are the dominant visual language in Japanese street art, artist Hisashi Tenmyouya famously said, “Youths of Japan, scrawl your graffiti in kanji!” Fashion designers may have finally gotten his message, as we’ve never seen as many Japanese characters in street fashion as we did in 2015. The kanji print boom was just one of the many signs that young Japanese creatives are looking inward as well as outward for inspiration.
The classic Japanese sukajan (souvenir jacket) has been ubiquitous on the streets of Harajuku and in vintage shops since the end of summer. As Spring approaches, the low cost trend shops are well stocked with souvenir jackets as well. Influential indie boutique and underground Japanese brands are offering t-shirts, bags, dresses, and accessories printed with messages in kanji, hiragana, and katakana. The otaku-inspired subculture fashion brands are pushing Japanese-ness in their own way, with fashion inspired by classic Japanese video games, Nintendo, Pikachu, Kirby, anime, manga, and Japanese idols.
For those who prefer their Japanese-ness in a more literal way, we’ve seen the Japanese flag - both the current one and historical versions - used in many different fashion designs on the streets in recent months.
In the Spring of 2015, the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo kicked off a popular exhibition dedicated to legendary Japanese model and designer Sayoko Yamaguchi - famous for her black hair and iconic “Japanese” look. The Sayoko-esque Japanese dance duo AyaBambi were in the news all year as they toured with Madonna, graced campaigns by Alexander Wang and Hussein Chalayan, and just generally looked bad ass - and very Japanese. One of the year’s hottest models with Japanese kids on the street right now is Akimoto Kozue, once again with jet black hair and a very Sayoko-esque look.
It might sound strange to say, but Japanese-ness is one of the top Japanese street fashion trends right now.
The number of foreign visitors to Japan in 2015 hit nearly 20 million, up 47% over 2014. The Japanese government has set a goal of increasing that number by at least another 50% in the next decade.
Most tourists who arrive in Japan find Harajuku near the top of the must-see places in their guidebook. If Harajuku itself isn’t on a given itinerary, there’s a good chance that nearby landmarks Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park will be. Harajuku has long been popular with tourists, but the result of this new boom is that the neighborhood has experienced an unprecedented influx of visitors in a relatively short time period.
As more and more tourists flock to Harajuku, the percentage of “locals” on the street continues to decreased. This has changed the atmosphere of the neighborhood in ways that people who live and work in Harajuku are still trying to understand.
Tourists Are Changing Harajuku
Star Trek’s “Prime Directive” - visitors should not interfere with alien civilizations - has gone unheeded in Harajuku. As tourist numbers increase, the actual physical makeup of Harajuku is changing to accommodate them.
A year ago, Harajuku didn’t have an official Visitor Center. Now it has two. Last year, a “Kawaii” theme restaurant opened in the heart of Harajuku. A Disney Store opened on the famous Takeshita Dori shopping street. The famous LaForet Harajuku Department Store created a food floor to lure tourists who may not be interested in fashion. A number of shops hired non-Japanese staff to deal with influx of Chinese-, Korean-, and English-speaking customers. And one of Japan’s most trendy teen fashion brands opened a spacious Harajuku store largely targeting the decidedly non-trendy tourist market.
It’s not possible to say that any of these changes are objectively “good” or “bad”, but it’s undeniable that the wave of tourists is dramatically changing the very definition of what Harajuku is - and to whom Harajuku appeals.
Independent Boutiques See Foot Traffic, Not Sales
The tourist boom has been great for restaurants, souvenir shops, international brand shops, and other businesses who appeal to one-time visitors. However, Harajuku’s reputation was built not on brand shops and gift shopping, but on the street fashion scene and one-of-a-kind boutiques that have long thrived in the area. While many visitors find Harajuku’s quirky boutiques interesting as a tourist attraction, many independent shops report that very few of these tourists actually purchase anything.
It’s not surprising that most tourists aren’t buying subculture items created for a very specific niche audience. While some independent boutiques - especially those in the “Japanese streetwear” space - have reported huge increases in sales, the more extreme, quirky, avant-garde boutiques upon which Harajuku’s international reputation was built are the shops at which tourists are least likely to spend money.
These quirky Harajuku boutiques find themselves in the position of being a major draw for tourists to the area - without being able to see much benefit from those tourists. Quite the opposite of a benefit, the large number of tourists - potential customers for more “mainstream” shops and restaurants - drives rent prices up, putting financial pressure on the small shops. The high volume of tourists can also scare away the real customers that these shops depend on for their survival (see below).
Harajuku is known as the “youth capital” of Japan — a place where young Japanese can go and experiment with fashion in a safe environment, make friends who share their interests, and generally do their own thing. Most Tokyo guidebooks rave about the “crazy” fashion that tourists are sure to see in Harajuku. That leads some tourists to approach the area with the same attitude as a visit to Disneyland or the local zoo.
Many Harajuku street fashion kids don’t mind having their photo taken or being gawked at - some even enjoy it. But there are also a large number of kids who want to be able to dress up in subculture fashion and enjoy their day in Harajuku without being bothered.
With the huge tourism influx, it has become increasing difficult for Japanese young people dressed in subculture fashion to spend time on the street in Harajuku without being constantly approached or covertly photographed. This constant unwanted attention ends up making Harajuku feel less like a safe place for fashion experiments, and leaves some kids feeling uncomfortable while walking around Harajuku.
We have especially seen this discomfort from people in Tokyo’s lolita community, one of the Japanese subcultures who is least likely to want to be photographed or bothered by people who are not part of their group.
The longterm effects of Japan’s tourism boom on Harajuku and the Japanese street fashion scene are hard to predict at this stage. There is definitely a backlash building on the street, but no one sees Harajuku returning to its pre-tourism atmosphere any time soon.
Harajuku has been in a state of constant change since the neighborhood came to prominence around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The death of Harajuku has been predicted many times. But even in an area known for transformation, recent developments have caused great concern on the streets. These unprecedented changes - unexpected even by those who’ve lived and worked in Harajuku for decades - can be summed up in one simple word: gentrification.
When the previous governor put Tokyo in the running for the 2016 Summer Olympics (which Brazil eventually won), he made it one of his priorities to “clean up” the city. Part of that clean-up involved ridding Harajuku’s public spaces of the independent bands, visual kei, and cosplay kids who gathered on weekends. Around the same time (Autumn 2008), a number of global fast fashion megastores - led by Forever 21 and H&M - began opening in Harajuku. By 2013 - when Tokyo was announced as the host of the 2020 Summer Olympics, and that the main Olympic Stadium would be only a few minutes walk from Harajuku Station - a perfect pre-gentrification storm seemed to be brewing.
With the 2020 Olympics approaching, land owners and developers sensed an opportunity to “improve” Harajuku’s image. When developers say they want to improve a neighborhood, what they often mean is that they want to tear down every funky old building and replace it with a shiny glass mall filled with indistinguishable international brand stores - and, of course, increase rental fees.
Despite its funky reputation, to say that Harajuku is prime real estate would be a major understatement. Harajuku Station is located directly between the world’s two busiest train stations (Shinjuku and Shibuya) on one of the world’s busiest train routes (The Yamamote Line). Harajuku itself borders Japan’s Champs-Elysees (Omotesando) on one side as well as being home to Tokyo’s most important Shinto shrine (Meiji Jingu), one of the largest public parks in Tokyo (Yoyogi Koen), and a famous stadium (Yoyogi National Gymnasium).
Redevelopment is not new to Harajuku, but the pace really picked up over the last twelve months. 2015 saw the opening of a massive new glass building at the top of the famous Takeshita Street while a long-dormant skyscraper development project came to life at the opposite end of the same street. Also on Takeshita, we witnessed the demolition of the one of the last old houses (to make way for a multi-story retail building), the demolition of several of the street’s old funky multi-shop buildings, as well as the opening of Alta (home to the new Disney Store) and other large glass-fronted buildings.
At the same time that high-end Los Angeles art gallery Blum and Poe opened their new exhibition space across from Harajuku Station and international restaurants and brand shops arrived to big fanfare, we saw iconic Harajuku subculture boutiques quietly closing their doors. The development boom has not been limited to the areas close to Harajuku Station either, as Cat Street and other parts of Ura-Hara saw their share of new construction projects.
A proliferation of shiny new buildings - while making Harajuku look a lot less funky - is not the real problem with the neighborhood’s current redevelopment. The issue is that all of this development has to be paid for - usually via higher monthly rents. It has become increasing difficult for small brands to afford the rents in Harajuku. In the last year, we saw a number of small shops finally give up and leave Harajuku.
Even a single subculture shop closing can have a domino effect on other shops in the same space. The less interesting shops there are in Harajuku, the less interesting kids come to Harajuku. The less interesting kids that come to Harajuku, the less interesting shops can afford to pay rent. It’s a vicious downward spiral that is not healthy for Harajuku or for the overall Japanese street fashion scene.
The forces propelling the current redevelopment of Harajuku - the previously mentioned tourism boom, the upcoming Olympics, and the slow creep of higher end boutiques from Tokyo’s posh nearby neighborhoods of Omotesando and Aoyama towards Harajuku - are very powerful and don’t seem likely to go away anytime soon. If anything, most people expect redevelopment of the area to accelerate in the next few years.
We’ve heard the following question asked many times on the street recently, “Can Harajuku survive the 2020 Olympics?” Time will tell.
7. The Decline of Famous Japanese Street Fashion Subcultures
Lolita, Decora, Fairy Kei, Visual Kei, Gothic, Dolly Kei, and Cult Party Kei are a few of the most famous Japanese street fashion styles that Harajuku helped to put on the map.
Many Japanese young people continue to dress in Harajuku-inspired fashion, but it’s getting harder to actually find these kids on the street in Harajuku. There are countless theories for why this is happening - from the rise of social media (no reason to leave the house when you can post your outfit on Instagram) to online shopping (fast and easy) to globalism (less geo-specific fashion/culture movements) to Fast Fashion (cheap and safe to buy the same clothes everyone else is wearing) to the declining number of young people in Japan (less kids to create or join a subculture) to the economy (no one has enough money to buy goth clothes).
Whatever the reason, 2015 was not a strong year for subculture fashion on the streets of Harajuku.
Last year got off to a sad start with the closing of Harajuku’s iconic and funky Bunkaya Zakkaten - a boutique that opened in 1974. As the year progressed, we saw the closing of the flagship Cat Street boutiques of two Japanese gothic&lolita brands - h.NAOTO and Putumayo. Both brands kept their LaForet Harajuku locations open, but closing the standalone shops removed two of the neighborhood’s most high profile goth destinations.
During the summer, Japanese brands Malko Malka and Hellcat Punks closed their shops on the subculture floor at LaForet, leaving both without any presence in Harajuku. Later in the year, one of the two Sex Pot Revenge shops near Takeshita Dori also closed. The famous metal-meets-goth Japanese brand has only one Tokyo location left.
As mentioned earlier, the more subculture shops that close, the less reason subculture kids have to visit Harajuku, so the remaining shops have even less customers, and the cycle becomes hard to break.
Lolita fashion - one of the most popular and famous Japanese subculture styles overseas - has become increasing rare on the streets of Harajuku in the last few years. Lolitas generally don’t like to be bothered or photographed while enjoying a day out, so it’s possible that the tourism boom discussed earlier has simply chased them out of Harajuku to safer spaces.
The good news is that there are several new styles rising to replace waning old ones. “Peco Kei” (or whatever name it might be called in the future) is a current kawaii style not too far removed from old-time Fairy Kei. The Yume Kawaii and/or otaku-meets-Harajuku boom hasn’t taken off as much as expected yet, but it’s still a strong subculture and could blow up in the future. Genderless Kei is a very strong trend that exploded in the last year and appears to have momentum.
While subcultures have generally appeared to be on the decline over the last few years, there’s hope that it’s a temporary lull before a new storm of what Harajuku is best known for — brand new things.
8. Wide Leg Pants, Midi Skirts, Maxi Coats
The dominant “mainstream” (non-subculture) trend on the streets of Harajuku for the last couple of seasons has been a relatively conservative one. Summer 2015 was all about a silhouette featuring wide leg pants (often cropped) and midi skirts. Tops varied, but often bloused at the waist.
Fall and winter saw long coats (midi or maxi) added to the silhouette, but for the most part the wide leg pants look has been holding strong. Colors have been generally muted, and fall/winter especially has been heavy on retro sneakers rather than Harajuku’s usually-popular platforms.
The general silhouette - wide leg cropped pants in muted colors with retro sneakers - may inspire some comparisons to looks long championed by classic Japanese brands like Yohji and Comme Des Garcons (as well as shops like La Garconne), but the way they are being worn is trendy rather than avant-garde. The currently popular looks work across a wide age range and demographic group, adding to the conservative feel.
As Spring arrives - and cherry blossoms bloom - wide leg pants may finally disappear. Even if they do insist on sticking around for another season, we’re optimistic that the warm weather will bring new - and more exciting - trends to the streets of Tokyo.
9. Hangover Makeup
Heavy red under eye blush has been a popular look in the Japanese Cult Party Kei and Dolly Kei street fashion subcultures for more than five years. In the last year, the trend exploded into the mainstream - even inspiring a number of “Wacky Japan” articles in the intentional press.
The look has at least three popular names in Japanese - Futsukayoi (二日酔い), Igari (イガリメイク), and Ofero (おフェロ). Each of the names has a different meaning, and the Japanese media seems just as confused as everyone else about what originally inspired the look. It either makes you look sexy or drunk or cute - or maybe some combination of the above - depending on who you ask.
Our belief is that the red under-eye blush was originally inspired by vintage doll makeup. The makeup was commonly worn at least five years ago in Japanese subcultures that take inspiration from fairy tales, antique fashion, and doll style. Several years later, the mainstream Japanese beauty industry saw subculture girls wearing the style and thought they had discovered something new.
Whatever the source and inspiration, this type of makeup has been a major trend - and topic of media discussion - in Japan for months. Will it last? Probably not, but the subculture girls who were wearing it long before it became trendy will keep it alive no matter.
10. Harajuku Awaits A New Star
For the last few years Hirari Ikeda and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu were the public faces of Harajuku - Hirari on the real streets of Harajuku and Kyary as the mainstream media’s imagined version of Harajuku. Both of those public faces began to fade from view in 2015, and a new face of Harajuku has not yet appeared to replace them.
Hirari’s story is simple: she grew older, left her position at the famous Dog Harajuku boutique, and moved on to pursue other projects. She is still active on social media and still doing modeling, but we rarely see her on the street in Harajuku anymore and she doesn’t represent Harajuku street fashion like she used to. This is the same path that most Harajuku kids take - they show up in Harajuku around the age of 16–18, stay for a few years, and then move on to bigger projects or real life. The Harajuku generation that was dominated by Hirari Ikeda and Juria Nakagawa basically “graduated” from Harajuku.
Kyary has been a media darling - both in Japan and abroad - since “PonPonPon” exploded on YouTube in 2012. Naysayers have been predicting her decline since she first appeared, but Kyary proved them wrong time and again. However, in 2015 there were several signs that Kyary’s reign as the world’s most famous “Harajuku girl” may be nearing its end. Her much-hyped Halloween single “Crazy Party Night” debuted disappointingly low on the Japanese music charts, and for the first time in several years Kyary did not appear on Japan’s super popular New Year’s variety show Kohaku. To top off a less than stellar year for Kyary, the Japanese media claimed that she may be considering an “image change” in the near future. If Kyary does adopt a new image, that will leave the “Queen of Harajuku” title up for grabs.
Without both Hirari and Kyary in the picture - and no one seemingly ready to replace them (Peco is huge in Japan, but her appeal overseas is not yet clear) - it becomes harder to easily say “this is Harajuku”. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Harajuku has never been about one person or one style, but these type of Harajuku stars bring attention to the Japanese street fashion scene. That attention is needed to get the next generation of young Japanese people interested in Harajuku, to help independent Japanese brands find an audience, and to give the media a reason to talk about Harajuku.
As we look head to the coming year, those who live and breathe Japanese street fashion are anxiously waiting for the next Harajuku superstar to appear.
Those are ten things we think you should know about the Japanese street fashion scene - and Harajuku - for 2016. This list intentionally mixes macro issues like tourism and gentrification with micro trends and specific personalities. We wanted to give you a broad overview of what’s happening on the street as well as letting you know what - and who - people on the street are talking about.
If you’d like to know more about the #1 item on our list, please don’t miss our new Genderless Kei - Japan’s Hot New Fashion Trend article, also published here on Medium.
There are quite a few people who contributed ideas, opinions, and research to this article. We would like to send a big thank-you to all of them.
The concept of publishing a “long read” here on Medium is an experiment. We traditionally post short “Top 10 Summer Trends” type of articles, so we aren’t sure what the demand is - if any - for lengthy articles on Harajuku and Japanese street fashion.
Please let us know if you’d like to see more of this type of article in the future, and feel free to add your comments, questions, or criticism via the Medium response system or on Twitter.