Youth mix and match styles across borders and eras
Japan’s anything-goes mentality
By Christopher Johnson
Published: Monday, October 7, 2002
As she wondered what to wear to a recent outdoor festival featuring rock, funk, reggae and rave artists, Ami Ishimatsu found something appropriate, for contemporary Japan at least.
She matched funky Converse basketball shoes, blue jeans, and a Thai hill tribe jacket and handbag with her lip ring and a tattoo of a Buddhist lotus flower under her navel, all topped by clip-on dreadlocks imported from someone’s head in Jamaica and scrubbed clean for 8,000 yen, or about $65.
“This never would have been possible in Japan five years ago,” says Ishimatsu, 23, a fashion writer. “We have more freedom now than ever before.”
In Japan these days, anything goes with anything. In both fashion and music, Japanese are innocently eclectic, mixing and matching across borders and eras. Laid-off office workers are turning into incongruous Rastafarian Asian tribesmen in sneakers with mobile phones bearing pictures of grunge god Kurt Cobain telling them “Come as you are.”
Fashion symbols that clearly distinguish, say, 1957 from 1969 in America, appear meaningless to Tokyo youth born an ocean away in a cultural time zone of their own.
“It’s cool if an era or a generation can continue without time limitations,” says Toshiyuki Terui. A bassist with popular jazz-punk bands Blankey Jet City and Rosso, Terui has branched out into hip fashion, opening a boutique called Celt and Cobra, a sort of Irish-African hybrid, in Tokyo’s trendy residential Meguro district. He also designs some of the clothing in his shop, such as black jeans and corduroy shirts, as well as jade-studded pendants with the word “experience” inscribed on the back.
“Tokyo fashions are heavily influenced by music. It’s like jazz or rock ‘n’ roll or James Dean. It doesn’t matter what era it comes from, it’s still cool and fashionable,” he says.
Tokyo designers like Terui see nothing wrong with grouping Cowboys and Indians, dying their hair back to its original black, and matching buckskin handbags and little web-like “dream catchers” with cowboy boots, hats, and vests. Young women in traditional kimonos wear a United Nations of flags in their hair, while others don white aprons over industrial black jeans.
Japan’s growing chemical brotherhood of ravers, meanwhile, sees no irony in grafting 1960s tie-dye flower power and hemp fabrics to a hi-tech trance music culture unimaginable at America’s original Woodstock.
“People want to stand out at this kind of event. That’s why people wear colorful hippie styles,” says Satomi Sugita, an office worker in a sporting goods company. She was dressed in tie-dye cotton pants and a guerrilla camouflage top at a recent rave near Mount Fuji. “They want to change from their normal fashion style. Maybe we think that at an event like a rave, we should wear hippie style because everyone at raves dresses like that.”
Or sells clothing like that. “Hippie” clothing shops, which encompass everything from African jewelry to frilly trousers to Shanghai qipao dresses, are springing up across Tokyo.
A Japanese actress who calls herself Aqui buys clothing and instruments on journeys to Kenya, India and Thailand and peddles them at her small shop west of Shinjuku.
A Shinjuku entrepreneur and raver named Hana Trance has set up makeshift stalls at upcountry raves and even a recent basement club gig at Lunes in Tokyo’s Azabu-Juban district.
“I don’t worry about society criticizing us anymore,” says Trance, who says she became a “neo hippie” during eye-opening trips to India and Okinawa. “We are making our own.”
Buying cheap, brandless clothing imported by backpackers from Goa or Bolivia, instead of brand names from New York or Paris as was popular during the economic bubble a decade ago, makes sense during Japan’s worst recession in modern history. Cash-strapped Japanese are discovering camping, nature and alternative lifestyles — and fashions — than ever before, say cultural observers here.
The World Cup soccer tournament, rock festivals in Niigata, Hokkaido and Chiba, and raves at mountains and beaches nearly every weekend last summer saw thousands of Japanese in sandals or sarongs escaping their former straitjacket society of exam hell, arranged marriages, lifetime employment, and the white shirts and gray suits of salarymen and prissy, pinkish uniforms of office ladies.
“I think there’s a social change in Japanese youth culture,” says Kyoko Nakajima, the arts and entertainment editor at Yomiuri newspaper, Japan’s largest. “We have no promises about the future, so people are just enjoying themselves. There’s a very strong trend to start a new culture that’s not traditional, but very natural.”
Instead of relying on their parents, young people are creating a sub-economy, moving their rave and rock culture from the underground basement boxes of the early 1990s to the mountain tops and shops of 2002. Festival food stalls serving cheap 500 yen Thai curries, tandoori chicken, Japanese noodles and even Ghanaian food are bringing back the kind of freewheeling food and clothing markets that Japan’s modernization swept off the streets in the 1960s.
So far, today’s “1960s” vibe has a positive, orderly kind of organic anarchy; in Japan, even ragged clothing and accessories, like Ishimatsu’s secondhand dreadlocks, are neat and clean.
So is the behavior. At the Summer Solstice and Fuji Rock fests, police let youth organize their own security, resulting in no reports of fights, arrests, riots, or bootleg sales of concert jerseys.
“I think what has changed is the fact that the media are now more willing to take a sympathetic view toward these people, and consequently, they are less burdened by the false shames of imposed failures,” says Professor John Mertz, a Japan expert at North Carolina State University in the United States.
In these fun and free times, skin, like everything else, is in. Girls shop in Shibuya in bikini tops among tattooed surfer guys in muscle shirts. Even the rare incidences of public nudity seem not only tolerated, but celebrated. Seeing a man dancing naked at a recent Red Hot Chili Peppers concert in Niigata Prefecture, dozens of students danced a circle around him and hoisted him on their shoulders.
Mertz points out that the Tokyo government only banned nudity in 1870 because of complaints from Westerners shocked to see rickshaw drivers stripping in public to change clothes. “I don’t believe there have been many people in Japan over the past century who took Victorian attitudes very seriously,” he says.
Will these ravers and rockers ever fit into the clothing of salarymen and office ladies, let alone Italian suits? “I doubt very much that the new rock ‘n’ roll generation will retain much of their moshpit mentality, so long as they grow up and get decent jobs,” says Mertz. “Which brings up the question, will they ever get decent jobs?”
Christopher Johnson is a journalist and musician based in Tokyo.