A Guide to Japanese Fashion Subcultures (Podcast Recap! S1E7)

A Guide to Japanese Fashion Subcultures (Podcast Recap! S1E7)


In our seventh episode of the Nihongo Master podcast, we chatted about an interesting topic: Subculture Mania. Basically, all about the various subcultures in Japan.

Anyone with an interest in Japan will definitely have seen pictures online of all the weird and wonderful fashion out here: from girls dressed like 18th century toddlers to guys that look like they walked right off the set of the musical Grease. Contrast that with the sea of business suits you’ll see in every train station during rush hour, and it’s easy to see why their eccentricity stands out so much.

Generally speaking, the more conservative the culture, the weirder and wilder kinds of nonconformism you’ll find on its fringes. That’s why when it comes to subcultures in Japan, you either go big or go home — a touch of hair dye and a couple piercings just ain’t gonna cut it.

We looked at five different unique subcultures to find out who they are, where they came from, and what they wear. This article is a summary of what we talked about in the podcast, so if you find this interesting, check out the full episode on Apple Podcast or Spotify!

1. Lolita

Image Credit: Stereometric

The first on the list has got to be the prominent Lolita subculture — all about the “kawaii” aesthetic, which basically means trying to appear childlike and innocent, while sticking to traditional Japanese modesty at the same time. Yep, those girls you might have seen draped in lace, clutching parasols and speaking in voices so high pitched they could smash a glass.

How lolita came about began in the trendy neighbourhood of Harajuku — give episode 7 a listen to find out! 

I’ll briefly describe the lolita fashion: the unorthodox fashion style of Lolita is mostly influenced by the Victorian and Late Baroque periods of Europe, often mashed up with more modern design elements from other influences like punk and goth. Throughout the decades, Lolita has branched out into a couple of other sub-styles under the umbrella of the original. Want to know what they are? Yup, you guessed it — the full episode!

Ever heard of Harajuku Girls? Lolita was brought into the collective consciousness at large when singer Gwen Stefani released a song called “Harajuku Girl” in 2004.

Gwen Stefani had four backup dancers for her music video, and these girls were dressed in full Harajuku style, donning Lolita-esque babydoll dresses. The term soon became a byword for the quirky and vibrant trends of women’s style on the streets of Harajuku.

Lolita does stand for something more than just the dressing — check the episode out where we explained the unspoken notion this subculture stands for.

2. Visual Kei

Image Credit: May S. Young

Visual Kei was primarily a musical genre that combined punk and glam rock with kabuki (a type of traditional Japanese theatre). The distinctive visuals of these Visual Kei bands — comparable with the aesthetics of the likes of Motley Crue — soon became the primary image of the subculture. The pioneers of this music genre/subculture are said to be a heavy metal band called X Japan, formed in 1982.

This subculture is known to bend the rules of traditional masculinity, promoting androgyny and straight-up crossdressing. Need a visual description of exactly what makes a Visual Kei aesthetics? We went into detail in the podcast! But the key point is glam — lots and lots of glam. You’re always guaranteed to be one of the most flamboyant people in the room.

Both shojo (a manga genre aimed at teenage girls) and Visual Kei celebrate the idea of the ‘beautiful man’ — in a very feminized sense which is quite at odds with the tastes of a lot of North American and European women. This idea of the unattainable perfection of a young pretty guy is what draws in hordes of screaming fans towards Visual Kei bands. Although they might look a bit like Marilyn Manson, the overall effect is more similar to One Direction.

The whole idea of Visual Kei is to be different — and very noticeably so. Similar to Lolita, Visual Kei stands for something more — a movement of individual expression and exploration, through the means of dramatic performance as well as their everyday appearance. 

If you want to know more about Visual Kei, episode 7 has all you need to know about them!


3. Yankii 

Image Credit: keatl

Every country has its own counterpart to Japan’s Yankii, who are basically teenage tearaways. The Yankiis are kind of closely related to Japanese gangsters: the yakuza. Think of them as a younger, softer, less threatening version — Yakuza-lite, if you will. There’s a whole story behind the name Yankii — it’s a secret that’s only revealed in the podcast!

Usually, working class youths still in school (or gakkou) make up the Yankii subculture — that’s why Japanese society connects Yankii with juvenile delinquency. These teenage tearaways started their campaign of rebellion after World War II, when life was chaotic at best. The history of Yankiis go way, way back — a summary wouldn’t do it justice, so I suggest listening to the full episode. 

From the Yankii heyday of the 1980s to now, the image has included seifuku (school uniforms) that have been modified — shorter skirts for the girls and extremely baggy pants for the guys. In recent decades, there’s also been a swing away from motorbike gear, towards hiphop culture instead. But what remains consistent in pretty much every iteration of this rebellious youth demographic from the 50s until now is the hair — often dyed in blonde or red. The hair plays quite an important role in the look, as the 80s Yankii believed that a tight perm was a symbol of pride. 

Yankii members form a close-knit community, in which they stick together from school all the way through adulthood. Why this loyalty? I won’t tell you — but you know where you can go to find out why.

4. Japanese Rockabilly — Yoyogi Greasers

Image Credit: Wally Gobetz

The Japanese Rockabillies subculture might draw their cultural inspiration from the 1950s, but they’re very much alive and well in 2020 around the Yoyogi area in Tokyo — dance, music and amazing quiffs. Paying homage to the classic greasers of the 1950s, the Yoyogi greasers have formed an official dancing group called the Tokyo Rockabilly Club, who make a dance floor out of Yoyogi Park every Sunday.

It all started back in 1955 when the song “Rock Around the Clock” made its way to Japan, dominating the charts. Back then, you could sit by the radio for hours waiting to catch your favourite songs, buy the released record itself, or follow local performers who played covers. Generally that’s how this subculture came to be — but we explained the history in detail in the podcast!

The Japanese rockabilly subculture is committed to the aesthetics of the classic greasers — always in black leather, from top to bottom. Some of them kind of look like a crazy caricature of the Fonz, rather than a bona fida American rockabilly.

They also take the iconic pompadour hairstyle toneweights (literally), greased up to a comically big peak, and combed slickly at the sides with a ducktail at the back. As for the girls, their take on rock and roll culture can be a little more colorful. While some of them don all-black leather like the guys, other sport 1950s poodle skirts — polka dots and all — presenting themselves as swing dancers.

A revival of a fell-out-of-favour music genre through lively dance routines and dramatic visuals, the Yoyogi Greasers are definitely worth knowing about — no fights, no rebellion. Just music.

5. Gyaru 

Image Credit: alex de carvalho

We also talked about the gyaru subculture — derived from the English word “gal”. Emerging largely out of the blue in the 1990s, the “Gal” culture seeks to defy the traditional beauty standards of Japan, where fairer skin and dark hair are the definitions of beauty. 

The gyaru girls of this subcultural movement get heavy tans (hiyake in Japanese) for a much darker skin tone, and contrast this with bleach blonde or similarly light-toned hair. Short skirts and lower-cut cleavage make an appearance too, as does extensive make-up. Generally that’s an image of a Gyaru.

While the Yankii subculture has members from the working class, the Gyaru subculture started off with girls from the middle class and above. How and why, you ask? We revealed it all in the podcast! 

Basically, the subculture screams: “I can do whatever the hell I want!”

This rebellious fashion movement didn’t just stick to the world of the wealthy, and as the subculture became bigger and bigger with more participants, sub-styles were formed.

Some of these substyles were hardcore — we went through a few notable ones in the podcast — because the original Gyaru image that greatly resembles Western standard of beauty, they became the target of the very kind of attention it was trying to shake off. That called for greater extremes, with fake tans extremely dark, hair colours becoming bright neons, and the make-up became basically full-on face painting. 

So now it screams, “Do you think I’m sexy now, huh?”

Vocab Recap

If you’ve listened to episode 7, this is a compiled list of the Japanese vocabulary that we used throughout the episode. 

Kawaii (かわいい) – cute

Hime () – princess

Wanpisu (ワンピス) – a word for everyday dresses, jumpsuits and other similar clothing

Doresu (ドレス) – a word for fancier dresses

Kei (ケイ) – style

Kabuki (歌舞伎) – a type of traditional Japanese theatre which became really big in the Edo Era

Manga (漫画) – Japanese comic

Shojo (少女) – a manga genre targeted at a female audience

Oshare (おしゃれ) – fashionable 

gakkou (学校) – school 

Seifuku (制服) – school uniform

Fuku () – clothing

Mura () – village

Riizento (リーゼント) – a classic pompadour hairstyle

Jaketto (ジャケット) – jacket

Tebukuro (手袋) – gloves

Ongaku (音楽) – music

Dansu (ダンス) – dance

Utsukushisa (美しさ) – beauty, from the adjective utsukushi, to mean beautiful

Kessho (化粧, 仮粧) – make-up

Meiku (メイク) – the common slang word for make-up

Hiyake (日焼け) – tan 


These 5 subcultures just scratched the surface of the subculture scene in Japan. And this summary is barely an introduction to them all — do yourself a favour and listen to one of our most popular episodes to date: Episode 7 — Subculture Mania.

From mahogany-toned feminism, to high school biker wannabes, to crossdressing rockers, the subcultures here are undoubtedly some of the most unique in the world.

What has happened to Harajuku Fashion?

What has happened to Harajuku Fashion?

Tokyo is famous for its wild and crazy, pure and creative, limitless and shocking fashion. The locals agree that Harajuku is where all the action happens. There is a special kind of energy that flows in the area, and anyone who’s ever been there has felt it.
Gossip began to spread in the fashion world at first about the “death” and the demise of the Harajuku essence.
Recently, this topic of discussion became widespread. Everyone was paying attention. This area was the birthplace of legendary streetwear brands: BAPE, Undercover, and Neighborhood. How can it be out of creativity? 
Media, especially international media, can sometimes blow things out of proportion. Here’s a not-so-short rundown and a little insight from a certified fashion pro.

The rise of Harajuku style

person in harajuku fahsion jacket in Japan with glasses in street.

Image Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson
There isn’t a specific style to describe Harajuku fashion. From gothic lolitas and weekend cosplayers. To the retro rock ‘n roll to kawaii put-together. This mix of non-mixing is what made Harajuku oh so special and enticing.
There were many “zones” in Harajuku that make up the neighborhood. From the reigns of designer labels such as Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons. To pioneering Japanese streetwear labels like A Bathing Ape and Undercover. It’s safe to say Harajuku had it all.
Even the ones that were not flashy in style were a style. As streetwear became prevalent, subcultures formed. To this date many have studied them, making them legendary
Many associate the oversized, laid-back casual look to be Japanese-sty. As well as the all-black look. It took elements from Japanese tradition, as well as Western influence. Like lolita and kawaii made styled neon evocative of Japanese style.
It only goes to show that, even though these looks are total opposites, they still resemble the same thing. There is no one style to Harajuku fashion.

The decline and fall

Lolita girls in full harajuku fashion

Image Credit: Elvin
Many who saw of the shifting of styles said the decline and fall of Harajuku fashion was imminent. The change in Harajuku’s fashion scene judged as drainage of its original essence.
Harajuku used to be an organically-born, creative hub. Now it’s become managed by big name brands and companies. Tourism boomed and globalization forever changed the once sacred fashion area.
It became a tourist attraction. 100 Yen stores filled every corner joined by even businesses and banks.
Many creatives had to adapt and became main stream. Others disappeared. Having to adapt to different modes of access and prices, it is no wonder the Harajuku scene changed in a huge way.

Evolution of Harajuku 

Harajuku fashion ladies standing in a row posing

Image Credit: Elvin
The styles of Harajuku fashion have changed a lot since its early days. The truth is it’s evolving. The evolution of something means it will not remain in its original form.
Harajuku fashion has never been one specific style. And it doesn’t only describe the crazy and loud fashion that are famous. It refers to a special zone of no judgements, and limitless creativity.
If the past few decades have told us anything it is that fashion changes so fast. And those things that create the most change are usually weird!

Harajuku’s present and future

Harajuku fashion girl with denim dress in busy street

Image Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson
The colors may have faded from the streets of Harajuku, the passionate souls still exist. This neighborhood has become the heart of people who want to express themselves.
It has become a safe zone for some, and home to others. People interact and connect. And new talents are often discovered. 
People all around the world come to Tokyo to experience the Harajuku vibe. While it may not be what you see in magazines, it is the modern-day Harajuku. It’s still oozing with energy and bustling with new fashion tribes. It’s still the spot where fashion trends are born and made.
It is safe to say that Harajuku is not dead. The Harajuku people are always trying out new clothes and styles. It’s a change, not an end. Who knows, in the next century, this is what they could define as Harajuku fashion.
If you really want to be on the cutting edge of Japanese fashion learn Japanese with Nihongo Master! The All-in-one, fun and easy way to master Japanese so you can keep up with all those Japanese bloggers out there!