Japan: Subcultures

There is little more interesting to me than the study of subcultures. I have long been obsessed with how society works, how culture inevitably splinters and why this occurs. One popular school of thought is that restrictive societies work as a catalyst, forcing those reluctant to conform to create fringe groups where a sense of community can be established outwith the mainstream. Another thought is that subcultures flourish in times of economic hardship when unemployment, disillusionment and general uncertainty about the future increase. Japan, a country as historically famous for conformity and cohesion as it is famous for it’s proliferation of globally recognised subcultures, is a cornerstone in this particular area of interest.

Photo Source: Tokyo Fashion Flickr Photo Source: Tokyo Fashion Flickr

Photo source: Tokyo Fashion 

In Yuniya Kawamura’s Fashioning Japanese Subcultures, she discusses how the the economic downturn of the 1990’s obliterated the twin concepts of lifetime employment and financial security that had categorised previous decades, sending shockwaves through the country and leaving many unemployed, disengaged and questioning the point of conforming to societal norms without the incentive of professional success. Whether or not the recession is a contributing factor, the principal cause or an unrelated element, Japanese subcultures are thriving and, through social media, rocketing in visibility. There are those based solely on costumes and aesthetics, those that represent a philosophy and those that embody an entire lifestyle and belief system. This list is in no way comprehensive but highlights some of the subcultures that are redefining Japanese society today;


The Lolita movement is one of the most prolifically documented subcultures in existence and one that is particularly rooted in the history of Harajuku. Between the late 70’s and the late 90’s, Harajuku became ‘Hokoten’ every Sunday. Hokoten, translating as ‘pedestrians paradise’, meant that every Sunday the main street of Harajuku closed to traffic, transforming the area into public sphere and, subsequently, a runway. Young Japanese creatives wearing handmade costumes would gather in the area to display their work and a subcultural network was born. The traditional Lolita look is porcelain doll inspired, characterised by Victorian lace, ruffles and bonnets. Fashion brands such as Angelic Pretty, Milk and Princess Doll cater exclusively to this group. However, the Lolita movement has begun to diversify in an incredible way, creating a vast range of subsets within this subculture. Yuniya Kawamura compiled this list;

  • Ama-Loli – Sweet Lolita
  • Ero-Loli – Erotic Lolita
  • Futago Loli – Twin Lolitas
  • Gosu-Loli – Gothic Lolita
  • Guro-loli – Gory Lolita
  • Hime-Loli – Princess Lolita
  • Kuro-Loli – Black Lolita
  • Ouji – Prince Lolita (male)
  • Punk Loli
  • Pink Loli
  • Qi-Loli – Chinese Lolita
  • Sailor Loli – Sailor Lolita
  • Wa-Loli – Japanese Lolita (List source: Fashioning Japanese Subcultures)

Lolita classsiclolita 5Lolita 4


Kawaii, loosely translated as ‘cute’, is not so much a subculture as a an industry powered by a voracious appetite for all things adorable. Matt Alt, Co-Founder of AltJapan believes the Kawaii industry to be valued at around $30b USD, demonstrating the economic power of an established subculture. Kawaii girls embrace sugary pastels, oversized bows, frills, lace, kittens, fairytales and, of course, the iconic Hello Kitty brand. The Kawaii movement is so strong that it is beginning to splinter in the same manner as the Lolita movement. Kawamura notes Ero-Kawaii (erotic and cute), Kowa-Kawaii (scary and cute), Gro-Kawaii (grotesque and cute) and Kimo-Kawaii (creepy and cute) as recognised subsets of this particular group.

kawaii girl

Fairy Kei

Fairy Kei girls embrace all things Kawaii while favouring the traditional Lolita elements. The look is characterised by childish accessories and pastel colours paired with the A-line shape dresses and petticoats of the Victorian Lolitas. My Little Pony, Barbie and Care Bears are heavily incorporated.  The Dolly Kei subculture can look similar to Fairy Kei but in the case of Dolly girls more inspiration taken from classic fairytales.

Fairy Kei LolitaFairy Kei 3


Gyaru is a street fashion originating from the Shibuya district of Tokyo. Bleached blond hair, heavy make up and Americana inspired clothing are associated with the look. Tartan skirts and white knee socks reminiscent of school uniforms are often worn. According to Yuniya Kawamura, Gyaru is one of the most developed subcultures, with members using their own slang that outsiders cannot undertsand. Ganguro, a popular variation of Gyaru that literally translates as ‘black face’, is instantly recognisable. Subscribers wear extremely dark fake tan coupled with bright neon colours, platform shoes and rave inspired accessories.

gan 2 gan 3


The Hiki-komori are understood as those who are reclusive and voluntarily withdraw and isolate themselves from society for a prolonged period of time. The Japanese Ministry of Healthy estimate that there are over 1 million people living as Hiki-Komori in Japan with particularly high number based in Tokyo. Exact reasons for this phenomenon are inconclusive but while doing my research the belief that it is caused by the pressure to succeed that is an integral part of Japanese culture cropped up again and again. The growing trend amongst young people to reject this pressure is well documented in Japan and creating not just the Hiki-Komori but also a number of social groups such as the ‘Hodo-Hodo zuku’ (the ‘So-So tribe’) who aim to make just enough money to live a calm and stress free life, ‘Freeters’, those who reject any form of formal employment and ‘Parasite Singles’, the growing number of unmarried Japanese people who have reached their 30s but refuse to leave home in order to minimise their overheads. The negative labels thrust upon these social groups give a very clear picture of how they are represented in the Japanese media.


Kigurumin are costume enthusiasts with a particular penchant for onesies and heavy make up similar to Gyaru girls. This bizarre trend is relatively niche so not much is known about the origin but it is thought to have become popular somewhere around the year 2002.


Mori Girl

Mori Girls are inspired by nature and embrace the look of forest elves. Second hand clothing, earth tones and floating layers of fabric help to achieve the look. A list of 62 requirements for the modern Mori Girl are listed here. Natural fabrics are embraced and pastel colours eschewed with a firm hand. Make up is natural and antique accessories essential. Members of this particular subculture communicate primarily online through a network called Mixi. The online Mixi group for Mori girls has over 36,000 members. It is thought that cost is a contributing factor to the success of this subculture. Lolita dresses, for instance, can be extremely expensive, with basic pieces costing upwards of £150. In contrast, Mori Girls can scour vintage and high street shops to create their look.

mori 1

To learn more about Japanese subcultures I recommend following books;

  1. Fashioning Japanese Subcultures 
  2. Japanese Street Style
  3. Kawaii: Japan’s Culture Of Cute

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