By Megan Catherine Rose (UNSW Sydney and The University of Tokyo)
[The full paper was published in NVJS12 in August 2020.]
Editor’s note: This paper examines the practice of alternative kawaii fashion with ties to Tokyo’s Harajuku area. It responds to claims that kawaii fashion is a “childish” practice, and identifies and critiques the absence of practitioners’ voices in literature on kawaii fashion to date, using case studies to bring the perspectives of practitioners themselves into the debate. Notably from an NVJS perspective, this paper is framed as a response to an article on Harajuku fashion from New Voices 4. NVJS is proud to support this scholarly conversation between authors past and present with the forthcoming publication of this paper. All references and footnotes have been removed from this excerpt.
The study of kawaii fashion as it is understood and practiced by youth in Japan can be traced to Sharon Kinsella’s influential chapter ”Cuties in Japan”. While Kinsella’s research was limited to the 1990s kawaii fashion phenomenon, it was one of the first studies to recognise kawaii culture as a valid site of scholarly research and her argument has since been considered in studies of kawaii more broadly […]. Her work has also influenced more recent studies of alternative kawaii fashion associated with the Harajuku area which reflect on the use of kawaii as a mode of resistance.
[…] Kinsella argues that kawaii culture offers participants a means of ”delaying” adulthood and its associated burdens. Kinsella’s study frames kawaii as a creative outlet for the individual, but one which also has disadvantages as it involves ”acts of self-mutilation…acting stupid, and essentially denying the existence of a wealth of insights, feelings, and humour that maturity brings with it”. Her account places kawaii and maturity in opposition with each other, proposing that one cannot enjoy kawaii culture and at the same time act, feel and understand the world as an adult. […]
Amelia Groom seeks to complicate Kinsella’s argument from a fashion studies perspective, drawing upon observational fieldwork…and Roland Barthes’ concepts of dress and dressing. She argues that practitioners use alternative kawaii fashion…to create a temporary escape from adult responsibility and that they exercise agency through appropriating objects as fashion items, thereby assigning them new meanings. In response to Kinsella’s claim, Groom writes that kawaii offers individuals an ”everyday tactic of empowerment” in that it
offers a respite from the perceived banality of the adult world, and [sees] young women anxious about future subservience, obscurity and drudgery in married life fashion themselves like little girls as a tactic of avoidance.
Here, Groom implies that practitioners intend viewers to read their mode of dress as ”child-like” or as a performance of ”the little girl”, and that in doing so they are making a stand against mainstream adulthood. In this account, the act of dressing in kawaii fashion is not one of ”self-mutilation” as Kinsella suggests, but instead an expression of agency and resistance by refusing to partake symbolically in mainstream adult dress.
However, if we pause and consider Groom’s conceptualisation of alternative kawaii fashion as a temporary escape, her use of ”avoidance” also implies maladaptation or evasion of an issue which ought to be confronted. This echoes Kinsella’s conceptualisation of young people’s participation in kawaii culture as a ”delay” that temporarily stops the inevitable rather than creating new potential futures […].
Overall, Groom’s analysis suggests that alternative kawaii fashion…is a playful and creative exercise which creates a liminal space where the predictability of social scripts for adults can be temporarily re-written. She argues that this is central to the resistant nature of this community as an alternative culture centred on ”uniqueness, eccentricity, spontaneity, vibrancy and playfulness”. As such, there appears to be potential for a rich and complex understanding of kawaii fashion in Harajuku as both expressive and personal, where feelings are not denied but rather explored and interpreted through play. In this article, I consider whether decora and fairy-kei practitioners might agree with Groom’s account […].
Groom’s observational and textual analysis of street fashion in Harajuku reflects on the meaning of objects worn by those observed using a semiotics approach established by Roland Barthes. Barthes’ approach situates the researcher as an expert on the signs and signifiers of the culture they study, and as interpreter for the reader in detecting how these signifiers manifest in the phenomena studied. The limitation of this approach is that it cannot explore what practitioners themselves think, or what the subjective experience of dressing in kawaii clothing is like. Groom’s analysis is imaginative and creative, [however] the analytical strategy relies on the researcher-as-outsider’s observations and interpretations rather than drawing on what practitioners report about themselves. Stanley Cohen offers a provocative question in his critique of this methodological approach: ”this is, to be sure, an imaginative way of reading style; but how can we be sure that it is not also imaginary?”. More broadly, in treating women who enjoy kawaii culture as a text’ to be studied, without seeking also to obtain their views, there is a risk that we as researchers infantilise the group we are concerned with. The etymology of the word infantile’ can be traced back to the Latin infans’, which means unable to speak’ (Hoad 2003). In not seeking the input of practitioners, we lose a valuable opportunity to allow them to speak for themselves. Monden argues that in studies of kawaii ”the voices of girls with senses of agency and positive attitudes are frequently disregarded”. It is important to consider how we can avoid reproducing this structural inequality in our research.
One way of testing Groom’s (2011) argument is by involving practitioners as participants in research. […] Taking on Nguyen and Younker’s use of semi-structured interviews, as well as their case-focussed approach to analysis, provides an interesting opportunity to see whether Groom’s semiotic analysis aligns with what practitioners report about their experiences. A case-focussed approach involves selecting and analysing in depth the responses of specific participants to build a case study, rather than aiming to provide an overview of the common themes across all interviews conducted. […] Case studies capture the richness and detail of lived experience in a way that thematic analysis, which provides an overview of common ideas across all interviews, cannot.
The intention of these case studies is not to provide generalisable data to show definitively whether or not alternative kawaii fashion in Harajuku is intended to be child-like, infantile and playful practice. Rather, I take a phenomenological approach to exploring the everyday experiences of two specific individuals, with the intention of deepening our understanding of how decora and fairy-kei practitioners might view the relationship between their practice and adulthood. This is part of my broader ethical commitment as a researcher to elevate the voices of alternative kawaii fashion practitioners in Harajuku and treat them as ”experts, at least in their own lives” (Frank 2010, 99). This position is in response to my observation that they are often spoken for and about by scholars, cultural critics, journalists and bloggers, but are rarely given the opportunity to speak for themselves. […]
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