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Child’s Play? Exploring the Significance of Kawaii for Decora and Fairy-Kei Fashion Practitioners in Harajuku through a Case-Focused Analysis

Megan Catherine Rose
UNSW Sydney and The University of Tokyo

Published August, 2020
Pages 80-102

© The Japan Foundation, Sydney and Megan Catherine Rose, 2020

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


New Voices
in Japanese Studies

Volume 12
© The Japan Foundation, Sydney, 2020


Literature that explores alternative kawaii (‘cute’; ‘adorable’) fashion associated with Harajuku, Japan, argues that it is an infantile practice in which practitioners seek to reject adult thoughts, feelings and responsibility through childish mannerisms and dress. These understandings of kawaii fashion, however, are formed without input from practitioners themselves. Drawing upon a case-focused analysis of alternative kawaii fashion practitioners in Harajuku derived from semi-structured interviews, this article seeks to contribute to this discussion from a sociological perspective. The article focusses on decora and fairy kei, two alternative kawaii fashion styles in Harajuku that typically incorporate toys and clothing intended for children, and in doing so blur the boundaries between acceptable attire for children and adults. The article provides an overview of literature on the relationship between kawaii fashion and the little girl’ (shōjo) and identifies new possibilities for expanding on current understandings of kawaii. It also seeks to complicate views that equate alternative kawaii fashion practice with childishness by placing the voices of two practitioners in dialogue with scholarly research in this area to date. In doing so, the article advocates for the voices of practitioners to be considered in future scholarship on alternative kawaii fashion with ties to Harajuku.


Harajuku (原宿), a shopping district in Tokyo, has been associated with spectacular fashion since the 1970s.1 One form of fashion that has emerged in this area since the 1980s is alternative kawaii fashion. The term kawaii’, which is rendered variously in Japanese script as ‘かわいい’, ‘カワイイ’ and ‘可愛い’ has been defined by scholars as adorable’ or cute’ and is primarily recognised as a gendered mode of expression for women and girls.2 Kawaii fashion’ is a broad term which refers to fashion informed by the concept  and aesthetic of kawaii. Over recent decades, numerous subgenres of kawaii fashion have spawned across Japan, each with their own specific conventions, aesthetics, purposes and intents. One grouping of these subgenres can be described as alternative kawaii fashion’, as its practitioners aim to create new modes of dress and expression, and do not adhere to more mainstream kawaii fashion conventions. This grouping of alternative kawaii fashion is informed by the locale of practice and the ways in which practitioners resist mainstream fashion conventions. In this article, I use the term alternative kawaii fashion associated with Harajuku’ in acknowledgement that I research just one instance amongst a large field of kawaii fashion practices in the Japanese context. Anglophone scholarship on kawaii fashion has largely focused on Lolita fashion (ロリータファッション), which is one specific subgenre of this practice associated with Harajuku (for example, Winge 2008; Younker 2011; Nguyen 2016). In contrast, this article is dedicated to two lesser-documented subgenres known as ‘decora’ (デコラー) and ‘fairy kei’ (フェアリー系), as they were practiced from 2013 to 2015. The purpose of this article is to complicate the understanding of the extent to which women who participate in these two subgenres may view their mode of dress as a child-like, infantile and playful practice. I aim to situate decora and fairy kei within a broader discussion of the significance and implications of young people in Japan using alternative kawaii fashion to navigate pathways to adulthood.

Scholarship has acknowledged that kawaii’ as it is used in today in Japan has flexible and diverse meanings and is used by different groups in different ways (Koga 2009; McVeigh 2000, 135; Miller 2011). In this article, I use the term kawaii culture’ to refer to a variety of practices including fashion, aesthetics, performance, appearance and disposition that are centred around the concept of the adorable’. Kawaii culture involves both an appreciation of things that are thought to be adorable, as well as an interest in becoming adorable for other people. In the context of alternative kawaii fashion associated with Harajuku, practitioners are interested in exploring what is adorable for them and in being affirmed as adorable by their peers.

This article responds to Amelia Groom’s (2011, 205) argument that practitioners in Harajuku employ kawaii fashion as a ”tactic of empowerment” through the ”avoidance” of adulthood by participating in child-like play (205). In making this claim, Groom’s article is one of many to respond to Sharon Kinsella’s (1995) conceptualisation of kawaii fashion more broadly as a means of exploring alternative pathways to adulthood. Kinsella’s (1995) chapter ”Cuties in Japan” is regularly cited as an authoritative source in English-language scholarship on kawaii culture. However, as 25 years have passed since Kinsella made her original observations, our understandings   of the nuances of kawaii fashion need to be recast in terms of contemporary practice. Furthermore, if we are to continue to view alternative kawaii fashion associated with the Harajuku area as a resistant and subversive practice, as Steele et al. (2010), Godoy (2007) and Kawamura (2012) propose, then the relationship between it and adulthood requires careful conceptualisation. This is because scholars also argue that while the use of kawaii by women is multifaceted, it can also reinforce gender inequality in the Japanese context (see for instance Akita 2005; Yano 2015, 56; Koga 2009, 206—20). This argument creates an additional layer of complexity. While participants might attempt to resist mainstream adult expectations by acting like children’, they also inadvertently reproduce heteronormative gender norms present in the experience of womanhood in Japan.

In this article, I draw upon English-language literature on kawaii fashion, and specifically on alternative kawaii fashion affiliated with Harajuku, along with a case-focused analysis based on qualitative interviews conducted in Harajuku between 2013 and 2015. My informants reflected on whether decora and fairy-kei practitioners view their mode of dress as infantile or whether there is more to the practice than outsiders have proposed. As a sociologist trained in the interpretivist tradition, positioned as an Australian-born alternative kawaii fashion practitioner with ties to the Harajuku area since 2009, I call for further research that incorporates the voices of practitioners when conceptualising the relationship between alternative kawaii fashion associated with Harajuku and broader discussions of women and kawaii culture. I argue that alternative kawaii fashion associated with the Harajuku area enables practitioners to bring colour and creativity to their everyday adult lives, and that it is not intended to be a form of regression or resistance to growing up’. Contrary to Kinsella’s argument, my informants related that kawaii fashion provides practitioners with a wealth of experience as it involves responses to objects that are emotive, imaginative and energising. A secondary aim of this article is to provide an account of decora and fairy-kei practices, which are documented in journalistic texts but have yet to be explored in Anglophone academic literature.

The article begins by introducing decora and fairy kei as two particular styles of alternative kawaii fashion associated with the Harajuku area. It then provides an overview of the literature on kawaii fashion and of the study’s methodology, followed by two case studies. The first case study focuses on a practitioner who reflects on dressing in fairy-kei fashion and her interest in colourful clothing, which she feels goes against social norms in Japan. The second follows a decora practitioner who reflects on what she sees as the playful and spontaneous nature of her fashion. The article concludes by discussing the implications of both case studies with reference to the literature and makes recommendations for further research.


Decora and fairy kei became prevalent in the Harajuku area in the late 2000s, worn publicly by individuals while shopping or meeting with friends. It has been documented primarily in the form of street photography and on social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. It is difficult to determine the number of participants in these subgenres, as they do not organise themselves into formal groups or clubs and little information on these modes of dress is available in either popular media or scholarship.3 Regardless, these subgenres are worthy of note due to their visual salience in representing the Harajuku area, as seen in Japanese street fashion publications such as the print magazine KERA (1998—2017; decora and fairy kei are evident in issues from 2012 onwards) or the KERA photo book Harajuku Wonderland (2019), along with other books such Decora.Book (2016) by Shōichi Aoki [青木 正一]. KERA is a print magazine which was published by Kodansha and ran from 1998 to 2017. It featured content such as clothing editorials using products from fashion labels affiliated with Harajuku, as well as clothing and make-up tutorials and street photography. Shōichi Aoki, meanwhile, was the editor of the influential FRUiTS magazine, which captured street fashion in the Harajuku area from 1997 to 2017. English titles that capture decora and fairy-kei fashion include Card’s (2014) Tokyo Adorned and Okazaki and Johnson’s (2013) Kawaii! Japan’s Culture of Cute. These modes of dress are also documented online via street photography websites such as Tokyo Fashion (2019).4 Although decora fashion is still worn and documented in street photography and social media, fairy kei appears to be in decline at the time of writing. However, as these subgenres can be quite unpredictable, it is possible that fairy kei or a variation thereof may re-emerge.

Whilst the decora and fairy-kei styles have their own specific traits, both are characterised by full skirts made from gauze and tulle, colourful clothing, and the layering of accessories including bracelets, hair clips, necklaces and rings (Groom 2011, 193; Yagi 2018, 17). Based on these sources, popular items among decora and fairy-kei fashion practitioners include oversized vintage t-shirts and sweaters, bright American sports jackets and knitwear from the 1980s, striped socks and platform shoes. One specific practice shared by these two styles is upcycling, whereby objects are transformed into accessories which participants use to adorn their bodies. While fairy kei uses softer colour palettes and has a greater focus on thrifting 1980s American childhood paraphernalia, decora fashion uses brighter colours and has less predictable themes, as practitioners create their own based on things they like, such as particular animals, favourite characters or monsters. Another difference between these subgenres is the volume of accessories worn and their placement. While fairy-kei practitioners may wear a few statement pieces, such as a necklace with a large toy pendant, decora is characterised by excess: clips are layered in the fringe and behind the ears, and multiple bracelets and rings are worn. Practitioners are primarily young women; however, a few men are also involved.

Both fairy-kei and decora fashion practitioners source clothing from second-hand clothing stores, such as Kinji or Sankyu Mart in Harajuku, but also shop at specialist boutiques. Some decora fashion practitioners take inspiration from Sebastian Masuda’s Harajuku boutique 6% DOKI DOKI, founded in 1995, and ACDC Rag, another Harajuku boutique founded in 1980. Fairy kei’s look was primarily solidified through the formation in 2004 of Sayuri Tabuchi’s thrift and hand-made goods store Spank!, which sells vintage clothing sourced from America.5 Fairy kei has been further shaped by Japanese clothing boutiques such as Nile Perch, which sells new clothing including baby doll dresses, oversized knitwear, oversized t-shirts and hand-made accessories, all in pastel tones. A key part of both decora and fairy kei is creativity and customisation, which is expressed through the assemblage and upcycling of items into new outfits. This is in contrast with other styles associated with the area, such as Lolita fashion, which relies on specially manufactured clothing tailored to the style. Decora and fairy-kei practitioners often upcycle objects originally intended for children (sourced from both Japan and overseas), including toys, accessories, clothing and craft materials. For this reason, the decora and fairy-kei subgenres could be considered as blurring the boundaries between acceptable attire for children and adults. Because of this practice, in addition to practitioners’ interest in kawaii as a concept and aesthetic, decora and fairy kei provide interesting examples of the use of kawaii by young people, and its relationship to pathways to adulthood.

Figure 1: Two decora practitioners and friend at a Harajuku Fashion Walk, 2013. Image: © Kjeld Duits/; reproduced with permission.

Figure 2: Fairy-kei practitioner, 2011. Image: © Kjeld Duits/; reproduced with permission.

Figure 2: Decora fashion practitioner, 2016. Image: © Haruka Kurebayashi; reproduced with permission.


The study of kawaii fashion as it is understood and practiced by youth in Japan can be traced to Sharon Kinsella’s (1995) 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 by both Japanese and English-language scholars (see for instance Nittono 2013; Ihara and Nittono, 2011; Yano 2015). Her work has also influenced more recent studies of alternative kawaii fashion associated with the Harajuku area (see for instance Winge 2008; Lunning 2011; Monden 2015; Kawamura 2012; Steele et al. 2010) which reflect on the use of kawaii as a mode of resistance.

Kinsella’s canvassing of 1990s kawaii fashion was supported by an analysis of youth print media and a mixed-method survey of the Japanese public. It highlights the potential that kawaii offers young people as a means of exploring alternative pathways to adulthood, and as an outlet for creative expression. Kinsella argues that kawaii culture offers participants a means of ”delaying” adulthood and its associated burdens (1995, 235). 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” (1995, 235). 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. In this conceptualisation, the use of kawaii culture by young people is a pause along a linear life journey, before one inevitably fulfils the social roles that demarcate adulthood.

Amelia Groom (2011) seeks to complicate Kinsella’s argument from a fashion studies perspective, drawing upon observational fieldwork of street fashion cultures in Harajuku conducted from 2006 to 2007 and Roland Barthes’ concepts of dress and dressing (see Barthes 2006). She argues that practitioners use alternative kawaii fashion associated with the Harajuku area 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.
(2011, 205)

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 (1995, 235), 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 where one has a choice not to get married or partake in a marriage that does not involve subservience or drudgery. As such, while this account presents alternative kawaii fashion as a form of resistance to social expectations, it stops short of suggesting that active subversion is taking place in the form of creating an alternative way of being an adult.

Another way of understanding the practices of fairy kei and decora lies in studies of Lolita fashion, which argue that alternative kawaii fashion associated with the Harajuku area presents a different way of living as an adult. Participants in these studies have been keen to discourage the view that they wish to appear like children or regress to an infantile state. An Nguyen (2016), in her qualitative study of Lolita fashion practitioners in Japan and Northern America, interprets alternative kawaii fashion not as an attempt

to change the institutions that constrain women but rather [as] an outright refusal of them. It is an endeavour to find meaning that lies outside the confines of work and marriage.

Rather than necessarily avoiding work and marriage, Nguyen argues that practitioners attempt to create additional experiences and insights that can occur alongside them. Theresa Younker (2011), in her study of Lolita fashion in Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe in 2010, similarly highlights the fierce independence which shapes the lives of kawaii fashion practitioners. Younker notes that while her participants may be ”wrapped up in their own self-centred worlds”, they are also aware of the sacrifices they make to pursue their interest in fashion, in particular managing finances to support their hobby and choosing to work in creative industries that support their mode of dress (2011, 102). Here the use of kawaii is not conceptualised as avoidance of adulthood, but as part of a full and rich adult life. While these studies pertain specifically   to Lolita fashion, this article aims to consider if this conceptualisation might also apply to the decora and fairy-kei subgenres.

One final way of conceptualising the relationship between alternative kawaii fashion and adulthood is the view that it is a process of segregation or removal. For instance, Masafumi Monden (2015), in his textual analysis of Lolita fashion, argues that kawaii enables wearers to ”appear girlish and cute while being segregated from obvious sexualisation” (78). He characterises participation in alternative kawaii fashion associated with the Harajuku area as an attempt to disrupt the framing of women’s bodies as sexual objects, creating an alternative space in which to live one’s adult life. It is worth noting that Monden argues this point in the context of a broader discussion of shōjo (少女; lit. little woman’ or little girl’) culture. Shōjo culture scholarship provides an interesting locus for interpreting alternative kawaii fashion associated with the Harajuku area. Thinkers such as Eiri Takahara (1999) and Masuko Honda (1982) argue that shōjo culture enables the individual to turn inward and indulge in the creative, the imaginary and the fantastic, as a refusal of social obligations. Takahara (1999) further characterises this self-indulgence as the freedom to pursue one’s own interests and as a response to gendered expectations. While Honda conceptualises shōjo culture as liminal and lived in the transition from girlhood to womanhood, Takahara argues that anyone can live or perform a shōjo disposition to the world. In this sense, the use of kawaii in decora and fairy kei could be conceptualised as an attempt to remove oneself from being categorised as a mainstream adult, through the construction of an entirely new category of being.

Literature also considers the appeal of alternative kawaii fashion associated with the Harajuku area to its practitioners, and the different experiences it may offer them compared with those available as a part of mainstream adulthood. Both Groom (2011) and Nguyen (2016) highlight the joy and wealth of experience that alternative kawaii culture associated with the Harajuku area offers practitioners. While characterising alternative kawaii fashion associated with the Harajuku area as child-like, Groom proposes that it offers participants a pleasurable activity. She emphasises the practices of shoppers in Ura-Harajuku, where ”like children, [the practitioners] are spontaneous and un-inhibited in their dress up games” (2011, 206). As an example, Groom describes the activities of decora practitioners, ”where masses of multifarious colourful plastic toys and objects dangle from bodies and clothes” (206). Overall, Groom’s analysis suggests that alternative kawaii fashion in Harajuku 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” (205). 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, and if they view this behaviour as inherently childish or intended to imitate child-like play.

Nguyen (2016), in her exploration of Lolita fashion, circumvents characterising the pleasure in participating in alternative kawaii culture associated with the Harajuku area as childish through her use of sociologist Sarah Ahmed’s (2010) theory of happy objects’. In theorising how emotion and affect influence the way we (as adults, youths and children alike) craft our lives, Ahmed argues that ”Objects that give us pleasure take up residence within our bodily horizon” whereas objects we do not prefer are positioned ”away” from us (2010, 24). Drawing on this, Nguyen argues that kawaii ”is best understood as an affect that expresses an aesthetic, describing things one wants to be surrounded with or bring within reach” (2016, 23). According to this model, kawaii fashion practitioners select objects to wear based on the feelings they experience towards them, including excitement, joy, pleasure and curiosity. However, the logic Ahmed and Nguyen present does not exclude the idea of delay or avoidance discussed above. This invites us to question: if alternative kawaii fashion associated with the Harajuku area involves gathering and wearing objects that bring joy, what objects do not bring joy, and are therefore ”positioned away” from practitioners’ ”bodily horizons” as Ahmed might suggest? Could they be the clothing worn by mainstream adults and the responsibilities they might represent? If so, does this present a form of resistance or denial of adulthood, or can this process be conceptualised as subversive? This article explores the experiential dimension of alternative kawaii fashion associated with the Harajuku area, and also consider the logic Nguyen puts forward in the context of decora and fairy kei.

In considering these questions, I seek to contribute to emerging scholarship that considers how kawaii can be experienced by adults in the Japanese context.6 Hiroshi Nittono (2013; 2016) and his collaborators (see Ihara and Nittono 2011; Kanai and Nittono 2015) have produced an extensive body of work in the behavioural sciences that explore how young adults respond to kawaii objects and subjects. They acknowledge that kawaii can evoke caregiving behaviours, which may link to the above discussions of kawaii as childish. However, they also find that kawaii objects motivate individuals to ”get closer to the cute object and know it further” and ”improve interpersonal relationships” (Nittono 2016, 90). Marie Aizawa and Minoru Ohno (2010) and Mika Nishimura (2019) have also suggested that kawaii culture in general has much to offer adults by encouraging them to be playful and creative as a form of self-care. Carolyn Stevens (2014), who reflects on the use of the kawaii character Rilakkuma by adults, also suggests that such figures offer ”emotional equilibrium in the face of instability” (n.p.). Christine Yano (2015), in her exploration of Hello Kitty as a kawaii character and cultural phenomenon, suggests that women who enjoy kawaii culture appreciate the opportunity it offers to be both ”cared for and the caregiver” (57). Together, this scholarship evokes a rich tapestry of experience for adults who enjoy kawaii culture with its interwoven themes of care, soothing, curiosity and play. As such, this article aims to consider how those who participate in decora and fairy-kei fashion might experience their use of kawaii objects.


Groom’s (2011) 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, informed by a long history of textual analysis in fashion studies and by Dick Hebdige’s (1979) work on subcultures. 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?” (1980, xv). 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 (2015) argues that in studies of kawaii ”the voices of girls with senses of agency and positive attitudes are frequently disregarded” (114). 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. As previously discussed, Nguyen’s (2016) use of qualitative interviews with Lolita fashion practitioners and Younker’s (2011) ethnographic study of Lolita communities demonstrate the potential of this approach. Taking on Nguyen and Younker’s use of semi-structured interviews, as well as their case-focused approach to analysis, provides an interesting opportunity to see whether Groom’s semiotic analysis aligns with what practitioners report about their experiences. A case-focused 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. This is recognised in qualitative social research as an effective way for authors and readers to explore the complexity of experience (Weiss 1994; Flvbjerg 2011). 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 case studies presented in this article are of two participants from a larger qualitative research project, conducted as part of my PhD research, that recruited n=17 alternative kawaii fashion practitioners associated with the Harajuku area to participate in semi-structured interviews between 2013 and 2015.7 I present a case study of a fairy-kei practitioner, referred to by her preferred moniker Kumamiki, followed by a case study of a decora practitioner, who asked to be referred to as 48809. While Kumamiki’s case study provides one example of how fairy-kei practitioners view the relationship between their practice and adulthood, 48809’s case study explores the playful, creative and imaginative aspects of decora fashion.

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. This approach is also embedded in interpretivist sociology, which was pioneered by Max Weber (1978 [1922]) and Georg Simmel (2009 [1908]) and involves examining the individual’s experiences of the social, giving meaning to social action and acknowledging that these meanings are specific to the individual. Interpretivism relies on inductive analysis, whereby meaning and patterns are derived from the data collected, with an emphasis on the experiences of the research participants.

48809 and Kumamiki were recruited through a purposive sampling strategy as part of the wider research project, which means they were selected to participate in the research against set selection criteria, rather than chosen at random. Purposive sampling is beneficial in this type of qualitative research, as it ensures the recruitment of participants who are best positioned to answer the research questions set (Marshall 1996, 523; Emmel 2013, 64; Corbetta 2003, 211—12).8 Suitability was measured through selection criteria which sought participants who had been involved in alternative kawaii fashion for long enough to have experienced what it was like to gather and wear kawaii objects, and who had a commitment to deepening outsiders’ understandings of their community.9 Semi-structured interviews with these practitioners ran for approximately 90 minutes and covered topics including the inspiration for their mode of dress, how their outfits were put together, the importance of kawaii fashion and what it means to them as practitioners. Interviews were conducted in the native language of the participants in order capture their views with a high degree of fluency. As both 48809 and Kumamiki’s native language was Japanese, and I have only a limited command of the Japanese  language,  the  interviews  were  conducted  with  the  assistance  of an interpreter. The interpreter was involved in alternative kawaii fashion in Harajuku and  was  thus  familiar  with  the  slang  and  manner of speech common to this community, which enabled the interviewees to speak without modifying their language. Further, this interpreter with a connection to the community was chosen with the additional aim of creating a collaborative space where alternative kawaii fashion practitioners associated with the Harajuku area might be more likely to trust me with their stories. A limitation of this approach overall, however, was that the language difference created a degree of distance between us. The interviews were transcribed in Japanese for analysis, but the selections presented in this paper have been translated into English.10


Kumamiki was an influencer in Harajuku at the time of her interview in 2013 and had worn fairy kei for three years. Her mode of dress was frequently photographed and featured in street photography media such as KERA magazine. Kumamiki was studying at Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo, a school that attracts many designers interested in Harajuku fashion. Through her studies she developed a design practice centred around kawaii fashion in Harajuku. Today, Kumamiki is still an active influencer in the kawaii fashion community through self-produced social media. In her interview, Kumamiki provided rich detail regarding how she values hand-made accessories and clothing and sought to share this interest with others by posting instructional tutorials to social media. She discussed how she used relaxing thoughts and memories to inspire her designs, including breakfast foods. In general, the majority of Kumamiki’s accessories were created through the upcycling and customisation of plastic toys with decorations such as beads and lace which were then attached to jewellery findings such as ring bases and earring posts. In addition to sewing her own clothes, Kumamiki also sourced clothing from second-hand shops, such as babydoll dresses and tutu skirts, which she wore over blouses or t-shirts.

The philosophy behind Kumamiki’s mode of dress was that it enabled her to enjoy colourful and playful clothing as an adult, a practice she felt was not supported by society’. Kumamiki (2013) explains as follows:

There’s a kind of social trend where adults must not wear childish or colourful things like this, but I want to ignore that kind of rule. I think even when you become an adult, you can wear anything you want…[11「大人になるとこういうカラフルなものとか子供っぽいものとか、つけちゃいけないみたいな、そういう社会の流れみたいなのがあるんだけど、私は、そういうのを無視して、大人になっても好きなものをつけていいじゃないかっていう気持ちを持っている…」]

Here Kumamiki describes dress as guided by social constructs. Her use of the phrase ”social trend” implies that the perceived tendency of adults to not wear colourful clothes is part of what Kumamiki believes to be a social norm, which individuals follow out of a desire to belong. When pressed     on the matter, Kumamiki concedes that adults do indeed have access to colourful clothes, but in her view they are for limited purposes—”underwear or pyjamas”—or are associated with a liminal period of time—”in spring, there is a boom of pastel colours”. Further, Kumamiki dismisses these clothing items as ”largely austere”.[12「…大人用のパステルカラーのものってアンダーウェアとかパジャマばっかり。なんかブームとかで、時々、春になったらパステルとか出ることはあるけれど、パステルカラーでもラインが大人っぽいかっこいい感じが多いと思います。売ってるものでパステルカラーのものって、大人のものはもっと渋い物が多い。」 ] They lack the playfulness she finds in kawaii fashion. Kumamiki perceives adult clothing to be banal, a view which reflects Groom’s (2011) hypothesis of why kawaii fashion might be attractive to practitioners in Harajuku. She describes her decision to wear what she wants in terms of ignoring pressure to conform and following an alternative path. In this sense, her clothing gives her some perceived freedom from societal pressures.

The colourful clothing then becomes an expression of freedom, but does it also express a desire to be a child? Kumamiki provides the following clarification:

It’s not that I want to stay a child. I’ve become an adult, but when I was a child, I thought adults were boring. When I saw stuff like boring-looking salarymen on trains, I thought that I didn’t want to be that kind of adult. I didn’t want to grow up, and wanted to stay a child, but in the process of growing up I’ve met many interesting adults. They are kind of like children at heart, where they can freely express what they like and think is interesting. Even after becoming adults, they like what they like. So, even though I’m an adult, I’ve come to think that when I make things or wear this kind of fashion, I want people to be able to clearly say what they like and wear what they want to wear. I’m expressing that it’s okay to have that kind of freedom in my daily life.[13「子供でいたいんじゃなくて、私は大人になったけど、大人ってつまらないものだと思っていて、電車に乗ってるサラリーマンとかすごいつまらない感じで電車に乗ってたりとか、そういう大人にはなりたくないって思っていて。だから昔は子供でいたい、大人になりたくないって思っていたんだけど、だけど自分が実際に大人になる過程の中で、やっぱり面白い大人の人に出会うことが多くて、そういう人たちって子供の心っていうか面白いものは素直に面白いとか好きなものは好きなんだっていうのを表現していて、大人になっても好きなものは好きでいいじゃんっていうのがあって。だから私が自分が物を作ったりこういうファッションをしたりして表現したいのは、私は大人だけど、好きなものは堂々と好きだって言うし、身に着けたいものは身に着けるっていう、そういう自由があってもいいじゃないっていうのを私の生活の中で表現しています。」
Salaryman (サラリーマン) is a Japanese term for male company employees.]

In this excerpt Kumamiki decisively states that she does not want to remain a child, emphasising her discomfort with this view of her dress. In her description of her childhood memory of salarymen on the train, we are given the impression that she views her past anxiety about becoming a ”boring” (つまらない) adult as childlike or simplistic. As a child, the world around her was shaped by what she knew, which at that time was passengers on her commute. Becoming an adult enabled her to gain a more nuanced view of adulthood. It is also interesting to note that Kumamiki describes the passengers as ”boring” but then does not provide more detail other than that they are male company employees. How does she know they are boring? Is she perhaps projecting her own disapproval as a child onto them? Furthermore, there is a lack of other adult figures in this anecdote, such as university students, women (employed or otherwise) and the elderly What generalisation about adults do these salarymen represent? If we examine the latter half of her answer, we can see that she views adults who can ”express what they like” (好きなんだっていうのを表現していて) as still possessing the freedom that salarymen have apparently lost. In this sense, Kumamiki’s anecdote of the salarymen on the train reflects Groom’s (2011, 205) remark about kawaii being a form of resistance to the ”subservience, obscurity and drudgery” of adult life. Salarymen are depicted as depressed by the servitude of employment which is not necessarily aligned with their own personal interests. It is interesting to note that Groom specifically puts forward an argument premised on gender, claiming that kawaii fashion practitioners are resisting the negative features of womanhood (motherhood and marriage), whereas Kumamiki’s account is framed around conformity and employment, placing herself in opposition to masculine archetypes as opposed to their feminine counterparts. This perhaps suggests that for some kawaii fashion practitioners, normative markers of adulthood move beyond the gendered kinship roles Groom describes and instead provide opportunities to create alternative adult pathways that transcend gender norms.

Kumamiki does not view her clothing as an outright rejection of adulthood. Rather, she views her kawaii outfits as part of a way of living as an adult outside the mainstream. She identifies as an adult who speaks and dresses freely, and arguably uses this as a way of expressing her maturity. Kumamiki views the typical salaryman as an adult who denies himself the ability to express his interests or feelings, which is an inversion of Kinsella’s account. Rather than seeing mainstream adulthood as offering a range of insights and experiences, Kumamiki views it as a way of living that denies the fullness of life. In short, in practicing her chosen form of alternative kawaii fashion, Kumamiki seeks to distinguish herself from normative models of adulthood, rather than seeking to become a child. In social psychology, this phenomenon is captured through Optimal Distinctiveness Theory, which holds that individuals seek to balance feelings of belonging and individual expression (Brewer 2003; Leonardelli et al. 2010). They seek a middle ground’ between states of assimilation and distinctiveness, opting to identify with groupings that allow for an optimal combination of individuality and acceptance. Kumamiki identifies with the grouping of adults’ but wants to distinguish herself inside that category as an alternative adult’. In this regard, she is not trying to avoid or delay adulthood, but rather to find ways to participate in adult life that differ from the mainstream.

Kumamiki’s case does indicate a kind of personal resistance, as Groom (2011) suggests, but rather than seeking to appear as a little girl’ to avoid adulthood, Kumamiki explores what alternative expressions of adulthood in the Japanese context could look like. Kumamiki holds the view that children, unlike adults, are afforded the freedom to like, think and feel with abandon. Of course, this is a matter of perspective. Kumamiki cannot possibly have access to the interior experiences of these other individuals, just her own perception of them. This case partially confirms Groom’s observation that kawaii constitutes a form of resistance to the banality of adult life. However, Kumamiki makes an important distinction: although she wishes to escape the perceived banality of adulthood, she does not want to extend her childhood. Instead, she wants freedom to be afforded by society to both children and adults alike.


48809 has participated in alternative kawaii fashion associated with Harajuku since age 16. She is a dokusha moderu (読者モデル; lit., reader model’) for KERA magazine and is widely recognised in the decora fashion scene.11 As a dokusha moderu, 48809 frequently offered makeup and fashion tutorials for KERA during its time in publication (1998—2017). She now runs a highly popular social media channel. She is frequently hired as a professional model for designer labels affiliated with Harajuku, has made a series of television appearances in Japan and overseas, and is invited to attend pop culture conventions internationally.12 At the time of interview in 2013, 48809 was in her early twenties and was employed part-time as a graphic designer alongside her contract-based modelling work, which she used to support herself while living independently in Tokyo. 48809 discussed in detail her interest in kawaii culture and the way in which her fashion enables her to express a sense of originality.

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  1. The Harajuku area has historically served as the main point of access to Meiji Following World War II, trendy boutiques selling Western fashion began to be established in the area. Since then, the site has played host to many generations of youth subcultures and communities. Today, Harajuku’s main streets are densely lined with shops and shopping centres that sell an array of fashion-related goods and confectionery. These stretch to the very back streets of the area, known as Ura-Harajuku (裏原宿; back of Harajuku’), and continue until the neighbouring suburb of Omotesando, which is home to a combination of residential properties and luxury shopping boutiques.
  2. Kawaii is a multifarious concept, with each script having its own connotations. In Harajuku, practitioners favour the more casual renderings of the term; namely, ‘カワイイ’ or ‘かわいい’. A comprehensive discussion of kawaii is beyond the scope of this paper. For more information, see Monden (2015), Yano (2015), McVeigh (2000), Nittono (2013, 2016), Ihara and Nittono (2011), Kanai and Nittono (2015), Nishimura (2019), Abe (2015), Yomota (2006) and Aoyagi (2015).
  3. Some of the few examples of print media documenting decora fashion include KERA (2012, 44; 2014, 22), Okada (2012, 40—44), Keet (2016) and Aoki (2016). It is interesting to note that in the KERA magazine editorials such as the ones cited here, colourful’ (カラフル) is used as a descriptor for these fashion cultures, rather than the more specific terms decora’ or fairy kei’. Further research into why these media did not adequately document this phenomenon is needed, however one hypothesis could be that these subgenres are not strongly affiliated with a particular designer label and are thus difficult to market to. For rare examples of English-language scholarship discussing these genres, see Groom (2011) and Yagi (2018).
  4. Tokyo Fashion is an online blog dedicated to documenting street fashion worn in the Tokyo area, and has a section dedicated to documenting clothing worn specifically in the Harajuku area. The website can be accessed via
  5. It is important to note that not all stores associated with the alternative kawaii fashion that has emerged from Harajuku have a presence in the Harajuku area. At the time of writing this article, Spank! is located in Tokyo’s Nakano area. Further research is needed on the significance of place and the movement of stores for alternative fashion associated with the Harajuku area.
  6. This research in the Japanese context also reflects similar work by overseas scholars exploring cute culture and the way we experience cute objects. Gary Sherman and Johnathan Haidt (2011) and Sianne Ngai (2012) explore the playful and creative aspects of cuteness, and their research has been incorporated into the work of Joshua Paul Dale et (2017), who explore the multifaceted nature of cuteness and its relationship to power and powerlessness. These texts highlight the role that Konrad Lorenz’s (1943; 1971) Kinderschema concept, which argues that ”cute” physical traits present in infants are designed to evoke caregiving behaviours, plays in informing the assumption that both kawaii culture and cuteness only involve caregiving relationships. Sherman and Haidt (2011) and Ngai (2012) propose that there are other ways of experiencing cute objects, in particular through play.
  7. The participants recruited for this study frequented Harajuku, and wore styles including Lolita fashion, decora fashion, fairy kei and hime deco {姫デコ}. Hime deco is a mode of dress characterised by pink lace, rhinestones, glitter and tiaras and has ties to both the gyaru and Harajuku fashion scenes. While some individuals still practice hime deco, including those interviewed for this research, this particular style has been in decline since 2014. The majority of participants were educated at a tertiary level, and were engaged in various modes of employment. One participant was a full-time student, a quarter of the sample worked casually for corporate employers unrelated to their fashion interests, and the remainder were self-employed models, designers and content producers working in the Harajuku scene. In one instance, a participant had successfully managed their own kawaii fashion business with multiple store fronts for 20 years. As the socio-economic status of the sample is varied, this research cannot comment on linkages between class and kawaii fashion practitioners. Participants presented as cisgendered, however the sexuality of the participants was not discussed as it fell outside of the research scope. Further research would be needed to discuss both class and sexuality in the alternative kawaii fashion context.
  8. Snowball sampling was also critical in locating suitable participants for screening against the selection This meant that I followed participants’ recommendations to invite others to participate in the study. The study was advertised by linking to a recruitment webpage across social media platforms including Twitter, YouTube and the Japanese blogging website Ameblo.
  9. The selection criteria stipulated that participants must frequent the Harajuku area, and also must have been: 1) involved in the kawaii fashion community for at least three years; 2) wearing or making kawaii fashion on a regular basis; and 3) actively contributing to the community through activities such as making, designing, modelling or organising events.
  10. The translations were provided courtesy of Dr. Anne Lee of The Japan Foundation, Sydney.
  11. A dokusha moderu is an amateur fashion model who is scouted to appear in print or website publications from a pool of readers and is intended to represent the everyday reader and consumer.
  12. The specific social media channels, television shows and conventions 48809 has appeared in have been redacted to maintain her anonymity.
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