For decades, Tokyo’s famed Harajuku neighborhood has been home to some of the most extreme style subcultures on earth. Expressions of “cute” — or kawaii — are its bread and butter, fueling some of its internationally recognized fashion exports, including Lolita and Decora. Now worn all over the world, many people associate Japanese style with unfailing optimism and sweetness. But a new trend uses frills, pink, and sweet cartoons to talk about a difficult local issue: suicide and mental health.
While self harm is a taboo topic around the world, in Japan, the stakes are higher. Though suicide is rampant, mental health is rarely discussed, and support systems are few and far between. For better or worse, Yami Kawaii uses fashion as a way to draw attention to the topic of depression and isolation and force people to contend with the normalcy of those feelings. But is there a difference between glorifying mental illness and providing an outlet for people to talk about their feelings?
Yami Kawaii may be jarring to those unfamiliar with it: It often mashes up bows and glitter with words like “I Want To Die;” anti-depressant pills and syringes are used to accessorize outfits, and bracelets made to look like razor wounds were so popular they sold out. There’s even a Yami Kawaii comic book character, Menhera-chan, who unlocks her superpowers by cutting her wrists with a magical razor. Those who embrace it, however, insist it’s a tool to heal, rather than an endorsement of harm.
Still, Yami Kawaii has given Japanese youth the ability to connect with like-minded individuals in solidarity and support. And it turns out its “kawaii” element contains a powerful human need that may just change the way you think about it all. Come with us to Tokyo to explore the world of Yami Kawaii style with the people who believe that clothes have literally saved their saves.
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