For years now, teens in Tokyo’s fashionable Harajuku have been pushing the envelope with their Gothic Lolita outfits. Many young Japanese are fashion conscious, but cliques in Harajuku excel at wearing truly head-turning dubs.
Whenever there is a colourful youth movement in Japan (and there always is), some Westerners look at the images that filter through, shrugging them off with a “Boy, Japan is so weird” and not realising that much of Japan is doing the same with a, “Boy, Tokyo is so weird.” The Japanese media adores covering these trends, because they make for good television. Then, out of each trend, a mini-celebrity often emerges, occasionally appearing on variety shows for a brief period to explain the nitty-gritty about the trend.
In the above image, the girl with white skin and aqua hair said, “Yeah, it looks like an ultra-Westernized Japanese person.” The phrase she used is “seiyou kabure” (西洋かぶれ). Looking the girl, with her white face paint, and her desire to be “ultra-Westernized”, it would be easy to simply say that this girl wants to be “white”. You could say that, but you would be wrong.
As previously mentioned, before World War II, the term was used for shallow and elitist intellectuals. After the war, the meaning changed, and it was used to refer to those who admired European history and European culture — people like anime creators Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. You wouldn’t say that either of these men wishes that they were white — that’s utter nonsense. It’s like saying any foreigner who is interested in Japanese culture (from history and food to anime and video games) wishes he was Japanese — likewise, nonsense.
Online in Japan, people were quick to point out that this girl’s use of “seiyou kabure” is incorrect. “This isn’t seiyou kabure, it’s Blade Runner kabure,” wrote one. Neither the hair colour nor the skin colour is natural. They owe more to Japanese anime and manga, than the West. The look is pure fantasy. It’s so far removed from Western culture that using the term “seiyou kagure” strips the phrase of all meaning. This is artifice. It’s style.
This “shiro nuri” (white painting) trend really started making a splash last spring and summer in Japan. This latest news report is a bit late to the party. If you go back and look at the earliest kids doing “shiro nuri”, it has an element of horror — like they’re influenced by zombie films or, even, the Joker’s make-up.
In Japan, however, white face paint does not traditionally denote the West. Some Japanese women painted their faces well before the country was forcibly opened to the outside world. Thus, simply equating white face with, you know, white people is incorrect and a gross oversimplication.
But why would young people want to dress like this? Online in Japan, speculation is harsh, focusing on how this is something only unattractive girls do. I disagree. As one girl who was interviewed said, it’s fun — and it probably is. Dressing like this not only gets you attention, but it can land you on television. What’s more, there is a period in Japan’s people’s lives — usually their late teens or early twenties — in which they can reinvent themselves before settling into adulthood and “normalcy”. There is a dress-up element to it, and young Japanese enter a new subculture for a brief period of time, before leaving it forever.
This girl’s desire to be “seiyou kabure” is less a reflection of the West and more of an evolution of Gothic Lolita fashion. While the style certainly has Western influences, Gothic Lolita dress looks more out of place in the West and more at home in Tokyo neighborhoods like Harajuku. Japan is brilliant at taking styles and trends from around the world, cross pollinating them with a domestic aesthetic and creating something entirely different. Gothic Lolita has become quintessentially Japanese, and this trend is its latest incarnation.
If you wonder what regular Japanese people think when they see extreme outfits like this, check out the commenter’s expression in the above picture — or any of the commenters in the above gallery. Even though the reactions tend to be either shock or amusement, one of the best things about Japan is how much freedom people have. Kids can dress in crazy outfits. The result isn’t a desire to be “white”, but a desire to be young, free, and different.