The “Sick Cute” of Harajuku

Harajuku is widely renowned for its pastels and vibrant appearance. Started in the town of Harajuku, Japan, the fashion subculture had grown constantly and evolved since the 1970s, becoming the cutesy couture that inspired Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Lovers perfume, promoting both happy and negative feelings through fashion

Within the last few years, however, a new side to the negative Harajuku has arisen, one that projects a much darker message, despite still being cute. Yami Kawaii (which literally translates to “sick cute”), is a style that on the surface appears cute and mildly sarcastic, but deeper down portrays a more sinister appearance, with violence and gore in pastel colors and cute appearance.

Although it mostly centers around humor, there is another layer to Yami Kawaii that is tied to why it is gaining popularity- menhera, or “mental health”. This side seems to be epitomized by the character “Menhera Chan”, who looks cute and kawaii at a glance, but wears telling bandages on her wrists and a razor blade in her hand. It contrasts itself with cute characters and soft colors against self-harm and medication, drawing attention to variance in mental health and conformity, while still being holding the Harajuku charm.

The menhera side of Yami Kawaii has gained much traction among the youth for its point in tackling the taboo topic of mental health in Japan, where any disorder from depression to schizophrenia is heavily stigmatized. In Japan, mental health is often seen as a sign of a character flaw such as weakness or bad temperament, rather than as a result of biology or genetics. It is seen as the person’s fault for having a mental disorder, and they are often singled out in a crowd. In a 2013 study by Sosei Yamaguchi and Yuta Aoki, it was discovered that a whopping 61% of employers would never hire someone with mental illness, and 75% of respondents answered that it was okay not to rent a room to someone with mental illness.

As a result of this stigma, plus high pressure to do well and succeed, Japan has the sixth highest suicide rate on the planet, and the bizarre phenomenon of people working themselves to death. The nation even has an infamous “suicide forest” (Aokigahara), where a high rate of suicides occur. With all that in mind, it seems odd that Japan is practically silent on the issue. Yami Kawaii aims to break that silence, by pushing discomforting images to the forefront of their fashion. Will it break the silence on mental health? Well, nothing is for certain. But it is gaining greater traction, both in Japan and abroad, drawing attention to Japan’s silence. So we’ll see.

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