By RANI CHOR
Huggable bunnies; kawaii! A smiling puppy; kawaii! Depression and anxiety; kawaii!
Meaning lovable, or adorable, “kawaii” is a word that has come to define Japan’s culture of cute. Spilling into everything from pop idols to billboard advertisements, the phenomenon of baby faced characters and animated smiles has created an unavoidable social impact on Japanese society.
Yami Kawaii, in particular, is an emerging Japanese subculture in Harajuku—a Tokyo district notorious for housing youth fashion and counterculture. Using dripping syringe necklaces and glittery bows stating “I want to die,” Yami Kawaii is one of many subcultures to confront Japan’s difficult local crisis of degrading mental health and suicide.
While the gory impressionistic looks of Yami Kawaii may seem jarring at first, this anti-kawaii subculture is imperative in creating the lasting change neccessary to reduce the Japanese stigma around mental illnesses and suicide.
Although suicide remains a taboo topic all throughout the world, Japan especially has done little to discuss its high suicide rates. In fact, according to the National Police Agency, the total number of suicides in Japan fell to 21,321 in 2017, peaking at 34,427 in 2003.
Furthermore, the emergence of anti-kawaii subcultures such as Yami Kawaii raise an important question. Is there a difference between glorifying mental illnesses and providing an outlet for people to talk about their feelings?
Within mainstream Japanese culture, life is based on a community standard where collective majority has the power, and speaking out about one’s mental illness can be seen as a burden.
In this case, anti-kawaii subcultures like Yami Kawaii allow youth to connect with those who may feel the same way they do. In a country where mental health is rampant yet rarely discussed, dressing up in an anti-kawaii style is a way to let others know that one is suffering psychologically or having repressed negative emotions.
Whether through internet support forums or the silent appraisal of those with similar feelings, Yami Kawaii is redefining Japanese culture and being used as a motivational tool and an expressive way for people to reflect their feelings.
On the other hand, other kawaii subcultures such as Kowakawaii (scary kawaii) and Yumekawaii (dream kawaii) have incorporated unicorns and pastels as well as bandages and needles into everyday kawaii fashion. These gory subcultures could be pushing many trend goers and Japanese youth to view mental illnesses as a normalcy that will never change. Without setting clear boundaries on the message that these subcultures wish to convey to the public, these dark fashion styles could have a counterproductive effect on japanese youth by unintentionally glorifying mental illnesses.
Nevertheless, it is not fair to discriminate these subcultures without an understanding of kawaii culture as a whole. The world may view kawaii as a cutesy, slightly creepy, fashion style, but to japanese youth, kawaii is ultimately an art to express one’s feelings. In the long run, Japanese society will especially benefit from the increased awareness of mental illnesses.
Ultimately, kawaii has become a culturally counterproductive mask used as relief in Japan’s socially strict culture. It is awful to imagine living in a culture where suicidal fashion is how some people express their depression and pain, however, at least it can be seen as one small step towards reducing the stigma surrounding mental illnesses.