It's been a long time since the rest of the world learned about Japanese pop culture and the importance of "kawaii". Even in daily life kawaii is everywhere. Stations, supermarkets, anywhere in the city you can find advertisements and products with cute characters like Pokemon, Hello Kitty or anime girls. The streets of Harajuku are filled with young fashionable people dressed in the trendiest Tokyo fashion, shopping in kawaii shops… the importance of kawaii in Japan is unlike any other country!
First of all: Why do Japanese people love anything kawaii? In other countries people also enjoy cute things. Most people grow up watching cartoons and owning items from, for example Disney which could definitely be considered kawaii as well. Maybe we should instead question why most people outside Japan stop being interested in cute items as they grow older. In Japan people never seem to grow out of it. Generally speaking, kawaii culture offers an escape from reality which is often necessary for Japanese people who work long hours nearly every day. Japanese companies are very strict, in general there's little room to express individuality: There's a strict dress code, they have to hide their real opinions, be polite and always do as their boss expects them to. Kawaii culture is a way to relieve stress for them, some watch anime, others wear cute fashion or decorate their room, it's a way to cheer themselves up! When you think about it, it isn't much different from petting or looking at pictures of adorable kittens or puppies is it? (Read this article to find out how kawaii culture started!)
Nowadays however a new kind of kawaii is gaining popularity. A kind of kawaii that isn't a complete escape from real life but one that incorporates elements of the harsh reality: "Yami kawaii" (病み可愛い）The kanji for yami 病 stands for illness, disease, weakness or fault. In case of Japan this "ill" stands for mental illness known as menhera （メンヘラ). Japanese people don't like causing other people trouble or embarrassing themselves and therefore tend to keep quiet about their problems. Mental health problems are still seen as a taboo. This is one of the factors which contributed to the high suicide rate in the past. Nowadays people, especially teenagers are more open about their mental health issues having discussions about it online or expressing themselves through fashion.
it combines soft pastel colors, animals, anime characters and combines these with guns, syringes, bandages, pills and so on. Phrases about suicide and death are also popular for yami-kawaii aesthetics, often seen in art or fashion.
Yami-kawaii fashion makes it okay to express your true feelings without needing words. Pale skin and red under-eye blush are popular too for this style. While some people see this as a way to express their true feelings about their mental illness, others just have fun with it and love the dark-cute aesthetics as a part of Harajuku fashion sub culture.
Japanese Fashion icon Kuua in yami-kawaii fashion
The most famous icon of yami-kawaii is Menhera-chan, a magical girl with mental health issues! Magical girl manga and anime such as Card Captor Sakura and Sailor Moon have always been super popular in Japan and typical kawaii. Menhera-chan is however way more gory and cynical compared to your regular shojo manga. Creator Bisuko Ezaki noticed how popular yami-kawaii was and therefore started producing short comics online as well as merchandise like t-shirts.
In many ways, yami-kawaii reminds me of my teen years in the early 2000's when emo/scene subculture was popular in Europe and the USA. Both yami-kawaii and emo/scene revolve around teenagers trying to cope with depression and anxiety which they express online and through fashion. The emo and scene subcultures only lasted a few years, which makes me wonder how long the yami-kawaii harajuku subculture will survive in Japan and how it will evolve in the future. Will it help create more awareness for mental health issues in Japan or does it promote and glorify depression?
What are your opinions about yami-kawaii? Let us know in the comments below!
Wondering when and how kawaii culture started in Japan? Read our article: What is kawaii?
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