Sun tribe look
Members of the "Sun Tribe" sport surfer fashions such as Hawaiian shirts, bleached reddish blond hair, fake leis, sandals, and sun dresses with blood colored prints. At the beach you are just as likely to see sun tribe members carry cell phones as surfboards. The Sun Tribe look dates back to the 1960s.

Japan has its share of punks. It is not unusual to see young people in Tokyo and Osaka with dyed blue and orange hair, metal studs in pierced noses and lips, tartan socks and leopard-skin pants.

There are also mods, who wear army parka, stovepipe slacks and drive around on Italian Lambretta scooters covered with mirrors, lights and metallic decorations. Mods have been around since the were inspired by the film “Quadrophenia”, which came out in 1979. Each year they gather for major rides through the city streets. An expensive A Lambretta TV200 with all the bells and whistles can cost $15,000 or more.

“Yanquis” (pronounced "yankees") sport dyed brown or blond hair, wear baggy track suits or flashy clothes such a “nikka-bokka” pants (derived from the word "Knickerbocker") and like to squat and smoke and talk of their cell phones. Yankees are linked to 1950s America and the greaser style, motorcycles, and James Dean rebellion. They first appeared in the 1980s and were one of the first groups that seemed to relish in being different and standing out. Many are construction workers.

“Chimpiras” are young quasi punks who have bleached yellow or orange hairs, and baggy suits. They look like the members of the British groups Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet and other new Romantics. They sometimes engage in petty crime and are notorious for harassing women. Their dream is to be recruited by the yakuza.

Reasons Behind Japanese Teenage Fashions

Many young Japanese are burdened by the rigors of their life in school and society and see fashion as a way to break free from all that. Most Japanese teenagers have to wear uniforms to school so they treasure the free time on the weekends to indulge themselves in fashions that are forbidden at school.

Many Japanese simply want to look different. An editor for the Japanese edition of Vogue told the International Herald Tribune, "The Japanese had a complex. We couldn't change the color of our hair. We're short and we all have the same color eyes. Now we change the color of our hair, change the color of our eyes and wear platform shoes”.

Many of the trends begin in fashion magazines that directly target teenage boy or early teenage girls or late teenage girls. One designer told the New Yorker, “Japanese people read magazines as their bibles, and they see images in them that they have to have and will pay anything. Generally, Japanese people don’t make up their own minds and have to have an example to follow.” Trends also start There with television anie, pop music and mangas which often have tie ins with each other.

Street Fashion Scene in Japan

Bored with name-brand mania, young people patronize “selecto shops” and indie shops with clothes by local street designers. They are sometimes called the “Purikura” generation after the popular photo vending machines.

Japan has a very lively teenage street fashion scene. Great attention is paid to the latest trends and fashion. Posing and ogling over other's clothes are popular pastimes. The Harajuku, Ebisu, Daikanyama and Shibuya districts in Tokyo are particularly known as places where young Japanese come to see and be seen and check out the latest fashion and trends.

Harajuku in Tokyo is regarded as groubd zero for Japanese street fashion and kawaii culture. It has always been a place where people prefer not to wear the same things as others. Takamasa Sakurai wrote in The Daily Yomiuri, “Views toward young people's fashion are surprisingly conservative in other countries. I talked with a lot of young women in cities like Paris, New York and Milan, and found they don't think their local towns are fashionable. So which place do they think is fashionable? Harajuku.”

Rebecca Mead wrote in the New Yorker, “One of the striking things about spending any time among fashion-conscious Japanese kids is how utterly nerdy they can be in their pursuit of cool...The right T-shirt of cap is sought with the kind of dogged intensity, and not by a fringe group or fanatics. Japanese boys in particular seem to treat fashion in a manner appropriate to stamp collecting or train spotting.”

The street fashion scene in Tokyo is so lively that French Japanese fashion houses have consultants and cool hunters roaming trendy neighborhoods and shops looking fashions and trends that could translate into fashion with world wide appeal.

Harajuku is a neighborhood in Tokyo popular with fashion-conscious teenagers, who tend to congregate around the record stores and clothing shop. The pedestrian overpass from Harajuku station to Meiji Shrine and the narrow alley of Takeshita Dori is favorite gathering place for young Japanese who like to dress in outrageous costumes (a practice known as cos-play) and draw attention to themselves.

Harajuku a been known as an epicenter of Japanese fashion since the 1970s and the crossing of Meiji-do and Omotesandi is regarded as ground zero. Trend over the years have included “An/Non0zuka” (a “tribe” of young girls with fashion magazines in hand) and “Takenko-zoku” (young people who performed distinctive dances wearing distinctive, colorful clothing. Today it is crowded on the weekends with Goths, Lolitas, Gothic-Lolitas and “visual-kei” — flashy boys with strange haircuts.

On things to love about life in Japan, Andrew Bender wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Harajuku girls. Sassy though they may look in their manga-inspired cosplay (costume play) outfits, beneath the makeup, they're basically sweet kids. If one bumps into you, it's a good bet she will raise a palm in apology and say, "Sumimasen" (excuse me). [Source: Andrew Bender, Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2012]

Book;”The Tokyo Look Book” by Philomena Keet (Kodansha International, 2007) is a new book on Tokyo street fashion.

Trendy Japanese Street Fashion Shops

Brand Select Recycle on Takeshita Street in Harajuku in Tokyo was regarded as an epicenter of street fashion in the early 2000s. It is small shop with small concessions with trendy clothes organized b designer. Here it is not uncommon for sweatshirts and T-shirts by the latest “in” designers to be snatched up for $500 and $1000 a piece. Many of the buyers are high school and university students. [Source: Rebecca Mead, the New Yorker, March 18, 2002]

The owner of Brand Select Recycle told the New Yorker even he has no idea what was going to be trendy at any given time. “It’s kind of like the image of the capitalist economy — the more desired it is, the more expensive it is. It cannot be accounted for rationally.”

Another trendy shop, Silas & Maria, a British skateware shops, attracts long lines of teenagers. They are only let into the store 20 or so at a time and are allowed rummage through the sparsely-stocked shelved for new stuff. When they are through the next 20 are let end.

Japanese Street Fashions of the 1990s and 2000s

In the 1990s, popular fashions for girls included halter tops and bare mid-rift fashions, platform sneakers, knee-high boots, baggy socks, hip-hop fashions, colored hair, dreadlocks, and pierced body parts.

Hip hop street culture began making itself present in Japan in the 1990s. Kids dressed in baggy jeans, T-shirts, backwards baseball caps and Nikes. They also began braiding their hair and wearing dreadlocks and corn rows and darkening their skin. Now there are record shops that specialize in in providing vinyl for scratchers, areas where graffiti artist can spray paint with impunity and Hip Hop magazines with 120,000 readers.

In the early 2000s, young people favored camouflage shirts, knee-high boots, bandanas and Latin America ponchos. For a while cowboy boots and hats worn with wool tartans and fake fur short coats were popular. Others favor hip hugger jeans, chain belts and exposed midriff. Hip hops fashions remained popular. Super thick parkas and ultra-baggy pants were all the rage.

On punk fashion in Harajuku, Philomena Keet, author of “The Tokyo Look Book” wrote, “the original punk ideology has been diluted and virtually separated from the clothing , which has become just another type of fashion.” She then goes on to say that the punks on the street imitate groups that dress like punks but aren’t really punks either.

Inability of Japanese Street Fashion to Cash in Its Success

Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times, “Japan’s trailblazers of street fashion are the envy of Western designers, spawning Web sites filled with snapshots of Tokyo youngsters in the latest distressed jeans or psychedelic stockings. Despite rave reviews from industry insiders, Fur Fur — a new brand that mixes airy cotton frocks with distressed trench coats — has only one small store in Tokyo. With city sidewalks as their catwalks, young Japanese flaunt carefully layered tops and thigh-high boots sporting labels like Galaxxxy, Phenomenon and Function Junction.”[Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, January 1, 2010]

“But most of Tokyo’s clothing designers have not figured out how to cash in on the city’s fashion sense,” Tabuchi wrote. “Only a handful of Japanese brands, like A Bathing Ape or Evisu Jeans, have gained traction beyond the nation’s shores. Chic local labels like Fur Fur — a new brand that mixes airy cotton frocks with distressed trench coats — and Garcia Marquez Gauche remain mostly unknown outside Japan and have neither the expertise nor the resources to market overseas. Despite rave reviews from industry insiders, Fur Fur has only one small store in Tokyo. “Of course, taking my brand overseas is a dream,” said Fur Fur’s designer, Aya Furuhashi. “But to be honest, that’s really beyond us right now.”

Experts say that the nation’s fashion industry is too fragmented and too focused on the domestic market to make it overseas. “For much of this decade, fashion trends have started in Japan and gone global. But Japanese brands don’t even realize that,” said Loic Bizel, a French-born fashion consultant based in Tokyo. Japan “generates trends and ideas, but it stops there,” he said. “Many brands are not even interested in going overseas.” So each season, Mr. Bizel takes fashion industry buyers from America and Europe — mass clothiers like Hennes & Mauritz of Sweden and Topshop of Britain — to buy up bagfuls of the latest hits. The designs are then whisked overseas to be reworked, resized, stitched together and sold under Western labels.

Japanese Government Helps Street Fashion

“The government is trying to help,” Tabuchi wrote. In 2009 “the Foreign Ministry dispatched a group of suit-clad officials to Tokyo’s hip Harajuku neighborhood to survey the latest trends, part of an effort to promote Japanese fashion overseas. After interviews with shoppers and sales clerks, the ministry came up with a battle plan: to appoint three young trendsetters as “ambassadors” of Japanese chic, charged with extending the industry’s reach overseas and piquing interest in Japanese brands.”[Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, January 1, 2010]

One ambassador, Misako Aoki — a model known in Tokyo for her Lolita look of frilly Rococo-inspired dresses paired with platform shoes — has been dispatched to France, Spain, Russia and Brazil, where she has attended expos and hosted fashion talk shows in her trademark floppy bow tie and frilly smock. “I hope that Lolita fashion and Japanese fashion in general will raise your interest in Japan,” Ms. Aoki said in São Paulo, Brazil, in November after starring in a Lolita fashion show organized by the Japanese embassy.

The trade ministry has also helped revamp the twice-yearly Tokyo Collection and started inviting foreign journalists to come on the government’s dime. For the first time this year, the collection, renamed Japan Fashion Week, sponsored a splinter fashion event in New York to showcase Japanese designers, and it has planned another runway show in New York in mid-February.

“Japanese fashion has so much global potential,” says Kenjiro Monji, director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Public Diplomacy Department, who oversees Japan’s cultural push overseas. But the government’s efforts have won it few fans in the fashion industry. Besides Ms. Aoki, the two other fashion ambassadors chosen by the government are a woman who likes to dress up in cute high school uniforms and another who mixes and matches secondhand clothes. Promoting such niche tastes does little to help the wider fashion industry, many say.”

Otaku Chic

“Otaku” (Japanese nerds) are sort of cool these days. They like synthetic materials over natural ones because they’re easier to wash; favor fleece pullovers in colors like spinach green from the discount store Uniqlo because they are the last on the shelves and go on sale at the cheapest prices; and still wear the gym clothes from high school. Money saved is used to buy the latest video game software or piles of manga and anime DVDs.

Otaku are famous for hanging on to their high school gym clothes — known in Japanese as “jyaajii” — and wearing them around their rooms when they play video games or surf online, In the mid 2000s, the fashion designer Comme des Garcons began selling old-school jyaajiis for more than $350. Burberry sells jyaajii in Japan.

One fan of the outfit told the International Herald Tribune: “The jyaajii is a strange outfit. It’s neither streetwear nor sportswear. No one can look good in it not even Brad Pitt or David Beckham. Still, we can’t not wear it. Personally I can’t think of relaxing on anything else than the jyaajii....My girlfriend says I look cute and geeky. She says it make her feel secure that I won’t go off and have affairs on the sly.

Platform Shoes and Push Up Bras in Japan

Platform shoes were big in the late1990s and early 2000s. A survey n 2000 found that 40 percent of women in their 20s and 25 percent of women in their 30s owned at least one pair of platform footwear. In the summer girls many wore cork platform sandals. In the winter many wore platform boots. Some platform shoes have 8-inch tick heels. Some cork sandals have 8-inch soles.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s there were at least five fatalities attributed to platform shoes. One young women was killed after getting her shoe stuck behind the brake pedal and crashing her car into a pole. Another died after falling off her shoes. Laws in some communities that prohibit people from driving with geta have been expanded to include platform shoes.

Push up bras were popular in the late 1990s. In spring of 1997, the big fashion craze was women gluing their bras in place. A survey at that time found that 84 percent of the Japanese women asked said they were displeased with their bodies and 48 percent said they owned more than four girdles.


Uniqlo, short for Unique Clothing Warehouse, is a chain of clothing stores that sells cheap but fashionable clothes and is somewhat similar to international “fast fashion” brands like The Gap, Sweden’s H&M, and Spain’s Zara chains. Regarded as the moving force behind the “cheap chic” movement in Japan, Uniqlo has been immensely successful, racked up huge profits and revolutionized Japanese fashion. Many young people buy cheap sweaters and shirts at Uniqlo with expensive accessaries such as Hermes scarves and Gucci leatherware.

The first Uniqlo opened in Hiroshima in 1985. At first the store had difficulty drawing attention because it clothes were regarded as too cheap, The chain took off when a Uniqlo store opened up in the hear of trendy Harajuku in Tokyo. Shoppers and reporters swamped the grand opening and suddenly it was fashionable.

These days Uniqlo generates interest with trendy print and television ads, some designed by the same advertising company that launched the Nike "Just Do It" ads. Its make huge profits by keeping it costs down. Uniqlo’s owner is one of Japan’s richest men.

Uniqlo has stores in Britain, Japan, South Korea, China, France and the United States. It opened its first store in Paris in 2007 and opened a global flagship store, with a 20-meter-wide entrance and clothes sin cylindrical showcases on Oxford Street in London. It opened a global flagship store in Soho in New York City in 2006. It as plans to expand into India and Russia.

Recycled Clothes in Japan

Japan is the world’s biggest market for imported vintage clothes. In 2001, Japanese dealers purchased 4,500 tons of clothes from abroad at a cost of $40 million and these in turn were sold for around $200 million in Japan. About 80 percent of the clothes originated in the United States, often times in thrift shops and Salvation Army stores there.

In some cases huge bales of used clothes arrive in hanger-size warehouses in Japan. Retailers pick through the clothes, pick out the best stuff, wash it and sell it at their stores. What remains is bailed up and shipped to South Korea, where the process is repeated until the least wanted items end up in stalls in Third World markets.

Fashionable districts of Tokyo and other cities are often filled with vintage clothing shops that sell American high school sweat shorts, well broken-in Levis and “classic” sneakers. The streets of Koenji, a district in Tokyo, contains 120 such shops.

The prices paid for vintage clothing can reach shocking levels. A pair of 1927 502 XX Buckleback Levi jeans were auctioned for $21,000 at Tokyo's Auction House. The trend is some what ironic considered that 90 percent of the clothes owned by Japanese is thrown out and ends being torched inside incinerators.

Among the eco-fashions that were promoted in 2010 were shoes and bags made from “tough, stain-resistant” cut up inner tubes. The company that makes them, Mondo design, also make accessories from sail cloth and neoprene. Business handbags sell for $200. One reason it cost so much is that the rubber parts are difficult to sew together.

Air Jordans for $2,000 in Japan

One of the biggest fads in Japan in the mid-1990s was collected Nike basketball shoes. Air Jordans from 1985 to 1991 were the most prized shoes, with rare navy-and-white or yellow-and-black models in good condition selling for as much as $2,000.

In 1996, people lined up at dawn to purchase pairs of top of the line Air Max's for $320 and stories circulated around at that time about gangs stealing shoes off people's feet and a store owner who split town with $64,000 in advance payments for Air Maxes.

Japan is Nike's second largest market after the United States Major League pitcher. Hideo Nomo made big bucks endorsing Nike products. Nike sales increased 40 percent in Japan from 1994 to 1995 to $300 million. At one sports shop in Japan the cheapest of 35 Nike styles on display were $270.

Nazi Uniforms and Invisible Coats in Japan

In the mid-1990s, Japanese youth were occasionally seen walking the streets of Tokyo in black uniforms, jackboots, swastika arm bands and caps like those worn by Hitler's SS officers in World War II. The youth were not neo-Nazi; they wore the stuff mainly out of rebelliousness and for the shock value.

In 1995, there were six shops in the Harajuku section of Tokyo that specialized in Nazi memorabilia, most of it replicas but some of it real. Complete uniforms at the shops cost about $900 and helmets sold for about $250. The shops also sold French, American and Japanese uniforms but 40 percent of the items sold were German.

Most of the customers at the shops were male collectors between the age of 25 and 40 who didn't wear the stuff in the streets but wore them at Nazi theme parties in private homes or restaurants. A Japanese magazine reporter who attended one of these parties said that the 50 of so participants including office workers, civil servants and even military personal who dressed in Nazi uniforms and did karaoke-style impersonations of Nazi speeches in front of a microphone.

Susumu Tachi, a professor at Tokyo University, invented a rain coat that makes it wearer look “invisible” by using a camera that films the scene they see behind the wearer and then projects it on the front of the coat, which is covered with tiny reflective beads known as restoreflectors. The technology had military and medical applications.

Image Sources: 1) Ray Kinnane 2) 7) 10) Andrew Gray Photosensibility 4) 8) 9) xorsyst 5) 6) Tokyo Pictures 11) Goods from Japan

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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