Fashion in Japan

Japan’s society is a fascinating blend of old and new.  On one hand, Japan is rich in history and tradition.  This Japan is polite, conservative, and full of rules to follow.  On the other hand, modern Japan is full of creativity and innovation.  This Japan is flamboyant and risk-taking, and it seems to crave the next new thing all the time.  This blend of old and new is quite apparent when you look at people on the street – where they go, how they conduct themselves, and most obviously, what they wear.  This article discusses my observations on what people wore as we wandered around the streets of Japan.

Let’s start with the old Japan.  Westerners are probably most familiar with these themes about Japanese culture.  The most ancient of Japanese fashions is the kimono.  It dates all the way back to the first centuries of Japan.  There are lots of different types of kimonos, with various cuts, tucks, and folds, signifying different things.  I have no idea what the differences are.  We saw a fair amount of kimonos in Kyoto.  Geishas (and apprentice geishas) walk around town fully dressed in their garb (unfortunately, I couldn’t get a clean shot of a geisha, argh).  Some Japanese women also dress up in kimonos to visit various temples in Kyoto.

You don’t see people wearing kimonos on the street much at all in Tokyo.  They seem reserved for formal occasions (weddings) or if you’re running a store near a tourist attraction.  Luckily, we stumbled upon a few couples dressed up for photo shoots.

Our trip coincided with Culture Day, a Japanese holiday.  We went to the Asukasa district of Tokyo to observe the Culture Day parade.  It gave us the opportunity to check out even more traditional outfits.  We even got to see robes, weapons, and armor used by samurai and other badass warriors in the past.

One thing I loved was seeing little kids dressed in kimonos for various cultural ceremonies at temples.  They were super cute. 

Speaking of kids, another well-known aspect of Japan is schoolkid uniforms.  You definitely see the traditional side of Japan in these.  Follow the rules.  Be respectful of elders.  We made some new friends with some schoolkids.  They even asked for our authographs!

The uniforms don’t end once you’re out of school.  They are replaced by the business suit as you join the ranks of the Japanese corporation.  Business in Japan is notorious for its values of conformity, hierarchy, and “saving face.”  Do what the boss does, don’t speak out of turn, etc.  This is drastically different from what we learn in the west: speak up, take initiative, and “think outside the box” (you know it’s bad when thinking outside the box is a typical question asked by HR people hehe).  Business fashion in Japan is consequently quite drab – black or dark blue suit, white shirt, tie.  B-o-r-i-n-g!   However, it’s kinda neat to watch the sea of corporate workers pass by you in the subway during rush hour.  It makes you feel like you’re in the movie The Matrix…

Let’s talk about the new Japan now.  If all you knew was traditional Japan, it probably wouldn’t make any sense that Japan is into all this pop culture like anime/manga, video games (Nintendo, Sega, etc.), J Pop (Japanese pop), and the game show.  Perhaps the traditional side masks the modern undercurrent of creativity, style, and entertainment.  Visiting Japan gave me a chance to appreciate this side of Japanese culture firsthand.  Let me just say that modern Japanese culture is strong, and you see it everywhere. 

Fashion is one area in which Japan excels.  You definitely notice how well-dressed people are when you walk around Japan.  We felt a bit underdressed at times, haha.  We observed many fashion trends on the street, especially women’s.  The first one is that short skirts or shorts appear to be the norm.  I guess you need to show off some leg.  We rarely saw women in pants or jeans.  If you need to stay warm, put on some leggings.

Thick leg warmers or boots are en vogue too.

Fur and/or animal prints are hot too.  Pick you favorite animal: polar bear, cheetah, leopard, or just some crazy print – it’s all good.  You can wear it as any article of clothing: shirt, coat, purse, scarf, leg warmers, etc.  And apparently there’s no limit to how many fur/animal print articles you can wear at once!

Ingrid was quite fascinated by all the fashion. She had to try some on herself. Our favorite article was the fur “tail,” which you can hook on to your waist.  The one in the photo below runs for 4000 yen, which is about $50 USD!

As you probably know, I’m not the most fashion-conscious of people.  I wouldn’t have thought about it too much.  But when you run into so many fashionistas on the street, the fashion trends can really catch your attention.  Btw, if you really enjoy this stuff, there are websites like http://www.japanesestreets.com/ that show off more street fashion.  Now – let’s play a game.  In the next photo, which one does not look like the others? 🙂

In addition to seeing the trendy, we saw a bit of crazy fashion too.  I don’t think these people work at Japanese corporations. I have no explanation for the next photo:

The Harajuku area of Tokyo is well-known for Harajuku girls (and boys), who often dress up like anime/manga/movie characters on Sundays.  You may know it from the Gwen Stefani songs.  Apparently, “cute” is a huge theme in anime, especially maid costumes.  Many fashion trends try to resemble anime, and there are even several magazines dedicated to this style…

I’m not sure if it was just due to Halloween, but we got to see a little Goth in Harajuku as well:

So there you have it – old and new Japan.  Neat stuff, no?  As for me, I’m going to grow out my hair to look like a Japanese anime character….

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