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Japanese Subcultures: List & Descriptions

Instructor: Mara Sobotka

Mara holds an MA in Comparative Religion, and she teaches writing, religious studies and the Hebrew language.

This lesson will take a brief look at a few of the many subcultures in Japan, and their origins in fashion and pop culture. It will also touch on some regional cultural trends.

Japanese Subcultures

Japan is home to a great deal of pop culture beloved by many people around the world. Japan boasts one of the largest music markets in the world, and it also has thriving film, television, and graphic novel industries. Anime, manga, doramas (the Japanese word for TV drama programs), and Studio Ghibli movies (where Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro come from, among others) are just a few of the things you may recognize from Japanese pop culture, but there are lots of other influences that give the many subcultures in Japan their unique looks and interests.

When we think of the word 'subculture,' one of the first words that comes to mind is 'rebel.' Lest we forget that every culture has their own way of doing things, we should remember that this is not always the most accurate way to think about subcultures in Japan. While being 'rebellious' may be true for some of them, being part of a subculture for most Japanese people mostly involves:

  • Hanging out with those who share common interests outside of work
  • Responding to the politics and cultural trends of the time
  • Self-expression through beauty and fashion

Oftentimes, you can spot a person who participates in a Japanese subculture just by the clothes they wear. This is because, like subcultures in Europe or the United States, fashion plays a big role in how people express themselves. Many Japanese women and men have a deep love for fashion, beauty, and aesthetic expression in general. Fashion is often different from region to region, especially in Tokyo, the capital city and one of the largest, most densely-populated urban centers on the planet. Fashion is inspired not only by pop culture, but by art, music and other cultures around the world.

Lolita

Lolita, or Loli, style is a very well-known fashion culture in Japan. This subculture originated in the fashion-forward Harajuku neighborhood in Tokyo, and its members usually wear clothing that is generally considered very cute, pretty, or frilly. There are actually several different types of Lolita fashion, including sweet Lolita (lots of pink, white and lace); punk Lolita (black skirts, graphic tees, and heavy makeup, much like punk band members' fashion); and Gothic Lolita (Reminiscent of Victorian Western fashion from the 19th century).

A young woman wearing Gothic Lolita fashion.

This kind of fashion is considered to be very feminine and sometimes childlike or youthful, and many of the girls and women who wear this kind of fashion consider it to be a form of empowerment, partly because the distinctive 'girly' aesthetic sets them apart from the crowd. Because of Japan's conservative culture, some people consider this to be intimidating.

Visual Kei

Visual Kei is not just a glamorous fashion and makeup style, but it also refers to a theatrical style of performing music. Men and women both are known to participate in this subculture. Contrary to popular belief, visual kei does not just refer to one genre (usually rock), but several, including: punk, electronic, and some fusion styles that incorporate traditional Japanese instruments into their music.

Fans of a visual kei band in Tokyo.

The fashion in this subculture varies widely. Some of it can be described as modernized 80s glam rock fashion. Other variations look more like historical period costumes from Renaissance France or feudal-era Japan. Malice Mizer and D'espairsRay are two of the most well-known visual kei rock bands from the early 2000s, and their performances were very theatrical, involving multiple costume and makeup changes. exist trace is another well-known visual kei act, whose members are all women. Their style is androgynous with a glamorous punk twist.

Otaku

Otaku is a subculture you may recognize, as it has gained a lot of popularity in the US. Some otaku make and wear costumes modeled after their favorite characters: these people are sometimes referred to as cosplayers. Others are avid collectors of memorabilia. Anime-style art and characters have also made their way into other aspects of pop culture; one such place you can find them is as avatars for a unique Japanese style of electronic music called vocaloid.

Two anime fans cosplay as their favorite characters

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