Movement or Misinformation?
Everyone’s always scrambling to find the newest Harajuku trend, and it seems that the one that everyone has currently latched onto is Yami Kawaii and Menhera-chan. After looking into the style and attempting to read the comic, I wasn’t fully convinced of the overwhelmingly popular attitude that surrounded it—like praising the style for aiding mental health—and many people on Instagram agreed with me when I made a post about it.
Ever since Refinery29 made a viral documentary on Yami Kawaii, the amount of false information they spread had me shaking in my platform boots. And I have a problem with all of the popular discourse surrounding it, too. I believe the documentary’s agenda prevented the message from hitting the mark on Yami Kawaii, both in its aesthetic and the underlying message, and that because it popularised international discourse on Yami Kawaii, many in the international community have misunderstood exactly what is going on with the fashion style and the reality of how it is perceived in Japan. In this piece, I’m going to express my views on Yami Kawaii and what I believe the documentary missed.
Crazy Japan & the Western Agenda
Whenever any major Western outlet puts out a documentary on Japanese street fashion, we all know what’s coming. Sure—it might be a genuine, warranted criticism of something, but everyone knows what it always comes back to: Crazy Japan.
While it is important to shed light on topics such as the issue of mental health in Japan, or in any country for that matter, we have to be mindful of certain things. When creating these documentaries, there’s always going to be a slight bias and the need to make it palatable to a wider audience.
Japan and its culture is best known worldwide for being “weird” or “crazy”—so when these documentaries get made, they tend to push the “Crazy Japan” theme to get those viral views. This “Crazy Japan” effect, coupled with “those weird kids and their weird clothes from Harajuku” will no doubt grab mainstream attention, since these two things are a large part of what Japan is known for.
And you can think Japan is strange all you like—maybe it’s only strange to you because there is little understanding of mental health in Japan and so the emergence of such a subculture is really no surprise at all, problematic or not.
And while this is quite annoying and at most disrespectful, it is usually relatively harmless. But when it comes to a subject as sensitive as mental health, this sensationalism should really be pushed aside for a hot minute.
What is Yami Kawaii?
In the documentary, we meet the creator of Menhera-chan, Bisuko Ezaki, who explains his manga and the concept behind it—for example, the duality of “cuteness” and “illness”. The Creepy Cute (「怖かわいい」) style was a genre long before Yami Kawaii, and they both feature elements of “illness” within their “cuteness”.
But Yami Kawaii is more about a personal horror story than an abstract gory one. If you do an internet search of the term or the hashtag “Yami Kawaii” (I really don’t advise searching it if you don’t like blood/wounds/gore, etc.), you’ll be surprised how many slit wrists appear on your feed.
And slitting her wrists is exactly how Menhera-chan gets her power. The manga begins exactly as Sailor Moon did—a friendly creature urging a young girl to unlock her hidden magical power!!! But it takes a dark turn when she realises she has to cut her wrists in order to do so.
As someone who has never self-harmed, it was absolutely terrifying. I cannot even imagine the impact this would have on someone who does self-harm. The message that you become magical when you slit your wrists is a dangerous one.
But does Menhera-chan get away with it just because she’s cute? Is the excuse of aesthetics really enough of a reason to give self-harm a pass?
In the documentary, the creator of the character is given the same treatment of “It’s okay, because you dress in pink and it’s cute”. Additionally, the character of Menhera-chan is not an unfamiliar one. The Japanese trope of “cute, crazy girl” (Mirai Nikki’s “Yuno Gasai” is a great example) is something we see in Japanese pop culture. Thus, Menhera-chan just exploits this trope further.
Mental Health in Japan
Stigma against mental illness in Japan is still so deep and persistent that 90% of doctors admit they have written euphemistic descriptions such as “mental fatigue” or “depressed state” in diagnosis reports to be submitted to patients’ employers, even when “clinical depression” is the correct term. Scary, right?
Common motifs in Yami Kawaii are pills, syringes, razors, and other medical imagery. In Japan, it appears that there is an absence of talk therapy and an emphasis on medication for treating mental illness. Japan has some of the longest institutionalisation rates in the developed world as well as the highest rates of pharmaceutical use. Therefore, the common use of medication for mental health patients can result in the perception of an association between Yami Kawaii’s medical imagery and mental health in general.
I have seen the noose and razors used as a motif in other fashion styles so it is in no way associated only with Yami Kawaii or Menhera-chan; it’s become its own edgy aesthetic. Swear words, violent imagery, and suicidal messages appear in many sub-styles, but I suppose since they aren’t your typical pink and kawaii style, they have yet to grab the attention of the mainstream. Perhaps so many people have latched onto it because pink and cute are seen as a “uniquely Japanese” thing. Other styles don’t treat these motifs as coping mechanisms—they are treated as cool edgy symbols. Coping through fashion and art isn’t unique to Japan either. Has anyone listened to a Soundcloud rapper recently? (“Xanny make it go away…”)
I am in favour of shedding light on the stigma surrounding mental health in Japan, however the documentary made it seem as though those in the street fashion community—such as Hanayo, who wears Lolita—wear alternative clothing because of their mental illness. Usually when subculture fashion is portrayed in the media there is always an underlying narrative of “something is wrong with the person wearing these clothes” and this documentary did nothing but help further that idea. Kawaii fashion is already seen as overly childish but this adds the layer of “unable to cope with issues so I just throw clothes on top of it”.
What’s more, Yami Kawaii isn’t even actually popular in Japan! It almost seems to me like outsiders to the Japanese alternative fashion world view all J-fashion as trying to cover your personal problems, and now that a style that explicitly references this notion comes out like Yami Kawaii, it can be paraded around to a wider audience to confirm what they had all thought of J-fashion and Japan anyway. It’s true that Yami Kawaii can be traced back to many other coping mechanisms in Japanese society in terms of concept, but to treat it like this is what all Japanese street fashion is all about is a huge disrespect to the spirit of why we choose to dress how we want.
Instead, a much more poignant analysis would have been that rather than this fashion style being about self-expression, it’s really just a form of self-preservation. And self-preservation through aesthetics seems to be a recurring theme in regards to how Japanese society deals with mental health. So when something so validating to this experience like Menhera-chan begins to get popular, this issue just starts to become even more evident.
Menhera-chan has had a few collaborations with small Harajuku brands over the years. I first encountered her in 2015 in Spinns—I was drawn to the pink hair and cute sidekick. I had no idea who the character was at the time, I just thought she was another cute anime girl. I don’t think—knowing what I know now—that I would consider the character “just another anime girl”, or that I would feel comfortable wearing clothes that show young girls with their wrists slit.
The manga is described as satire (http://menhera-chan.tumblr.com/about), but this is not made clear in the documentary, or even when reading the manga in my opinion. Moreover, the fandom surrounding the manga seems to see it more as a reflection of themselves rather than the way it is intended: as a commentary on Japanese society.
I understand the need for self-expression as it’s the basis of all artistry, and also the need to have a creative outlet to vent your personal frustrations, but there needs to be a point where we choose to pathologize rather than aestheticise our struggles. Mental illness should not be wrapped up in a neat little bow and presented to a consumer. I’ve seen online outrage and debate about t-shirts sold by mainstream brands with words like “OCD” and “anxiety” but no one questions the Menhera-chan merchandise. Why? Again, does cuteness counteract the questionable marketing because it is malleable? Can cuteness take on antagonistic characteristics and somehow render them “unproblematic”? Even this mental health clinic in Harajuku is said to be a “great spot for taking photos” because the design outside is… cute.
The documentary wraps up with an interview with the “kawaii expert”, Professor Joshua Dale, whose specialty is in Cute Studies—a field which he created. His statement on the meaning of the word “kawaii” relates it to a feeling of wanting to be loved and healed. Yes, when breaking down the kanji the meaning comes across as “possibility of love”—with「可」 meaning “possibility” and 「愛」 meaning “love”. However in day-to-day use, this deeper meaning is not really applicable, and honestly I don’t know where the “healing” comes in. When you compliment someone’s outfit, I don’t think you are usually asking to be loved. So for me the ending of the documentary, where they say that Yami Kawaii is about “asking for love”, didn’t really make sense.
The underlying argument of those who wear Yami Kawaii is that they are fighting stigma with fashion and self-expression. It is undeniable that progress needs to be made regarding mental health and how it is treated, but personally I think to aestheticise it in such a way almost glorifies the illness and that does more harm than good. Are these clothes and accessories helpful with coping, or conversely, a daily reminder of a struggle with mental health? Kate Spade, a prolific fashion designer who recently committed suicide, shows that even at the highest level, fashion is not the solution to mental health issues.
Yami Kawaii as a movement is an unhealthy way to cope with mental health and yet another indirect method from Japan instead of just facing the issue head on—but at the same time, it is also not a popular fashion style in Japan at all. What the Refinery29 documentary has done is to highlight this issue to an international audience as though a significant portion of the alternative fashion community in Japan is dealing with their mental health problems in this way, when the reality is that it is not only not prevalent, but also sometimes only popular because it looks cool.
Take Kuua Oyasumi for example—in our interview with her for this issue, she mentions the huge amount of attention she received from the international community who looked to her as a Yami Kawaii icon. But in her own words, she never intended to create a style or to express herself using her fashion necessarily, and only realised her style sometimes looked Yami Kawaii after she styled herself. To make the Yami Kawaii movement seem bigger than it is was to me just a sensationalist, pushing-the-Crazy-Japan-agenda move from the creators of the documentary, because while it’s true that Yami Kawaii could have problematic elements—and I invite our readers to look at the other articles in this issue that highlight more popular, real ways the community has expressed fashion as helping with mental health—it’s also just not very common in Japan and to push that as a truth is misleading and frankly dehumanising.
So putting the documentary aside, what do you think about Yami Kawaii? Self-expression or subconscious self-harm?