Japan is one of those socially rigid countries where many people find it hard, or even impossible, to express their true selves and feelings; however, Tokyo offers the opposite of that. The country’s capital is filled with many outspoken individuals who are defying norms by wearing a unique, yet scary, fashion trend that expresses some of the country’s deepest taboos: depression and mental illness. Those living in Japan are not particularly keen on talking about mental health because their culture and lifestyle don’t allow them to do so, with long work hours and limited social lives. With Japan’s youth suicide rate having skyrocketed in the last couple of years, fashion is coming into play to serve as an outlet for those struggling. People within Japanese culture don’t interact much on a vulnerable and personal level, so they feel quite uncomfortable addressing the importance of mental health. For that reason, some turn to fashion and use it as an escape from reality, allowing them to express their feelings in a more socially-accepted way.
Harajuku, the pop culture fashion phenomenon named after Japan’s fashion district, has given birth to a new fashion trend: Yami-Kawaii. This new sub-culture addresses depression and mental health, as a whole, with some even using clothes as a form of therapy. This branch of Harajuku fashion sheds a different light on the uncomfortable conversation surrounding mental illness. “Kawaii” is a term that is used to represent objects, characters, and ways of living as “cute.” But, “yami” stands for illness, disease, weakness or fault, and when using a simple Google translation, it refers to “darkness.” Now, it might seem odd to associate darkness and cuteness together, but in the neighborhood of Harajuku, uniquely puzzling fashion that reaches extremes and challenges social norms is nothing new.
Bisuko Ezaki, a popular figure within this subculture, is the creator and illustrator of Menhera-chan – the heroine character of his comics. The name includes the Japanese slang term “menhera,” which refers to those suffering from mental illness, and is used by those within the Yami-kawaii fashion community to refer to themselves as “Mental Healthers.” The character has become a mascot for Yami-Kawaii, appearing in the comics as a girl with suicidal tendencies, and having what appears to be a box cutter as her weapon. He first started drawing to deal with his own turmoil, as he was being mistreated by his parents who were not accepting of him. His suicidal, but colorful, drawings turned into a business and the duality of the trend has drawn many people to dive into his art and use it as inspiration for their own expressive fashion.
The kind of look that people who wear this style of fashion want to project is sort of a sick-cute look. A Yami-Kawaii outfit tries to mix themes of sickness and graphic death with soft pastel colors, transforming something taboo and sad into something bright and “adorable.” Clothing items and accessories exhibit words on them referring to death, such as “I want to die” or “I’ll kill you,” on pastel colored shirts and tees. With pink being Bisuko’s favorite color, the contrast between black and the many shades of pink have become a staple within this trend, representing the style’s opposing themes through its color palette. Other images appearing on clothing items and accessories show Menhera-chan using her weapon to her advantage, which is sometimes harming herself. Accessories used for Yami-Kawaii range from syringe chokers, to band-aids, to pill necklaces, etc. The complete look usually entails wearing pale makeup with dark undertones to project a creepy/tired vibe and enhance the overall tone of looking sick mentally.
This controversial subculture might seem totally confusing and obscure to some and unacceptable to others, but it is actually sometimes appreciated by those trying to cope with their mental issues. For the latter, this new fashion trend can be seen as an attempt to destigmatize mental health’s darker associations, allowing other people to open up about it. However, some of those within the mental health community don’t see any good intentions within this trend, feeling that Yami-Kawaii is trivializing their struggles and making them into a cute joke rather than spreading any helpful information about mental illness. At the end of the day, more people are being exposed to the existence of mental illness, which will foster conversation and hopefully allow those who need help to find it without stigma.
If you are suffering from depression or know somebody who feels suicidal and is dealing with a mental illness, don’t hesitate to reach out or call your local hotline.
by Cynthia Paola Bautista