Self-Expression of Youth Through Fashion in Japan vs. the U.S.

Japan and USA are two countries where the youths have high fashion consciousness. By examining the fashion trends of both countries, we can find out more about how their youths express their individuality, escapism, rebellion, cries for attention and how much they value practicality; and find ways to explain for the differences in the fashion culture of these two countries. Firstly let us look at some of the latest and most prominent fashion trends in Japan and the U.S.

Japan

General Trends

Generally, 6-to-8-inch-high-platform boots are very popular (especially those that are knee-high) and it was unusual to see someone not wearing them (refer to Figure 1). Besides mini-skirts, Japanese youths do not really wear revealing clothes, but they do have a passion for prominent designer labels and strive to have visible designer identities. In addition, some would don t-shirts with nonsensical English phrases such as “How Funny It Is To Be Design”.

Ko-Gyaru

Also known as Ko-Gal (or just Gals), it the biggest fashion trend sweeping Japan. Ko-Gals refers to high school girls (or those in their early 20’s) who are into colorful fashion, excessive hairstyle, tanning, bleached hair, white lipstick, skimpy clothes, and platform boots.

Schoolgirl Fashions

Many Japanese girls are wearing what look like typical Japanese high school uniforms: white blouses, navy-blue pleated miniskirts, knee-high baggy white ribbed socks that are pushed down to gather around the ankles and held in place with sock glue and matching penny loafers. They often roll up their skirts at the waist, to make them into mini-skirt.

Some girls who study in public schools in Tokyo which allow students to wear their own clothes to school still choose to go to school in a uniform. They are called ‘make-believe uniforms’. Even grown-up women try to look younger by wearing these uniforms.

Lolita Goth Fashions

Also known as “Goth-Loli” in short, the major color is black, with white being used in moderation for effect. The overall image of Goth-Loli fashion is solemn and completely void of color, with frills and lace being used to produce an extreme version of the kind of fashion usually popular with young girls (refer to Figure 5). Dressers use accessories like crosses and crowns and some would even go to the extreme of carrying small models of wooden coffins or blacken the area around their eyes with makeup to suggest a death mask.

U.S.A

In the U.S, trends are characterized according to the article of clothing and the colour. In addition, changes in trends are mainly seasonal.

Moreover youths in the U.S. are very individualistic when it comes to clothing and they may not necessarily choose to follow a certain trend. Often they would choose clothing which they themselves like personally or clothing which accentuates their assets, such as tight-fitting revealing clothes (also commonly known as “Hoochie-mama clothes”) which allow them to make a statement through their sexuality.

Also many American youths love clothes with suggestive words such as “Bootylicious” as they think these clothes are “cute and fun and very tongue-in-cheek” and allow them to attract attention from the opposite sex.

Generally Americans dress in a way they consider comfortable and thus their dressing is usually quite casual with loose jeans, sneakers and sweatshirts commonly seen.

Fashion themes

Individuality

By looking at fashion as a text, we can see that both the Japanese and American youths dress in order to express their individuality.

When studying the fashion of American teenagers, we looked at popular teenage fashion magazines such as Elle Girl, Teen People, YM, Cosmo Girl, GL, Seventeen, and Teen Vogue. Elle Girlxix and Teen Vogue actually feature sections in their magazines about DIY clothing, where readers can design a unique piece of clothing following the step by step guide. Examples of such DIY clothing are swimwear, tie-dye shirts, or just adding buttons and zips to your existing clothing. Magazines will usually feature sections in which they think their readers will be interested in, therefore indicating that the American teen is interested in DIY clothing. A DIY piece of clothing is unique and one-of-a-kind, hence readers taking the effort to make a piece of DIY article of clothing and wearing it is because they want to show their individuality.

Letters to these magazines asking about fashion style also show that these American teens are concerned dressing to show their individuality. Sofie wrote in to ask how she should handle fashion bullies who make fun of her quirky sense of personal style. She likes dressing in sweaters, satin shorts, flower skirts, and big jewelry but others tease her for that and she was wondering if she should just dress like them and be another sheep in the flock. Heather wrote in to ask how she can look trendy albeit having to conform to school uniform dress codes of “navy blue, light blue, khaki, white and jeans”. This indicates that she wants to show her individuality although everyone is wearing almost the same thing. As for Supa Dupa Tall Girl, she wanted the fashion advisors at Elle Girl to recommend some places in which she can get some “funky, cool dresses” for her prom because the ones she can find are “found in every catalog” and are “unoriginal”. The fashion advisor then gave her some recommendations, including how to make an “unoriginal” dress “totally your own” by adding a ribbon or a brooch. We can see that Supa Dupa Tall Girl does not want to wear something that is commonly found in catalogs and wants to wear something different from the rest, which shows her distinctiveness.

Finally, Seventeen did a feature showing the “Best Dressed Girls in America”. The girls featured are normal girls of non-celebrity status and at the bottom of each photograph, the personal style of each girl is stated, like “glamourous and girly” for Makenzi from Idaho, “wild” for Daina of Louisiana and “vintage” for Victoria of Tennesseexxiii. This shows that the girls have their own individualistic style of dressing that they like and are comfortable with.

Similarly, Japanese teenagers dress to express their individuality.

Mayumi Yamada, a member of the “Gals” clique says that her seven-inch platform boots are essential to expressing her individuality. Some of these teenagers visit Laforet Harajuku, a collection of shops which acts as a fashion base for Tokyo fashion, to shop for their clothes. It was found that the young women who visit Laforet “have their own character as well as a strong tendency to like the one and only item exclusively styled for themselves.” Laforet was then described as “a treasure house of apparel with individuality.” Even Yoko Morimoto, a store clerk at Egoist boutique chain advice her customers that in choosing clothes, “the important thing is to value what’s really you.”

Even when most teenagers have to dress in their school uniform when going to school, they are able to make their school uniform “individualized” by modifying them. For example, boys change the legs of their slacks to be either a peg or a wider style and wear jackets that are tight while girls adjust skirt lengths and hairstyles. Girls would, in addition to their miniskirts and white tops, wear a specially chosen big, burgundy-colored bow; or wear an old dress shirt, which gives the uniform a baggy, grunge look.

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However with deeper examination of their expressions of individualism, one realizes that beneath the whole individualist ethos is this underlying desire to conform. Although Mayumi Yamada, a member of the Gals clique wears platform boots to express her individuality, all the members of the Gals clique wear the same kind of boots, apply the same kind of make-up style and bleach their hair the same color. In the end, according to student Sakaya Ueda, “When Gals get together, they all end up looking the same.” (refer to Figure 6) When teenagers dress to fit into such cliques like the Gals, or the Big Sisters, since everyone wears everything in exactly the same way, one must question if there indeed is a display of any individual character.

While some dress in order to fit into a certain group, others may dress in order to follow a certain trend look, like the vintage look, the hip-hop look, etc. They may “go through great lengths and expense to hone what on the surface seems to be unique in its head-to-toe manner… their adherents remain loyal to the dictates of each particular style.” This provides further evidence that the Japanese teenager may not be as individualistic after all. Stylist Fuyu thinks that “it is often not an inner desire or need to creatively express one’s self that generates fashion in Japan, but rather the need to fit in.”

So why is the individualistic Japanese teen so different from the individualistic American teen? The American society, according to Hofstedexxxiii, tends towards the individualistic end of the individualism-collectivism continuum. Members of such a society hold an independent view of the self that emphasizes separateness, internal attributes and the uniqueness of individuals. On the other hand, Japanese society tends towards the collectivistic end of the continuum. Japanese teenagers expressing their individuality through the clothes they wear appear to be some kind of a contradiction to their collectivistic society, where the members of such a society tend to hold an interdependent view of the self that emphasizes connectedness, social context, and relationships. They hence try not to stand out as “the nail that sticks out will be hammered in”. Therefore, the Japanese culture is one that reinforces individual conformity, even if that conformity is as simple as complying with the fashion norms of a particular segment.

Escapism

Through examining fashion as a text, a prevalent issue that arose was the notion of using fashion as a means of escapism. However, there were striking differences between America and Japan in regards to what they are escaping from.

Through an examination of clothing fashion used by Japanese teenagers, we discovered an unusual trend of Japanese high school girls wanting to wear a school uniform. These girls were mainly from the age group of 15 to 19 years old. These outfits that high school girls wear are not the teenagers’ real school uniform.
Instead, it is a compilation of items (such as a white blouse, navy-blue pleated miniskirt, knee-high socks, and a matching penny loafer), often bought from other schools or retail outlets, or borrowed from older sisters. These girls that choose to wear a school uniform outside school hours have been found to not only be wearing this other school uniform after school but also during school holidays and on weekends. When asked why these girls want to wear a school uniform as
a fashion statement, replies consisted of “I think I look cute,” “Everyone is wearing school uniforms…..they’re cute and easy to coordinate,” and “It’s cute, cool and fun.” The word ‘cute’ kept on Japanese high school uniform reappearing. Why? Surely there must be more to wearing school uniforms than it just being a fashion statement.

In the 1980s Japan’s latest national fixation was craving for ‘cute’ (kawaii). At the heart of this craze is the issue of escapism. In a society where adulthood is demanding, the “typical Japanese struggles under a weight of never-ending obligations to family, company, and state.” Teenagers in Japan do not view the adult-world as something positive or something to look forward to in life. Instead, they try to escape from the reality that they must grow up. And, they do this by choosing to wear school uniforms.

So, why school uniforms? Given that many Japanese youths have feelings of anxiety about growing up, they want their life to stay just as it is. Student life encompasses some degrees of independence and control, without the intense pressures of society. Furthermore, in Japan, there is immense value attached to being young. Wearing a school uniform simply implies that one is young and has the values of being young. “With this in mind, the uniform is the most visible sign of youthfulness.” Japanese high school girls wear a school uniform to aid entry into a fantasy world where they can forget about reality and the adult world that they must soon enter. In this fantasy world they can escape back to their childhood where everything in life was warm, secure and nice. They also feel nostalgia towards their childhood, particularly given that they realize that they will soon no longer be seen as children. It is typical in Japanese society for Japanese people to make the most of what they have when know it’s about to be taken away from them. For example, this can be related to the Cherry Blossom viewing season. Although it does not last long, Japanese people of all ages will make the effort to enjoy the Cherry Blossoms as much as they can whilst the Cherry Blossoms are flowering. Just in the same way as the flower-viewing, the Japanese high school girls realize that there will not be much time before they become adults. Therefore, by wearing school uniform outside of school hours they are trying to make the most of what’s left of their childhood and youthfulness.

The school uniform used as a fashion trend has not been adopted by high school boys. Perhaps this is attributed to the fact that schoolgirls feel that as they grow up they will have less freedom and opportunities in life. In a male-dominated country, women are frequently being reminded of their responsibilities that their bodies and gender roles restrict them to.xAlthough this applies also to high school boys, the evidence does not indicate that they use fashion as a means of escapism.

There is an immense difference between choosing to wear a school uniform and being forced to wear one. The trend of wearing school uniforms in Japan would sound absurd to American teenagers. Although in Japan, wearing a school is seen as ‘cool’, in America the school uniform represents conformity, rules, and regulations. This not appeal to most American teenagers, hence it would be extremely rare to see a school girl or boy wearing their uniform by choice on weekends or during school holidays. In America, the craze for cuteness and youthism has not been grasped at all to the extent that it has in Japan. Instead, American teenagers cannot wait to grow up and become adults. For them, the adult world represents freedom, independence, opportunities; a chapter of their lives to look forward to. Furthermore, Americans judge adulthood on the ability to vote, being financially independent, moving out of their parents’ home, and starting a family. Given that Japanese youth and American youth have entirely different opinions regarding what adulthood and childhood entails, the adoption of kawaii and school uniforms is different in the two countries.

However, this does not mean that American youth do not use fashion as a means of escapism. American teenagers also use fashion as a means of escapism, not to maintain their youth and childhood, but instead, they want to escape into the adult world. A Cambridge survey taken in the year 2002 indicated that 18 percent of males and females aged between 13 to 24 years use their wardrobe to make themselves look older. This contrasts to only 3 percent in the same age bracket who dress to look younger. In particular, there is a trend towards young American teenagers between the ages of 11 and 13 years to be wearing tight-fitting, more revealing, and skimpier clothing. And, this often emulates the fashion of older teenagers and of their stars and idols, such as Britney Spears. Although society often negatively perceives these young teenagers who dress in this style, they can be the “sweetest, homework-doing little angels in class.”

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In America, society, schools, and parents are pushing children to grow up fast.l The media, including celebrities and idols that the American youth cherish and follow, are also driving this trend. For example, in a teen magazine, Elle Girlli, Sarah Michelle Gellar is featured on the front cover. At age 27 years, she is a star that girls more than 10 years her junior are emulating. It is not uncommon for American teenagers to try to follow the fashion style and look of these much older celebrities. And indeed, this is a factor influencing the trend for American youth to dress older than they look.

Concluding the issue of youth using fashion as a means of escapism, it is clear that the underlying societal values attached to adulthood and childhood determine how fashion is used. In Japan, we saw that youth perceive adulthood as being negative and childhood as being positive, hence they dress in a style reflecting innocence, cuteness, and childishness. To the contrary, although American youth do not perceive childhood as being negative, they have strong beliefs regarding the positiveness of adulthood. Hence, they use fashion to look older in an attempt to be older.

Rebellion

Another important issue to highlight in regards to youth fashion in Japan and the U.S.A is the issue of rebellion. Teenagers are in ‘no man’s land’; neither children nor adults. At this age, they often explore their boundaries and try to take control of their lives. Rebellion, for teenagers, is an act where they question authority.

In Japan, teenagers are rebelling against the conformity of society. At an age where they want to be more individualistic and make decisions for themselves, they feel confined within the environment in which they live. Therefore, fashion is one means for subtly protesting against conformity. For this reason, we see such fashion trends in Japan including Lolita Goth style and the Gan-Goro (Gals) style.

Japanese youth are not alone in their quest for rebellion. American youth are also rebelling, however for slightly different reasons. American youth, in general, do not like the rules and regulations placed upon them by authoritative figures. This is not simply because they don’t agree with all the rules, it is more due to the fact that they want to make decisions for themselves. For this reason, American teenagers also use fashion as a means of protest and rebellion against authoritative figures in their lives.

Although the issue of rebellion is not so highly significant in comparison to other factors, (such as escapism, individuality, and attention-seeking), it is still important to consider this given that it is a common attribute of youth life.

Attracting Attention

We also found out that in the case of both the Japanese and American teenagers, they are all trying to attract attention through what they are wearing.

In Japan, we see the teenagers wearing outrageous clothes for different reasons; one of the more easily identified ones is to attract the attention of the opposite gender. With this intention in mind, it is not seldom that we see female Japanese teenagers wearing clothes that expose much of their legs or even plunging necklines just so to get their male counterpart’s attention focused onto them. In fact, they are even seriously considering wearing Baba-Shatsu (a type of women’s undershirt); something they have regarded in disdain with, just so they could better appeal to males.

Another angle that we might think of looking into might be the Japanese teenagers are trying to attract the attention of the society with their fashion sense. Since World War II, we see the surviving Japanese working very hard to build Japan into the successful nation it has become today. Though it might be good for the overall Japanese economy and society, this has unconsciously resulted in a form of an invisible burden being placed on the shoulders of the younger generation.

Looking at what the generation before them has done: their achievements are monumental and near impossible to mimic, for the simple reason that Japan is already a well-developed country which has astronomical improvements in the economy over the years. Realizing that they are unlikely to achieve the same success in the area that their forefathers had, the young Japanese hence struck out at another possible venue, namely in the direction of fashion to make a statement of what they are, hoping to gain recognition from their elders, in terms of what they had done and what they are trying to achieve from their actions. In a way, they have been successful in making a statement of what they are trying to do, so much so as being labeled as ‘shinjinrui’ or ‘new human beings’ by their elders. However, this term is not that of a complimentary one, as their elders are utterly alarmed by their exotic fashion. It still remains to be seen, as to whether the younger generations’ efforts will be accepted and recognized.

In the United States, however, there is only one similarity for the reasons behind using fashion to attract attention to him or herself: that is to attract the attention of the opposite gender.

In this instance, we see young females dressing more scantily and skimpily for the sake of attracting the opposite genders’ eyes onto them, and to flaunt off their bodily curves. More often than not, we see short skirts with high slits, tight-fitting shirts, or even those shirts that are half unbuttoned at the top and the bottom, leaving one wonder what is the purpose of the buttons. There is also the issue of using the clothes they are wearing (with suggestive slogans) to act as ice-breakers, becoming a way to get talking with men they like.

On the other hand, we see guys also wearing lesser and tighter apparels too. Though this might not be exactly common, there is nonetheless still visibly some whose dress codes are so, possibly to flaunt their figures and to get the admiration of both the males (who might feel inferior) and the females (attracted to what they see).

On a more neutral note, the reason for US teens dressing as they are might be to be in the limelight. It would seem that for the US teens, being in the limelight is something that they would possibly enjoy a lot; so much so they will take pains to dress up to focus, if possible, everyone’s attention onto them so that they will have a feeling of fulfillment or even importance. It started off with them just grabbing anything nearest to them to wear for the day, but as time passes, they realized that the mismatching clothes in effect gain them the attention they yearn, and thus starting the trend of wearing mismatching clothes. The mismatching clothes are specially chosen with care so much so it would be perfectly mismatched and hence attracting curious attention from the ordinary pedestrians on the street.

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Comparing the teenagers of the two different countries, with different reasons for attracting attention, we could thereby say that for the teenagers in the US, their attracting of attention is basically and wholly for themselves only. It is purely for their enjoyment and pleasure that they are using fashion to seek attention, and feels glorified by basking in the attention that would be focused on them when they are wearing certain apparels.

In contrast, though the Japanese teenagers might seem to be seeking attention for the same reason, it could be said that subconsciously, they are actually trying to make themselves heard and seen by the elder generation in Japan. By saying seen and heard, it is not really in the physical sense, but more of in the desperate need to feel recognized and approved of by them.

Hence, it would seem that though the US is ahead of Japan in terms of economic value, social values wise, US is trailing behind Japan by one big gap; judging through this singular comparison of fashion.

Degree of Practicality

For the Japanese, looks and trend are the most important factors when coming to decide their wardrobe. This idea is further backed up upon in an academic paper done on the fashion consciousness of Chinese, Japanese and American teenagers, to examine the similarity and differences in attitudes towards fashion across these three markets. It is reported that out of the three countries, Japanese teens have the highest tendency to dress for style and not personal comfort. Perhaps this has something to do with their society being a Confucian based one, and hence the teenagers are concerned with meeting the expectations of their group members.

Besides that on style, Japanese teens also scored the highest with regards to the importance of dressing in style; as well as how important is dressing in style, with regards to their life. This can be again linked back to Japan being a Confucian based society; and the Japanese teens are using fashion as a means to conform and harmonize within their social groups, rather than expressing individuality like their western counterparts.

Once they have decided on a particular theme, they would go all out dressed according to the chosen topic without a single concern over the practicality of the clothing worn with regards to the weather. In the warm seasons, it is altogether not uncommon to see Japanese teens wearing layer draped over layers of clothing, just so they would look chic and trendy. During rainy days, while most sensible people would opt for footwear that is less slippery to prevent falling, we can still see Japanese teenagers wearing seven-inch platform heels in spite of heavy rain, just so their appearance conform to their standards of good-looking and not in the least concerned about their personal safety.

That’s true in spite of recent tragedies in which super-high heels have been implicated. Police say they are investigating whether the recent death of one young woman resulted from her tripping while wearing platform sandals. Investigators also think that a car crash, in which one passenger died, happened because the boot-wearing driver got her heel caught up in the floor pedals.

In short, we see them disregarding their physical comfort just so they look chic, and are able to fit in with their groups and stand out above from the rest in terms of their dress code, unfathomable as it might be for us.

For the USA, it would seem that however they design the clothing, practicality would be a strong factor in deciding the final outcome and material used. Take for example the clothing in cold seasons: even though some of the clothing worn might seem skimpy, the materials used to make the apparels are made of warmer materials like wool; which are commonly used in the making of clothes designed to trap heat, thus keep its wearer warm. In terms of the accessories that go matching with the latest in-trend fashion, practicality is not compromised either. One example might be of handbags. Though big bags might seem to be out of sorts for petite ladies, designers have specially made them trendy and fashionable, so as to charm ladies into carrying them; rather than carrying one which might be small but impractical, due to its inability to hold sufficient items.

Besides the choice of practical and practical clothes, we generally see US teenagers wearing clothes that are suitable for their body sizes. This is in stark contrast with the Japanese teenagers, as often do we see them obviously a size or two too big than what they should be wearing. Besides wearing clothes that fit them well, US teenagers even go one step further: to try to flatter and bring out their best bodily features through the wearing of certain clothing, such that they attract more attention to the body parts you are proud of, and less attention to those you wish to hide.

Judging from the above comparisons, we could infer that with regards to fashion sense, the US teenagers are far more practical as compared to Japanese teenagers. It would seem that Japanese teenagers are willing to forgo all degree of personal comfort just so they are able to stand out from everyone else. On the other hand, US teenagers maintain that personal comfort comes above all else, which might explain why we see them wearing torn and tattered clothing, which might be comfortable to the wearer.

Conclusions

Japan and USA may be culturally different, but common threads on the expressions of youth can be teased through the ways they dress in these countries. Yet within these common threads, their motivations behind their dressing are not entirely similar.

In terms of individuality, American teens use fashion to show their uniqueness and distinctiveness. On the surface, we find that Japanese teens too, use fashion to express their individuality, but upon closer investigation, we realize that the Japanese teens actually have an underlying motivation to conform to others. Hence this paradox of “individual conformity” arises. On the other hand, both Japanese and American teens use fashion as a form of escapism. The Japanese teenage girls use the school uniform as a form of escaping from growing up and nostalgia towards being young, whereas the American teens use fashion as a form of escaping into the adult world by dressing older than they look.

Looking into the theme of rebellion, Japanese youths use fashion to rebel against society while American youths use fashion as a mean of protest and rebellion against the authoritative figures in their lives. Both the Japanese and Americans use fashion to attract the attention of the opposite gender. The main difference is that Japanese youths want to attract attention to make a statement for themselves to the older generation, while the American youths attract attention to be in the limelight.

Finally in terms of practicality when we compare the Japanese and American teens, we see that the American teens are more practical in their choice of clothing in terms of dressing according to the weather. American teens also use clothing to flaunt and flatter their body while the Japanese teens can sometimes be seen wearing clothes a few sizes too big.

In conclusion, we see from the comparisons above that the youth from Japan and USA use fashion to express themselves, and their self-expression differs between the two countries.

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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