Our little world… i saw a blurb about Gwen Stefani saying she’s “just a harajuku girl” which opened up another window into the goings on of that segment of people around the world who are tied into commodity culture but aren’t content or satisfied merely to consume whatever the global corporations spew at us. I guess the sociological term is “subculture” but that sounds a little stiff. I think of people like this as living in an “imagined community” which interfaces with so-called “normal” life but reworks and reinvents it. Maybe this is all just part of human history: there have always been unique and thriving subgroups within every culture, every population. But in the modern period of globally produced mass culture, these reworkings of the dominant consumer markets is more striking.
Subcultures based on the idea of fanclubs is also not new, but their social defiance is perhaps differently shaped than in previous generations. We had flappers, bobby soxers, beatniks, boppers, hippies, punks through the 20th century, but even though they were shaped by mass culture, they didn’t face the advanced marketing machinery of late monopoly capitalism. Youth groups of generations past reacted to the adult-owned economy without having their identities so completely shaped by it. Nowadays, to have any kind of self-determined youth culture depends on an active reaction to and defiance of the adult-owned marketing machinery. The market doesn’t just throw commodities at a susceptible youth demographic, it tries to construct an entire lifestyle that is commodified. Every activity, every thought, every conversation has a market tie-in if you’re not careful. In this post-modern world it is difficult to have an individual experience, one that hasn’t been pre-masticated by a focus group.
It is interesting to see how Japanese youth have created unique cultural niches in their heavily controlled and hierarchical society. Harajuku, and the related cosplay (“costume play”) trends are defiant expressions of fantasy played out in a society with regimented daily life. Harajuku refers to a street in Tokyo dominated by fashion-conscious stores, which has become a focal point for a particular aspect of youth culture: fantasy. Harajuku culture might be seen as trivial on one level, a “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” fashion statement, where life imitates a music video. But for the players it is serious business, a way of having a voice in a global culture. Cosplay adherents go so far as to redefine their daily identities as fantasy characters, not just wearing their costumes in public, but becoming those characters in their public life.
One way to look at the kooky, over the top trends rippling out from Tokyo’s youth is to examine the relation between conservative authoritarian traditions and the fluid amorality of global capitalism. It’s a truism that the market has no conscious, for better or worse. If there is a demand for something, someone will figure a way to sell it, whether it’s a vial of Elvis Presley’s sweat or a piece of the Berlin Wall encased in Lucite. At the same time, nations with rigid social structures provide a more productive workforce to pump out all that crap which the rest of the world buys. In this play between rampant consumer culture and the highly systemized production of consumer goods, Japan is probably the perfect laboratory. They take things seriously, whether it’s developing a more efficient microchip or dressing up like Hello Kitty.
If Japan is the perfect cultural laboratory for the post-modern global society, then it’s not surprising that Japanese cultural trends get picked up by other industrialized countries which subsequently adapt them to their specific cultural identities. The U.S. may not be as socially regimented as Japan, but we are certainly going in that direction, and serious acting out of our inner fantasies becomes increasingly important the more regimented our daily lives are. The cycle of production and consumption speeds up, becomes more frenetic as the global economy becomes more interconnected. What will the next trend be? Wait five minutes and you’ll see.