Critical Ethnography of Decorative Rebellion: Japanese Girls Subculture in Harajuku

With Speaker Atsumi Nakao (Ph.D. student, Asian Studies)

Part of the Centre for Japanaese Research Lunchtime Lecture Series



The research examines the young female specific subculture called Decora in Harajuku by applying critical ethnographic approach in order to retheorize the notion of resistance. Subcultures generated from the streets has been merged with and disseminated by main-stream culture and provoked a number of criticism towards their political stance. Other theories such as (neo) tribe and scene are thus theorized by scholars of youth subculture to compensate the theoretical weakness of notion of resistance. On the contrary, how subculture itself has affected on and taken advantage of the mainstream culture, is not commonly discussed. Subversive potential lies in repetitive performances of participants within mainstream medium. This research firstly tackles the issue of whether or not the mainstream undermines the subversive power of subculture in their entanglements through examining the individual’s consumption of mass-products. The second objective is to theorize how the part  icipants of Decora subculture resist the ideology of gender expectations. Decora is a style of excessive decoration with fancy wigs, massive amount of hair clips, shiny tutu, dolls, and vivid-colored ribbons. The participants are under constant harassment from pedestrians on the streets. To decora participants, enemies are everywhere. These ‘enemies’ try to scorn participants, make fun of them in a group, get them to realize that their appearance is crazy, and finally, become obstacles for them to pursuit their fashion. Therefore, the power of normativity, the ideological domination of wearing normal clothes, be feminine, do not be too rebellious is in the air while donning decora fashion. Participants counteracts this suppressive power through building their own identity, which I theorized into three components; 1) the effective application of the concept of fluid identity; 2) the use of intertextuality, and 3) creation of their own morality. By building value of the normalization of abnormality, they are not exploited or consumed, rather produce the cultural space to pursuit their unique fashion. Having done the research, I could capture the tactics of Decora subculture. The fluidity of identity enabled them to play with their comfortable texts based on their own values and manners, and enjoy their own creation within the exclusive space like a cocoon, which is separated from the norm, and where different value systems work. I argue that this previously stated ‘space’ can potentially empowers young women to stand against the imposed femininity and gender perspectives.


About the Speaker:

Atsumi NAKAO is a first year PhD student at the department of Asian Studies in UBC. She just finished her Master program in September 2016. She conducted research on Harajuku subculture in an ethnographical methodology and held first Harajuku Fashion Walk in Vancouver last year. Her prospective research in PhD program shifts to contemporary Japanese visual media to examine the notion of fushigi chan (mysterious women in English) through Japanese contemporary visual media in order to better understand how the female character that features mystery has been created in mass media and how it has affected gender discourses in today’s Japan.