Meet Harajuku’s Heroine to Combat Mental Health
Content warning: This piece discusses self-harm, suicide and mental health.
In Japan, a country known for its conformity, the backstreets of Tokyo reject and rebel. Harajuku’s main drag, Takeshita-dori, is the colourful epicentre of kawaii: the aesthetic and culture of cuteness.
As a young girl, I waited for my dial-up connection to load a five-minute video for what seemed an eternity, just to see the famous Harajuku girls bedecked in their wild makeup and outfits. I was drawn to the pastel world of rainbows, sweet treats and girliness. Then, I hit the tender age of 14. The world lost its charm. And, funnily, Harajuku seems to going through its own teenage rebellion stage right now.
Yami kawaii is a subculture that translates to ‘sick cute’, with the kanji (Japanese character) in yami alluding to pain. On the surface, it follows the same pastel colour scheme of the kawaii aesthetic, but is one of the only subcultures under that umbrella where its followers wear black.
What makes this subculture different to the rest is its accessories, particularly its emphasis on gore and the medical world: blood, bandages, syringes, pills and even references to self-harm. It’s all about the details. Yami kawaii centres on bright, feminine outfits highlighted by dark, gloomy undertones. It’s essentially a cutesy version of the emo trend that hit the West hard in the early 2000s.
The seemingly bizarre movement has sparked a long list of questions. How does something like this start? Does it glorify suicide and depression?
Mental health is generally heavily stigmatised in Japan. With a forest famous for the number of people who have taken their lives within its bounds, and an honour killing traditionally reserved for samurai, Japan has a complex history with mental health and suicide.
In 1991, a 24-year-old man named Ichiro Oshima took his life after he was overworked by his employer, Japan’s largest advertising agency at the time. His family took the company to court. Attracting a lot of public attention, the case itself determined two main things: kokoro no kaze – a cold of the soul – isn’t inherently generic; and mental health could be influenced by someone’s circumstances, such as heavy overtime work.
By 2006, the number of mental illness diagnoses in Japan had doubled. While this helped break down some of the inherent stigma towards mental health and wellbeing, it didn’t beat it.
The year 2015 saw Japan introduce workplace stress checks. These consist of a questionnaire addressing causes and symptoms of mental health struggles, all confidential. This test is mandatory for companies with over 50 staff members. In 2016, the government announced it would aim to reduce the nation’s suicide by 30 per cent, but currently, Japan’s youth suicide rate is the highest it’s been in 30 years.
Although yami kawaii is a relatively underground movement, it’s taken social media by storm – mainly through one specific manga series. The self-elected poster child for the subculture is Menhera-chan: a pretty girl with pink pigtails who dresses exclusively in sailor suits. Her name is Japanese slang that refers to someone not mentally stable.
Together with her two close friends, Sabukaru-chan and Yumekawa-chan, Menhera-chan is part of a group called The Wrist Cut Warriors. To transform into her magical self, Menhera must cut her wrist. Her Instagram has just under 52k followers, and now leads the yami kawaii market with her merch, which consists of tights with a noose print and tees and hoodies covered in syringes, pills and lots of strawberries.
Her creator, Ezaki Bisuko, has become a household name in the yami kawaii community. Described as a pioneer of the movement, Menhera-chan was born from Bisuko’s own worries and mental health struggles.
Bisuko himself is the personification of yami kawaii. He dresses exclusively in pinks and purples, but it’s not until you notice the white noose and the black pills on his pants that you get his true yami kawaii style.
In an interview with Mai Nguyen, Bisuko said that during his college exams, he was struggling with his mental health. He felt isolated in the countryside, so took his pen to paper. With that, Menhera was born. He loves the Powerpuff Girls, because although they’re small, cute and pretty – they’re strong and can fight, much like his magical Menhera.
Comments on Bisuko’s Instagram point to how his character glamourises suicide and depression, depicting it as cute and girly. Critics question whether Menhera-chan is truly is a heroine for those struggling with their mental health.
Bisuko says he doesn’t worry about negative feedback. “I think that it takes a very deep pain and a lot of courage to commit suicide, and I don’t think my work inspires that,” he explains. “My fans usually pay attention to the dark, underground culture of yami kawaii, so they understand my concept and take the good parts of it.”
The idea that a manga character or fashion movement can change centuries of misjudgement about mental health and illness may seem strange to some, but it really could be the reality in Japan. It’s allowing people to express their deepest, darkest emotions outwardly, and in a safe, comfortable way.
Yuki,* a 13-year-old Japanese girl, runs a Menhera-chan fan page. With nearly 2000 followers, she is a firm believer that Menhera’s character can change Japanese society.
“Menhera-chan shows that mental illness isn’t always dark and gloomy,” she says. “You can be sick and cute.”
“We can’t run away from mental health problems; people need to understand them. People think mental illness isn’t real or that a 13-year-old can’t have it. But that’s not true.”
Yuki says she feels pressured by her parents, teachers, peers and society as a whole to live up to ridiculous expectations. Her schooling days can last up to 12 hours. Although she mainly interacts with the yami kawaii movement online, to her, it feels like a real-life community.
“It is good to know others feel the same,” she says. “We can talk about what we feel, but we can still look good and feel cute.”
Maybe, that’s all there is to it. Trends in Harajuku come and go, but it’s refreshing to see a movement solely founded for raising awareness, decreasing stigma and building community. Maybe, to some, it’s simply a cool style to mimic and wear. Maybe it does romanticise the idea of mental illness. Regardless, it is helping youths in Japan, or at least Tokyo, to combat a very serious subject in a light, fun manner.
If this article has raised any issues that you’d like to have a chat about, talk to someone you trust, call a crisis line like Lifeline on 13 11 14, or phone 000 immediately if life is in danger.
Cover via Haute People