- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 6, 2005

TOKYO - The supernova known as Japan Inc. may be dimming as a manufacturing powerhouse.

But while its mainline industries surrender ground to South Korea and China, the planet’s second-largest economy has re-emerged as a trailblazer in, of all things, pop culture.

Among the world’s fashion and cultural elite, Japan is being compared with Paris of the 1920s, a magnet for and source of inspiration to the creative.

The epicenter of Japanese fashion is a few square blocks of west-central Tokyo known as Harajuku.

“France is not the fashion leader anymore,” says Loic Bizel, a self-styled style-industry tour guide and market pulse-taker from Lyons.

“There are no trendsetters in France, except maybe big names like Dior.”

The French, he said, “are very poor in terms of fashion, in terms of creativity, compared to Japan.”

Harajuku is perhaps the one place on earth where every day is like Halloween and “outrageous” is the highest form of praise.

Day-Glo pink or green hair doesn’t turn heads, nor do Shirley Temple flouncy petticoats or pandalike, black-and-white complexions or any mad assortment of tchotchkes, accessories and clothing.

The palate of Harajuku fashionistas is limited only to any time, any place, any genre.

Digital camera in hand, Mr. Bizel tirelessly prowls the streets of Harajuku, charting the cutting edge for his clients overseas.

He occasionally escorts foreign designers around the neighborhood. Indeed, it is not uncommon for the street-fashion fetishes concocted in Harajuku to turn up, months later, on the streets of New York or London.

Dogs and babies

So what’s all the rage at the planet’s ground zero for hip? Hang on to your Yves St. Laurent cell-phone straps, style victims — one of the latest fashion statements is … dogs and babies.

“At the beginning, dogs were like fashion accessories,” said Mr. Bizel, but “now they are accessorizing the dogs with more accessories, like clothes and bags.”

A reporter’s gaze was directed to a Chihuahua resplendent in Burberry.

Another precious pooch was being transported, like some prince in a royal palanquin, via Louis Vuitton dog carrier.

Babies are also wearing a lot of chic colors nowadays, Mr. Bizel noted. “They are like small dogs.”

Baby, in other words, is a fashion accessory.

Fashion in foment

Tokyo’s funky fashion district radiates from a tree-lined avenue reminiscent of the Champs-Elysees called Omotesando, where Gap, Prada and their ilk dominate the glitzy high-end frontage.

Dyed-in-the-wool street fashionistas, however, pass up these titans of corporate fashion to hit the lower-rent, narrow back streets with their compact boutiques.

This is the real hothouse of fashion ferment, where one-of-kind T-shirts and funky ensembles reside.

On a recent visit, for instance, a mannequin was resplendent in fake pearls, a negligee, camouflage Bermudas and, to round out the soignee look: Army boots.

In the Darwinian competition to stand up and be counted, conventional retail marketing takes a hike.

Forget accessibility — the wooden floor of one shop slopes downhill, literally dumping shoppers into the racks.

Several boutiques — including the drop-dead-trendy Bathing Ape — are too hip to even hang out a sign.

Not to worry. Those in the know have no trouble finding their way to these obscure objects of fashion desire.

Deep pockets and an insatiable appetite for shopping have evolved Japan into the kingdom of cool, said Mr. Bizel, whose own taste runs to Noh-like dark camouflage.

With an average budget of $400 a month to fritter away on accessories and apparel, Japanese “kids have more money to spend,” compared to their counterparts in Europe or America, Mr. Bizel said.

“At the same time, they like shopping. Shopping is like a hobby or a sport.”

The urge to break away sartorially is rooted also in the often oppressively conservative bent of Japanese society.

From the time they are old enough to attend nursery school, Japanese are obliged to wear uniforms.

Severe dress codes, though easing a bit, dictate practically every occasion and identify many occupations, especially in large corporations.

Parading after-hours in Harajuku is an antidote to the straightjacket conventions of weekday life, not to mention a way of standing out from the crowd, a not-inconsiderable challenge in this nation of 120 million.

Looking good seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, where the dress code tends toward dark, ill-fitting suits.

Spinoff benefits

Nonetheless, economic mandarins, such as Ryohei Tamura, are hyped about the country’s new status as style trendsetter, especially in the field of entertainment.

“The contents industry offers tremendous spinoff benefits,” he said.

“For example, the Pocket Monsters video game spawned a TV show, movie and licensed products. The contents industry also serves as good public relations for our country. It deepens understanding of Japanese culture and enhances Japan’s image.”

Japan’s so-called “contents” market — which includes everything from music and video games to comics and movies — is estimated at $100 billion, or about half the size of Japan’s auto industry.

Hello Kitty and Astro Boy can’t fix everything that’s wrong with Japan, but for an economy past its prime, they’re more than just comic relief.

Mega-manga

Japanese-style comic books, known as “manga,” have gained fans from Boise to Berlin, and have been credited with virtually single-handedly restoring enrollment in Japanese-language classes on American college campuses, where Japan had fallen off the map after its economy turned south in 1990.

Japan has become the cultural lodestar for a generation of trendy young Americans, say purveyors of pop culture.

“That generation looks at Japan much the same way as the generation before looked at France, in Hemingway’s era,” said Stuart Levy, chief executive officer for Tokyopop, a manga publisher in Los Angeles.

“You had a lot of creative energy happening in France at the time. I think you have that in Japan, and American youth can really relate to that.”

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