This is so cute but what does it say? I want to die. I want to die? Oh. While I’d never been afraid to take a few risks in the name of fashion, there’s a new style popping up in Tokyo that’s, frankly, a little scary. In Japan, conformity and rigidity inform everything, from social customs, to the way people dress. Standing out is not exactly something everyone strives for. Here on Takeshita Street, style is defined by defying norms. But a new look is challenging one of Japan’s deepest taboos: depression and mental illness. The style is called Yami Kawaii and it means “sick cute”. Can fashion break the silence that surrounds an epidemic? My first question: What exactly is Yami Kawaii? What does it look like? To find out, I tracked down Kuua, an artist and influencer with over 56,000 followers on Instagram. “Kawaii” is the Japanese word for “cute.” “Yume Kawaii” means “cute like a dream.” “Yami Kawaii,” is what happens when “Yume” goes dark. Is that a fan? Did she just recognize you? Oh, that’s so fun! Fans are drawn to Yami Kawaii. But honestly, I just don’t get it. To better understand the appeal I’m going to visit a pioneer of the look, an artist named Bisuko. But then it says, “I love you.” Kill you? Okay. Changing your mind a lot. That’s Yami Kawaii. Can you tell me who this is? Meet Menhera-chan, the Yami Kawaii heroine of Bisuko’s comic. She gets her name form Menhera, a term that refers to people who suffer from mental illness. To understand why this is a look someone would want to project, I decided to try the clothes on for myself. I need a jacket and then I need bottoms. This one? How’s that? Kawaii? A jacket? What makes this one Yami Kawaii? I think I’m getting it now. Accessories? Okay! Kawaii! I’ll go try it on? As I put on my Yami Kawaii outfit, I really notice the dark details among all the pastels, the bandages around the girl’s wrists, the droplet hanging off the syringe. I don’t feel Kawaii. I feel uncomfortable. Is this Kawaii? For some, this look is empowering. But why? Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Even talking about mental illness and depression is considered taboo. So what is Bisuko trying to say? Is there something deeper going on? Oh my god. There’s so much pink Kawaii! It’s such an interesting mix of sweetness and pink and then this is terrifying. Oh my gosh. Yeah, that’s probably the most Yami Kawaii. I mean, when you see it, does it remind you about those who have died by noose or is it just, again, decoration. Yami Kawaii is fashion, but it’s also a coping mechanism for complex emotions. I wanted to know if other people were using fashion in the same way. Hanayo, a former teenage model, might have some insight. She was once a finalist in the nationwide Miss iD competition, an alternative beauty pageant that celebrates differences. Until she was disqualified for discussing her suicidal past. What do you feel when you come here? It’s nice to meet you. Did you say you had multiple attempts? Her openness won her fans on social media and has won her a new kind of support system. Do you feel like there are a lot of people who feel the same way that you do? She uses social media to create a community, where she feels free to talk about her art, her clothes and her raw emotions. You have a lot of pink. Do you dress to make yourself happy or do you dress to make other people happy? This, amazing. Sex Suicide Baby. Yeah. It feels bad to hide who you are, right? What’s one thing that you want people to know when they hear your story? Hanayo sees cute clothes as a form of therapy. Maybe, that feeling isn’t an accident. Joshua Paul Dale is a professor who specializes in the impact of Kawaii culture. “Cute” can mean “clever” in English, so we can look at somebody and say, “oh, that’s cute”, or “don’t be
cute.” But Kawaii in Japan doesn’t have that negative connotation to it. It’s simply a pure, happy feeling of cuteness. So instead of, “You look Kawaii,” it’s like, “I feel Kawaii because of how
you are.” Yeah. When you express Kawaii, you are expressing a desire to appeal to other people, to get closer to other people, and expressing a desire for healing. So maybe that can help people with those dark and more difficult issues that can’t be openly expressed in Japanese society. Talking openly about painful experiences feels better than keeping it in. When you talk, powerful things can happen. I see now that Yami Kawaii can help people heal, people like Bisuko’s number one fan. So I came to Tokyo expecting to learn something about this new style of subculture. What I really didn’t expect to learn is something about love. You know, in the United States, asking for love isn’t really a thing we’re very comfortable with doing but in Japan, it’s pervasive. It’s normalized. It’s Kawaii. And especially when you have a hard time practicing self-love, asking for love is a really, really brave act and that’s what Yami Kawaii is at the end of the day. And that’s pretty rad.