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Rebels on the Bridge
Subversion, Style, and the New Subculture
Part 1: Welcome to Harajuku
Featured on the covers of magazines, in articles of newspapers, in documentaries, and even as the namesake of a recent song by American pop star Gwen Stefani, Harajuku¶s youth culture has acquired a global iconic stature, with few subcultures able to compete for the same degree of recognition. I came across Harajuku when I lived in Tokyo as an exchange student in 2001. I had never heard of Harajuku before, but I quickly discovered it as a fascinating mecca
that, at 17 years old, I happened to be the perfect age for. Enthralled by a street culture and style that I had never seen before, I became enamored like so many other Americans upon first sight of the place. Unfortunately, I, like most others, never got a real sense for the place, and never found out who these people really were, what was actually going on, or why people gathered there in the first place. When, three years later, I proposed the place as my BA research topic, I did it to get past the lack of knowledge that characterized not only my own conception of the place, but the conception displayed in even the most prestigious media outlets. Attention on Harajuku¶s youth culture has focused on the most obvious choice: the style. Many portrayals of the place are nothing but photographs, appended only with cursory captions. Written descriptions invariably focus on some element of the style and fashion, too, overlooking the dynamics of the place as a whole. From what I can tell, this paper is the first report that goes beyond the level of appearance, and discusses in detail the lives, behaviors, and choices of the participants who bring Harajuku to life. Any number of articles can say how they dress; my goal was to find out what made them show up in the first place.
Methodologies My research centered around 7 weeks of fieldwork in Tokyo over the summer of 2005. Every Sunday, I traveled to Harajuku in order to meet and interact with various participants and observers. Over the course of my time, I interviewed roughly 35 people. Roughly half of these people were the participants themselves, ranging in age from 14 to
25. Owing to the predominantly female population, all of my extensive interviews were with women, though I did have the chance to speak with several men on a more casual level. The other half of interviews were with the other people who crowd the bridge: particularly, photographers, journalists, students, and tourists. Arriving as an American male in a predominantly Japanese female social scene posed some interesting challenges. The major obstacle was, understandably, the language barrier. Prior to arriving, I had studied Japanese for seven years, and possessed a confidant grasp of the language. The enabled me fortunately to ask and learn from a wide variety of questions; however, there were times when I was unable to forge inquires with as much depth or nuance as I would have liked. As I mentioned, the bridge is a hotbed of foreign journalists, photographers, and students, making the presence of a University of Chicago sociology undergrad less conspicuous than would be the case in other, more homogenous Japanese settings. Indeed, arriving as a foreigner may have afforded me a degree of flexibility unavailable to Japanese researchers themselves; a few of my male Japanese friends remarked to me that my foreign nationality lended a hand to the purity of my intentions, and that they, by contrast, would have a more difficult time conducting a similar project without raising a number of suspicions from the participants.
Harajuku Kids: Who They Are
Harajuku Kids, as I will call them, come from across Tokyo and its surrounding suburbs. They gather on Jingu Bashi (³Jingu Bridge´), a pedestrian bridge connecting the bustling Harajuku district with Meiji Shrine, one of Tokyo¶s oldest and largest spiritual complexes. Every Sunday, they choose neither one side nor the other, but flock to the bridge itself, which is large enough (about 100¶ by 150¶) to accommodate hundreds of participants and onlookers at any given time. Most of the participants, roughly 90%, are female. They fall between the ages of 12 and 25, with the average age being somewhere close to 19. Most are middle class, and from all appearances lead relatively normal lives. A number of the older cohorts, those who have finished high school, work part time jobs and live at home, instead of going to
college. (They¶re part of the larger trend of ³freeters,´ young Japanese adults who shun traditional schooling and corporate employment for a less pressured, more casual lifestyle.) Over the course of my seven weeks, the majority of my interactions remained on the bridge. Three weeks before leaving, however, I gradually befriended a girl named Erina, an avid Harajuku participant. We quickly became friends, and though I left not long after meeting her, she introduced me to a number of her friends, and through a number of conversations that we had, gave me an insight into the bridge life that I otherwise would have missed. At the time when we met, Erina was 19, right around the median age of those I interviewed. I first met her at around 3 pm on a typical Sunday, while chatting with a few people who turned out to be her friends. Soon after we met, she lit a cigarette, and in an afterthought, apprehensively asked me not to report her for it. (Smoking is prohibited in Japan until one turns 20, though this law is routinely flouted.) She was talkative and uncharacteristically direct, and soon enough had told me a good deal about her life and what brought her to the bridge. Six months before we met, Erina was among the unique Japanese class of youth known as "hikikomori," young people who sequester themselves in their rooms for months at a time, interacting minimally, if at all, with the outside world. She came from a broken family, living with her mother, sister, and grandmother. Her parents divorced when she was a teenager, due largely to her father's routine abusive behavior. After finishing high school, Erina attended "yobiko," a vocational college, intending to become a preschool teacher. However, for reasons she never understood, she was quickly
alienated and isolated by her peers, leading to her many months of self-induced isolation. Coming to Harajuku was the first place she went to after re-entering the outside world. She even had started working full-time at one of her favorite shops, after being offered the position by the store's proprietor.
How they meet Often, the deciding factor in meeting others lies in whether or not they share the same favorite band. Harajuku Kids find common ground in a particular musical genre called ³Visual Kei,´ a genre of rock music that has gradually emerged from the underground to become a genre whose top bands are some of the most popular in the country. Not only that, but the bands enjoy a devout, obsessive fan base that¶s unrivaled by any other genre. However, along with the popular bands, the underground roots of the genre persist, and a number of ³underground´ bands vie in small venues for new fans and increased fame. Kids on the bridge follow both the popular and underground bands, though most gravitate towards the popular, established end of the spectrum. Once on the bridge, Harajuku Kids will start the day by socializing with their group, and often end the day similarly. Throughout, however, they may get up to mingle with others. Harajuku Kids appear with a degree of regularity, some coming multiple times a week. Because of this regularity, many Kids will interact with each other and come to know each other well. If they hit it off, they¶ll often exchange mobile email addresses, making it possible to continue interacting beyond the bridge itself. The strength of relationships among group members is enduring, but greatly bound by time and space. I encountered certain groups who had been meeting each other
for years, but who rarely gathered anywhere but on the bridge itself. In other words, as strong as friendships can become, it¶s uncommon that they extend into life beyond the bridge.
What They Do For Erina, Harajuku held the majority of her friends, despite the fact that she rarely saw them outside the bridge. Between her job and her social life, she ended up coming to Harajuku almost every day of the week. When there for social purposes, she became one of the crowd, engaging in similar activities to other participants. These activities came down to a select number of habits: fashion/cosplay, socializing, shopping, and posing for photographs.
Outward appearance plays a strong role in bringing participants to the bridge. I discovered three variations of style: Cosplay, Gothic Lolita, and Harajuku style. Cosplay is the act of dressing up as somebody else, typically a fictional or iconic character from a band, movie, or comic series. The word derives from ³costume play,´ and among Harajuku Kids is shortened simply to ³Cos.´ In America, cosplay is popular among fans of Star Trek and anime. In Harajuku, however, virtually all cosplayers dress up as members of Visual Kei bands ± typically those they¶re the greatest fans of. They will often arrive with friends, each assuming the appearance of a particular member. Visual Kei is a genre less distinct for its musical sound than the visual style of its members. The music itself runs the gamut, from punk to heavy metal to more easily digestible pop and rock. The visual style, however, makes itself immediately recognized.
Band members, nearly all male, dress up androgynously, while integrating elements of punk, goth, Kabuki, and anime. They tend to wear heavy make-up, wear their hair in gravity-defying styles and nature-defying colors, and sport elaborate and sensational wardrobes, with signature touches that often distinguish the band subtly from others. A number of the members cross-dress, assuming feminine names and personalities. One of the earliest Visual Kei bands to reach mainstream fame was Mailce Mizer, of whose member Mana achieved cult status with his elaborately constructed female persona, even designing a women's fashion line and opening a boutique in Harajuku to sell it. The genre is popular largely among women, though isn't without its male fans. (As a way to reduce the stigma of attending majority-female concerts, some of the more popular bands hold occasional concerts exclusively for their male fans, and typically draw a large crowd.) As a whole, though, Visual Kei finds its most active fan base among women, reflected by the gender ratios on Jingu Bridge. Curiously, when these women appear dressed as their favorite band members, some of them indeed appear as the members who cross dress, creating the interesting phenomenon of women impersonating men impersonating women. Another genre related to Visual Kei is Gothic Lolita. However, while Visual Kei tends to be darkly and sharply stylized, Gothic Lolita emphasizes aspects of chastity, purity, and overabundant cuteness. While still marginal in the city as a whole, the fashion has soared in popularity over the last few years. Girls dressing up in Gothic Lolita fashion often evoke images of Victorian dolls, sometimes intentionally. Though the style has nebulous roots, some give credit to Mana, mentioned above, who became famous by sporting elaborately constructed outfits inspired by female Victorian standards.
As a third genre, some Kids show up in a third style that I¶ll describe as ³Harajuku style.´ More of a catch-all trend than a specific genre, the style draws heavily from punk and goth, featuring a litany safety pins, misplaced zippers, plaid patches, dangling chains, and plenty of black cloth. Less of a statement than a general style of appearance, arriving in this style is a way for participants to identify with the bridge culture without ascribing to the standards of a particular band or the hyperfeminized style of Gothic Lolita. Indeed, the style is by far the most gender neutral of the three, even bearing certain masculine connotations; it was sported by women who typically demonstrated more outward and aggressive behavior compared to wearers of the other two sets. It's difficult to find these styles anywhere outside Harajuku. Of them, Visual Kei cosplay is the rarest, virtually nonexistent any place else. Gothic Lolita has gained traction in the past several years and can occasionally be seen in other popular youth meccas, but it still resides largely on the periphery of mainstream fashion. The same can be said of the Harajuku style: you might find it elsewhere, but chances are you won't. All three of the fashions evoke connotations of Harajuku itself, adding a certain out-of-place quality to their appearance elsewhere.
Socializing makes up the biggest component of Bridge culture. Since it¶s little more than a bridge, there¶s not much in the way of an entertainment infrastructure. Amateur performers will often show up at its periphery, but these are rarely the draw of the location. (It¶s not terribly surprising when one surveys the quality of their music.) Instead, the greatest draw to Bridge Kids is each other.
Because of its disconnection from everyday life, bridge culture eschews many of the restrictive and traditional measures of rank and respect that still permeate most Japanese institutions. Age, for example, loses much of its status-forming context. I met many groups of friends whose ages spanned ten years or more. Middle school students would often be in the same groups as college students, or even young workers, and yet it had little bearing on their friendship or interaction. Language and expression, too, exist in a more liberated state on the bridge than almost anywhere else I ever visited. Just take some basic gestures and greetings. Women, who comprise the vast majority of the bridge¶s participant population, would commonly refer to themselves as ³ore,´ (³oh-ray,´) a coarse and highly familiar form of self-address used almost exclusively by males. Upon seeing friends who just arrived, they¶d often run up and exchange big hugs, something I had never before seen in the year I lived in Tokyo. On more serious subjects, girls would speak with uncharacteristic directness. I was able to discuss things like sexuality, suicide, political corruption, and other topics that typically veer miles away from proper discourse. As one of the most compelling elements of bridge culture, participants don¶t use their real names. Instead, they use ³handle names,´ a term borrowed from 1990s American internet culture. The term refers to a user who would visit chatrooms and forums, and before entering, would have to choose a ³handle,´ or pseudonym, with which to identify. Similarly, bridge participants choose a name for themselves when they socialize and meet people. This is the name they give to everyone, including friends. In a curious reversal from normal customs, revealing one¶s given name becomes not a matter of custom, but a display of intimacy and trust.
Social interaction on the bridge falls into two major categories: group-related, and non-group-related. As I earlier mentioned, the Kids tended to arrive and coalesce into small groups of two to ten, based on previously established relationships. These groups sometimes stay intact during the whole day, particularly on less dense areas of the bridge. In denser areas, however, interaction flows more casually, with people arriving and leaving continuously. As an example of this, one time I attempted to interview a girl in the midst of a dense pack of other girls. While talking, she interrupted me three times to greet friends who showed up, and then wandered off entirely when she got dragged off by one of them. While groups remain the modus operandi for social interaction, sometimes connections form spontaneously through the course of the day. The common fashion and fan culture among the bridge participants, combined with a greatly reduced stigma associated with age and gender, lowers the barriers considerably to forming new friendships, or at least casual acquaintanceships. I discovered this first-hand towards the end of my field work, when I ended up in an impromptu group with Erina, one of her friends, Shochi, and Usagi, a girl none of us had met before. We ventured somewhat fluidly through the Takeshita Dori and Urahara areas, before returning to the bridge about 90 minutes later. Shortly after, we dispersed, going our separate ways.
Tokyo is nothing if not a shopping paradise, and Harajuku is no exception. While the district is better known for Omotesando, a tree-lined boulevard with some of the world¶s most exclusive and expensive brands, another street, called Takeshita Dori, runs parallel to it. Unlike the straight, wide-sidewalked, multi-laned Omotesando, however, Takeshita is a narrow, winding amalgamation of shops, restaurants, and junk stores that cater almost entirely to a teenage and young adult market. It runs contiguously for the length of almost three city blocks, and its narrow width ± about fifteen feet across ± prevents anyone but a dense crowd of pedestrians from navigating through it. While catering to a number of subcultures and trendy urbanites beyond the bridge dwellers, Takeshita Dori nonetheless remains a popular destination that serves this niche better than any place else in the city. There are at least two dozen shops that sell clothing
falling into one of the three categories mentioned above, along with toy stores, fast food restaurants, karaoke bars, coffee houses, fortune tellers, crepe stands, 99-cent shops, and many other repositories of dubiously valuable goods and services. Takeshita is the destination for Harajuku Kids when they get bored of the bridge and want somewhere to go to. I was whisked along several times myself towards the end of my study, when I became closer to several of the participants. There¶s plenty to do, and it¶s mostly available at a price that this young demographic can afford. It¶s a place to go for an hour or two, often followed by a return to the bridge with newly acquired items. The bridge and the street exist symbiotically; new styles that appear in Takeshita's myriad specialy shops often show up on the bridge within days or weeks. Inversely, the ebb and flow of popular styles on the bridge will impact the number of stores on Takeshita that will cater to them. Indeed, the street serves as a mecca for nearly every subcultural style you can imagine; it's one of the few places where hip-hop stores sit next to punk shops, and next to those are boutiques supplying Gothic Lolita and Visual Kei wares. Few places have established such a definitive market; virtually every shop on the street caters to a particular fashion niche, with the remaining storefronts sustaining or supplementing the shopper in their quest.
As a final element to life on the bridge, one cannot overlook the throngs of nonparticipants who gather here as well. This mass includes tourists, photographers, journalists, Japanese teenagers, aging Japanese men, and the occasional American sociology student. While coming from far more disparate backgrounds, and arriving with equally disparate intentions, they all arrive with one thing in common: their camera. If Jingu Bridge becomes host to an unintended fashion show, the onlookers serve as the unintended paparazzi. Armed with cameras ranging from simple point-and-clicks to elaborate professional photo gear, they create and propagate a ritual of posing and photo-taking, adding a notable degree of spectacle to a scene that otherwise functions as more of a community.
The process of photographing participants is highly ritualistic, and inevitably comes down to a predictable set of behaviors. First, the photographer approaches the subject, who may either be an individual, a duo, or a small group. Then, he or she will somewhat awkwardly ask if it¶s okay to take their photo. (The awkwardness persists regardless of origin. Foreigners must grapple with their botched Japanese sentence construction, while the Japanese photographers grapple with their equally flustering custom of avoiding confrontation with strangers.)
After this, the photographed subject strikes a pose. This is in marked contrast to the rest of the time, when they¶ll interact casually with friends, oblivious to the snapping lenses around them. Poses involve striking a distinctive stance, either alone or in interaction with others. When an individual or small group dresses in a particularly impressive or striking manner, photographers often form horizontal lines around the subject so they can all take pictures simultaneously. Other times, a non-participant
(typically a tourist) will pose with the participant and strike a goofy smile, as if they¶re getting a photo taken with Mickey Mouse or Santa Claus. Following the snap, they¶ll bow and utter a brief thank-you, and then move on. Just who photographs whom, and what purpose does it serve? A few cohorts largely represent the photographing contingent of the bridge: tourists, "ojisan," professionals, and fellow participants. Tourists are especially well represented; by now, Jingu Bridge's enduring culture has made its way into virtually every hip guidebook that covers the annals of Tokyo. This is coupled by word of mouth, as the phenomenon is certainly memorable, along with a flourishing number of web pages and photo galleries that put scenes from the bridge on public display. "Ojisan" are another contingent that draws a fair amount of ambiguity among the young, female population. The literal translation of the term is "uncle," but it refers more broadly to any middle aged man with whom one isn't acquainted. These men often arrive unaccompanied but with an entourage of photography gear. They make their way around the bridge, requesting photographs from those who strike their fancy. One girl, dressed in masculine Harajuku-style garb, explained to me that the ojisan mainly arrive for the "kawaii," cutely-styled Gothic Lolita girls, and generally leave the rest of the girls alone. According to the girls, ojisan don't have any particular journalistic ties, and take photos mainly for their own amusement. While the sexual undertones are as obvious as they are unreciprocated, most girls who I talked to acted nonchalantly about the older men. This may be because of their relatively unthreatening and harmless behavior, but also because some of them also arrive with the possibility of being professional photographers.
Street photography is a popular motif in Japanese youth magazines, and it's often the most popular and highest represented section in periodicals devoted to style. The particular rise in popularity of Gothic Lolita has spawned a sub-industry of magazines, the most popular of which is Kira, the self-styled "Goth-Loli Bible." Harajuku station and the surrounding milieu are peppered with advertisements for them, and it's clear from the number of shops and fans that this is the epicenter of the industry. Considering that a well-presented girl will get photographed hundreds of times throughout the day, it's plausible that some of the shots will come from professionals, leaving open the possibility of appearing in the very magazines that they read religiously in order to spot new trends. The pervasiveness of photography, then, adds a distinct stage-like element to the bridge, where the use of clothing signifies not only a group affiliation (participant vs observer), but a degree of intentional exhibition that many participants readily admit borders on narcissism. Simultaneously enmeshed in intimate peer groups and subjected to the gaze of the public, Harajuku Kids use fashion for dual purpose: to establish the basis for an intimate, primary-group community (Loffland, 1998), while at the same time presenting themselves publicly and superficially to the hovering masses of observers. Their use of fashion closely matches the description ascribed to it by Simmel, referring to it as "the best arena for people who lack autonomy and who need support, yet whose selfawareness nevertheless requires that they be recognized as distinct and as particular kinds of beings." (Simmel, 1990.) In addition to photographers, the bridge gets frequented by a number of journalists, documentarians, students, and other observers, many of whom are foreign. In
the seven weeks I spent in Harajuku, I met various journalists and observers from Spain, France, Brazil, England, the US, Italy, and Sweden. Many of them are interested in the manifest self-expressison and unique visual styles of the participants; along with this, they take note of the community-like aspects that bring the groups together. There's no similar community among the observers, however. Most journalists and others who I talked to seemed only half-aware of the other members' presence.
Why They Do It In American media representations of Harajuku Kids, jounalists and reporters typically use the term ³rebel´ in describing the bridge¶s conspicuously dressed population. However, it¶s difficult to tell what the so-called rebels are rebelling against. Clearly their radical displays of fashion go against conservative tastes and values, but the Bridge is less a mecca of politically-charged ideologies than a social space for young people to come and enjoy themselves. As a cynical American photographer put it to me, ³the rest of their lives are going to be crap, so they might as well enjoy themselves while they can.´ I asked nearly every Harajuku Kid I talked to why they went to the bridge. Nearly every single one replied with the same refrain: ³because it¶s fun.´ They brushed aside any greater implications of their actions, and didn¶t construe their activies as having a deeper meaning. Most people simply said that they enjoyed getting together with friends in a convivial atmosphere, dressing up in a way they liked, and not dealing with the institutional pressures of home, work, and school that otherwise dominated their lives.
Despite their own lack of introspection, however, Harajuku Kids have done something significant. They¶ve taken a public space and transformed it, once a week, into a private and distinctive social world, complete with rules and customs all to its own. Free from adult oversight, this space does away with many of the frustrations of being a youth in Japan ± age-based subservience, a lack of agency, an inability to express oneself ± and replaces those qualities with a freer, looser, more expressive environment where opportunity abounds for unmitigated personal expression. Said one participant to me, "it doesn't matter that I'm young, I can say what I think here. Older people normally tell us to be quiet and keep our opinions to ourselves. I can't stand that." Life on the bridge and life outside the bridge are highly distinctive. They¶re separate enough, in fact, that the bridge begins to feel like an alternate reality. This sentiment can be summed up by a quote I still remember from Erina. At the end of the day, the two of us were leaning against the side of the bridge, and before we got up to catch our trains home, she gave a sigh and said, ³well, back to reality.´ The sense of place becomes strong enough that participants actively recognize it as a space outside any normal or common realm.
Part 2: Networks of Representation
Depending on various factors, from the weather to the school season to the time of day, the bridge will have anywhere from 100 to 300 Kids on it at a given time. Kids assemble on the bridge like clockwork over the course of the day, every Sunday of the year, first trickling in at around 10 am, showing up in greater numbers by noon, and reaching their peak by 3 pm. But just how do Harajuku Kids find each other, and what allows them to interact with each other and facilitate group relationships? While some Harajuku Kids arrive and remain alone, this is far from the norm. Typically, a group from 2 to 10 people agree in advance to meet at or near the bridge at a given time. Some arrive in costume, having changed at home, although many bring small, portable suitcases with them, containing their ensemble. (In such cases, they arrive conservatively, wearing typical street clothes. This explains why you see very few conspicuously dressed youth in the train station.)
Most of these group formations don¶t originate on the bridge, however. On the contrary, an impressive degree of organization goes on invisibly before Sunday ever dawns. The Harajuku Kids have made creative and extensive use of the digital communication tools available to them. Thanks to the near-universal adoption of internetready mobile phones, the Kids have an extensive and diverse means of presenting themselves, initiating dialogue, communicating freely, and reinforcing connections across a geographically and socially diffuse network. All of this is done digitally and interactively, through a number of means, including: Online forums. Similar to the myriad forums that populate the English-language internet, forums attract participants interested in a particular area. Text messaging. Thanks to the prominence of mobile phones, text messages are a prominent way two people can communicate with each other. Because the act requires less familiarity than a telephone conversation would, the act tends to facilitate easier communication among newly acquainted strangers. ³Ofukai.´ Ofukai are similar to online forums, but are designed for people to connect online with the intention of meeting in real life, often for a specific activity. Far less common in the United States, the closest equivlant are the craigslist.org ³Activity Partners´ postings and the various activities organized through meetup.com. ³Ranking´ sites. Another distinctly Japanese variant. People submit photos, information, and interests to a site, which others then see and vote on. Based on the quality of the votes, individuals are ³ranked´ in numerical order based on their status. Similar to facebook profiles, only with an explicit competitive edge.
Ranking sites are often set to a particular theme: in the case of the Harajuku Kids, many of them are based on Visual Kei Cosplay.
By communicating with each other in online group forums, and then through oneon-one text messages, the Kids connect to a network of like-minded youth with an interest in meeting in person.
Implications of a Digitally-Networked Community In "Physical place and cyberplace," Barry Wellman chronicles the growing supremacy of complex networks over rigid groups. He defines networks as "far-flung, loosely bounded, sparsely knit, and fragmentary." While complex networks have existed for a long time, he argues, "recent technological developments in communication have afforded their emergence as a dominant form of social organization." One effect of such developments has been the enabling of "specialized communities," those which allow relationships "to develop from shared interests rather than be stunted at the onset by differences in social status." Overall we can see this social transition in effect, as networks move "away from place-based inter-household ties to individualized person-toperson interactions and specialized role-to-role interactions." (Wellman, 2002.) Combined with the rise of specialized communities is the personal agency one has in determining which (if any) one will participate in. The effects of a diffuse and prolific body of communities suggests that participation becomes largely a matter of choice, rather than something one is ascribed to. As Marshall Goldsmith wrote in 1998,
"Historically, membership in a cultural community could transcend place and time. It was largely a function of ethnic and geographic heritage. In the future, culture will be largely a matter of personal choice." (Goldsmith, 1998.) The shift in community forms will also entail a breakdown of traditional roles and hierarchies, resulting in networks that are "asynchronous, global, and collaborative," (Barksdale, 1998.) and where "race, gender age, national origin, and physical appearance are not apparent unless a person wants to make such characteristics public" (Rheingold, 1995). What happens to the notion of a self when one is presented with a nearly unlimited choice of communities to affiliate with, combined with the safety of anonymity? Sherry Turkle characterizes cyberspace as a place where the multiplicity of communities allows us to explore and refashion different sides of ourselves. "In [the internet's] virtual reality, we self-fashion and self-create... you are what you pretend to be." (Turkle, 1995.) Identity, in other words, takes on a fluid, imaginative, individualistic nature, allowing one the freedom and flexibility to explore various sides of their mind. This freedom to play and represent oneself at will, and with infinite variations of form, touches on the Lacanian notion of a self without a solid ego, always in dialogue with itself. (Turkle, 1995.)
Subculture in the Digital Age: The Chicago School Revisited The effects of life "on the screen" can be seen historically as the next extension of life in the modern city, particularly as described by the Chicago school. Early Chicago school writers focused on the city as a holistic phenomenon, seeing in its midst the conditions from which new forms of culture and organization could emerge. Robert E.
Park was one of the earliest pioneers of this methodology, where he explored characteristics of urban life in his 1915 essay, ³The City: Suggestions for the investigation of human behavior.´ As he writes, ³the city is, rather, a state of mind, a body of customs and traditions, and of the organized attitudes and sentiments that inhere in these customs and are transmitted with this tradition.... It is a product of nature, and particularly of human nature´ (p. 16). In a place where rational interests largely replace personal sentiments, and neighborhoods lose much of their intimacy due to mass communication and rapid transportation, the ideal conditions arise for the ³mobilization of the individual man´ (p. 24). Cities ³have multiplied the opportunities of the individual man for contact and for association with his fellows, but they have made these contacts and associations more transitory and less stable´ (p. 25). This creates ³a mosaic of little worlds which touch but do not interpenetrate... and encourages the fascinating but dangerous experiment of living at the same time in several different contiguous, but otherwise widely separated, worlds´ (p. 25). Thus, the combination of increased mobility and decreased personal ties, not to mention the presence of a large population, makes possible the association and organization of people with similar dispositions, from artists to activists to criminals. This easy association among people provides ³not merely a stimulus, but a moral support for the traits they have in common´ (p. 27). Park¶s theories are similarly echoed by Georg Simmel, in his well-known essay, ³The Metropolis & Mental Life,´ written in 1903. The phenomenon of ³small worlds´ has been extensively documented by sociologists, and in effect were precursors to subculture studies before the term existed. Paul C. Cressey explored the inner workings
of dance halls in ³The Life-Cycle of the Taxi-Dancer´ (1932), where he found an elaborately developed microcosmic world, complete with rules and conventions all its own. Similarly, Howard Becker outlines the world of jazz musicians in ³The Culture of a Deviant Group´ (1963), a culture based both on the musicians¶ common behaviors and values, and their accompanying distance from more mainstream social conventions. Later on, authors began to focus on the concept of subculture itself, and where it fits in to the urban landscape. Thoughts gradually began to focus around subculture as a unique concept worthy of its own term. Milton M. Gordon attempts to lay groundwork for this phenomenon in ³The Concept of the Sub-Culture and Its Application,´ in which he defines the term as ³a sub-division of a national culture, composed of a combination of factorable social situation such as class status, ethnic background, regional and rurual or urban residence, and religious affiliation, but forming in their combination a functioning unity which has an integrated impact on the participating individual´ (p. 41, emphasis author¶s). Park¶s methodology tends to examine how the various combinations of the abovementioned factors create groups that are smaller and more intimate that entire cultures, societies, or swaths of the public, yet are larger than affiliations among, say, a group of friends. A subculture here is a confluence of both the macro, where race, class ethnicity and so on often come into play, and the micro, where a high degree of interaction and intimacy characterizes any subculture¶s participants. By contrast, a later essay, written by John Irwin, focuses on the ³concept subculture,´ where identities are structured around values, rather than attributes. Rather than treating subculture as a small group bound to a particular place, he defines the term as ³a social world, a shared perspective, which is not attached firmly to any definite
group or segment´ (p. 67). It seems as though both definitions have a place in the discourse² certain subcultures are indeed spread disparately across the country, while others have grounding in a particular place and time. The common thread between them seems to be a sharing of a distinctive lifestyle that sets them apart from the public at large, held together by strong and somewhat exclusionary sentiments of identity and status. Though Irwin's essay was written before the advent of cyberspace, he nonetheless characterized in vivid and accurate terms the conditions of subculture as it is now emerging: a diffuse group of people bound by a "concept," or common interest, around which they can interact and coalesce.
Harajuku as a Modern Subcultural Phenomenon The phenomenon embodied on the bridge reflects a modern (perhaps postmodern) culture where information flows freely and the culture can be constructed in terms of a complicated and dynamic market exchange, echoing of Baudrillard's seminal essay, "Simulacra and Simulations." Harajuku, in this respect, is a hyperreal marketplace made up almost entirely of sign values, which are produced and consumed in a dizzying series of actions. To elaborate, Bridge participants produce a spectacle by consuming (and reappropriating) a musical genre, using clothing that is often produced by hand from component parts that are purchased in surrounding fashion districts. The sight and sensation that the Kids produces is then consumed by an idolizing public, who in turn produce a litany of photographs, articles, and documentaries that chronicle the process. These works are in turn are consumed by their audiences, who through their interest and support feed back into the entire cycle.
Making a clear distinction between Harajuku and "reality," Harajuku Kids distinguish the rest of their lives from the space they occupy each Sunday, just as vacationers to Disney World mentally separate and distinguish the fantastical (but meticulously produced) escape world from the more ordinary habits of their everyday lives (Baudrillard, 1988). After all, in contrast to daily life, Jingu Bashi is a space where the young participants have ultimate agency over their rules and behaviors. The adults who otherwise make the rules must here ask obsequiously to photograph them. (And the youth do sometimes refuse.) In a microcosmic way, the Harajuku Kids have created a small society that inverts and even does away with the restrictive social forms that dictate large parts of the rest of their lives. The existence of Jingu Bridge as an ongoing and thriving community reinforces the identities and relationships that participants form when choosing to attend and take part in the life of the place. In other words, Harajuku Kids match Irwin's theory well, existing very much as a distinguished "concept subculture." At the same time, they draw upon the capabilities of the internet in order to organize, network, and gather in ways not before possible. One effect of the internet on the community may be observed in the fragmented and diffuse nature of the bridge scene, representing much more the dynamics of a network ± again, "far-flung, loosely bounded, sparsely knit, and fragmentary" ± than of a single, solidified group. What we see on the bridge can perhaps be described as the emergence of a particular performative sense of self that's emboldened by a widespread and supportive virtual community in which members can enter, connect, gain acceptance, and ultimately amass the confidence and support to meet with others for the purpose of dressing up and socializing in person. We can even see the diminished importance of age, class, and so
on, as members of a wide range of age groups and education backgrounds merge together in forming a widespread and at the same time close-knit network.
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