The Capital Of Cute
January 19, 2014

The Capital Of Cute

Tokyo’s Harajuku district is the unofficial capital of Kawaii culture in Japan. Kawaii is the idea of cuteness or adorability and it is often associated with bright colors (what might be referred to in the West as ‘kitsch’) and childlike behavior and appearance. As well as many boutique stores selling all manner of bright and wonderful things, Harajuku is a focus for cosplay; dressing up as anything you wish to be for those few hours outside of normal life (or more for a lucky few) that you get to be it.

Kawaii in this area is driven by teens and teen culture. Although popular among Japanese people of all ages, teenagers’ enthusiasm for the colorful and childlike may be explained by wanting to hold on to childhood fun in the midst of ever increasing social pressure and expectations.

But that is to oversimplify. What amateur anthropologist could seek to explain the wide availability of Chairman Mao memorabilia, including dolls that can be found in Harajuku? Equally, leopard print crockery is not something that one would immediately associate with childhood either. It is just different and therefore it is in Harajuku.

The cosplay isn’t limited to cutesy either. Punk and Goth are popular looks, and Lolita fashion, which is strongly associated with Harajuku, is much more emotionally mature than it may appear. Lolita centrally involves dressing as austere Victorian era children and is said, by many of those who do it, to be a statement against the over sexualization of girls. The look is not meant to attract attention from men and is indeed intended to do the exact opposite, with long, ankle covering dresses and evocation of a time when sexuality was less open and public than it is today.

As well as picking up novelty items and trying to untangle the complexities of Japanese culture, visitors to Harajuku can find great shopping of a more mainstream variety, particularly retro and vintage stores. International brands can be found, including H&M and Gucci. Interior designers looking for the ultra-modern home will like what they find in Harajuku too.

There is a fine selection of food and drink, from Japanese food by a Michelin-starred chef to cheap and hearty steamed dumplings (gyoza), and a micro-brewery.

Harajuku is a favorite stop-off of some high profile celebrities, particularly ones associated with dazzling and in some cases jaw-dropping outfits, such as Lady Gaga, who visited incognito (not very successfully incognito if I am writing about it), and Japan’s own pizzazz princess Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, whose kawaii music and videos sum up kawaii culture and the atmosphere of Harajuku, I have just realized, far better than all the explaining I have tried to do above! That said, she doesn’t mention Chairman Mao dolls anywhere.

At the complete opposite end of the Japanese tourism spectrum are the factory fanatics, who obsessively visit factories, not to see how things are made as an educational experience but out of a deep affection for their dark, brooding menace. I’ll talk more about that soon.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on

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