Yami Kawaii: The Relationship between Mental Health and Fashion

What comes to mind when you think of Japanese beauty and fashion? Is it pastels? Is it those commercialised round eyes, blushing cheeks, and rose-tinted mouths? Is it laced umbrellas and ruffled dresses? Is it massive stuffed toys walking down the streets? Is it somewhat childlike, cute even? If the answer to these questions is yes, then it is Kawaii.

What is Kawaii?

 In Japanese culture, Kawaii means ‘cute’. It relates to personal style and animation that illicit feelings of love, protection, and safety through childlike characteristics. Associated with attributes such as vulnerability, lovability, and shyness, Kawaii developed in the 1970s as a rebellion against the conventional roles that Japanese society had created for its youth. Another argument states that Kawaii developed as an escape from the rigidity of Japanese culture that was bound by ethics, corporate jobs, and an inflexibility in personal expression, post-World War 2. Standing completely in contrast to the pressures of everyday life, Kawaii is a romanticised innocence, an idealised childhood and a world of unfiltered individuality that lies high above in the clouds, completely cut off from reality. 

From the global superstar, Hello Kitty that was based on the emotions of innocence and immaturity to the emergence of Lolita fashion characterised by Victorian skirts and tailored blouses detailed with ponies, cakes, and ribbons to even Pokémon, everything in Japan is Kawaii. ‘Kawaii characters are usually designed to have disproportional bodies, big heads, wide eyes, a tiny nose, and little or no facial expression. The lack of emotions is actually what makes them so lovable, as it allows viewers to project themselves onto the character, be it a small child or an adorable animal’, states an article by ‘The Modern Met’. Kawaii draws from the tenderness of human behaviour. It incorporates those qualities which are seemingly lost after childhood and presents them in a manner that, in Japanese culture, transcends age. It is not just fashion or fictional representation, it is an alternate reality that allows the Japanese to break away from societal pressure and find expression in their clothes. Kawaii fashion is a stress buster, it is a way to uplift oneself and a space that focuses on positivity. Today, Kawaii culture is a global trend and has birthed several subcultures, one of which is ‘Yami kawaii’.

What is Yami Kawaii?

Originating from the Harajuku neighbourhood in Tokyo, Yami Kawaii translates to ‘Sick- Cute’ or ‘Dark- Cute’. It combines the sweetness of ‘Kawaii’ with the darkness of the human mind. As per records in 2018, approximately 60 people take their lives every day in Japan, and for every suicide, there are believed to have been 25 attempts. Deep emphasis on culture, tradition, and a certain ‘perfection’ has made Japan a nation with one of the highest suicide rates in the world. If we take a look at history, the kamikaze pilots of World War 2 who flew to their deaths in the name of honour or even the complete denial of depression as a condition until the 1990s have all contributed to a warped understanding of mental health. This, combined with stigma spanning decades and a societal framework that functions based on a rigid definition of what is ‘normal’ is an important factor that led to the emergence of Yami Kawaii. While ‘Kawaii’ serves as an escape for people, ‘Yami Kawaii’ incorporates the perils of everyday life and the harshness that Japanese society regards as taboo. 

Yami Kawaii brings together the lightness of Kawaii culture and mixes it with props such as syringes, knives, and bandages as a means to broach the subject of mental health. Suicidal phrases on pink t-shirts with rainbows, glittery makeup with bandages around the nose or animations with bleeding arms and dark chokers but also bunny slippers are all Yami kawaii. It is gory and vivid, for some it’s a cry for help while for others it’s simply an interesting aesthetic choice. It is a call to draw attention to complex emotions and reaffirm their validity and in-fact, rampancy in the lives of the youth, somewhat like emo culture. Both are mediums of expression, both call for the acceptance of negativity, and both challenge one’s understanding of life. Yami Kawaii blurs the lines between societal acceptance and personal expression. It creates a space devoid of judgement and pressure, one that acknowledges people as a whole and also just a space that lets them be. This, however, is two-pronged. When does the boundary between healing and expression cross over into the glorification of mental health and suicide? What it must aim to normalise is a dialogue surrounding self-harm and mental illness and not the behaviour itself.

With bandaged arms and a knife, Menhera- Chan is a manga character that has become one of the most important faces in the world of Yami Kawaii. She strays from the sweetness and happiness of traditional Japanese cultural representation and embraces a darker, anxious, and depressed aura. She serves as a voice for those who have been silenced in society and is a channel for healing. What this achieves is an important step in using art and fashion as levers in starting dialogues but it must be coupled with the availability of resources and the destigmatisation of pain for any change to take place. Additionally, what we must question is why people who are actually suffering from mental health issues feel that this is the only way they might be heard. A society that shuns expression and individuality is one that is shunning its people. While it may be progressing in the name of industrialisation and technology, it’s doing so at the cost of leaving behind its most vulnerable.

Yami Kawaii goes far beyond being just a quirky concept, it is the emancipation of inner turmoil and a tool for change. It is the cry for liberation from the shackles of expectation. It, however, is just one piece of a puzzle that will take years to complete.