Harajuku, The Maximalist Japanese Aesthetic, Is Back For More
The kitschy subculture has always been weird and loud. Years later, the streetwear-inspired trend is having a resurgence.
Whether it’s a fashion trend on TikTok or a certain style taking over Instagram, internet aesthetics are always changing. Our series ‘Core Club breaks down the looks that you’re starting to see a lot on social media and highlights the people and brands channeling it best. Next up: Harajuku.
Outrageous, almost offensively bold outfits, kitschy accessories, and larger-than-life hair — these are the core tenets of Harajuku style. Celebrities once embraced that look: Nicki Minaj has long lived as the Harajuku Barbie rap queen; Avril Lavigne’s 2013 song “Hello Kitty” was inspired by the fashion movement; and one of Gwen Stefani’s routinely criticized eras centered around the quirks of the Japanese aesthetic, from the song “Harajuku Girls” to the perfume collection that followed it. In 2023, Harajuku is once again back to the forefront — and this time it’s inspiring a new fashion-forward generation to think outside the microtrend loop.
Harajuku carries a long history, beginning in its eponymous district in the heart of Tokyo’s commercial Shibuya district during the 1970s. The neighborhood has been famous for its rich history and reputation as the center of alternative fashion, and it wasn’t unusual to see streets lined with small boutiques that challenged fashion norms. Eventually, cotton candy hues and extravagant gowns that once decorated many independent shops became synonymous with Japan’s outcasts and top stars, from pop singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, who gained international fame for her Harajuku aesthetic and catchy music. Years later, it thrives on TikTok, with #harajuku garnering over a billion views on the app.
Harajuku isn’t limited to one specific look. It’s best defined as a collection of aesthetics; styles can range from cute and casual to the extreme and are often interchangeable with adjacent trends like kawaii, lolita, and decora. Harajuku is often associated with cosplayers, though you don’t have to be an anime or manga fan, per se, to appreciate or participate in it.
“Harajuku fashion is an umbrella term for so many styles, from dark and elegant to crazy and colorful. There is no one ‘right’ way to be Harajuku,” says Jasmine Rose, founder of Harajuku Day in Los Angeles. “In its essence, every style that falls under this umbrella dares you to be authentically you, especially that means wearing seven layers of clothing with 10 different patterns top with your favorite ‘90s toy as a necklace.”
Brooklyn-based content creator Ketevani, better known as @keto.pataraia, says the first things that come to mind are Japanese aesthetics and subcultures. Still, to this day, “people are also associating the Harajuku style, especially on TikTok, to that of the FRUiTS magazine and maximalist fashion.”
Usually, ‘core trends are differentiated from its sister subgenres, but Harajuku encompasses it all and takes influences from Eastern and Western pop culture. “Kawaii translates to ‘cute’ [in Japanese] and isn’t technically a subgenre,” adds Rose. “But just like how other alternative styles — goth and punk, for example — have endless variations in aesthetic, people want to try out new and different styles without committing to one specific look.”
What makes Harajuku controversial, however, is its ability to challenge the status quo at a time when people conform to mainstream ways of dressing, and those who dared to channel their inner child as they approached adulthood often faced backlash. But Harajuku has always — and will always — be rooted in an act of defiance.
Even in the mid-2010s, Ketevani shares that Harajuku virality is a shock factor, especially for Americans. Because of the conversations surrounding personal style, she also says people are exploring their fashion identities and are relating to Harajuku aesthetics more than ever. “Many people can resonate with them because it’s a form of self-expression that pulls from many different sources, from traditional Japanese clothing to Americana and British punk and streetwear. Harajuku combines different aesthetics in a way that feels unexpected and unique.”
Shiochi Aoki, founder and photographer for FRUiTS magazine, tells NYLON that he had no idea how his photography would impact the style. Initially, Aoki sought to shoot, collect, and media-fy street fashion, finding the now-defunct STREET magazine in 1986 that mainly covered London and Paris. It wasn’t until 1996 that he realized that an entirely new style was born from the streets of Harajuku, and he was convinced that this was a fashion revolution in Japan.
“Surprisingly, I was the only one who noticed this. Until I launched FRUiTS, no one paid attention to it. Other fashion magazines began to cover Harajuku street fashion about a year after the launch of FRUiTS once they realized it was selling well,” he says. Until 1996, Aoki adds that Japanese fashion was dominated by the fashion boom created by Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto for about 15 years.
After the start of FRUiTS, fashion in Harajuku changed dramatically. He notes that now, the pace has slowed down, going through cycles of excitement every few years. “The enthusiasm seen in the beginning hasn’t happened since,” he shares. Aoki believes that from his perspective, Harajuku is more of an expectation than a reality — its namesake neighborhood thrives as a fashion tourist destination that still feels like an amusement park. “However, many interesting shops have closed down due to the pandemic. In terms of young people’s fashion in Japan, [I believe this decline] is more of a premonition for the future,” he says.
Though Harajuku’s true heyday of wild fashion may be behind us, there will always be hardcore enthusiasts who carry on its fashion spirit. Aliyah Bah and her coveted Aliyahcore, dollcore, and the “weird girl” wave are ways people prioritize individuality amidst a cloud of temporary trends en vogue. Above the fads, Harajuku has solidified itself as a subculture that continues to live on, regardless of its highs or lows.
Kisa, founder of the lifestyle brand Strawberry Western, explains that, like the root of Harajuku, people are once again looking to break out of the mold, using clothes and social media as outlets to reimagine their best selves. With endless aesthetics to choose from, she notes that there’s no longer a need to have one specific trend define personal style.
“The days of people having one sense of style or having to conform to look a certain way in a certain type of setting is out,” she says. “People have many interests and moods, and in the last few years, we’ve had a renaissance of people owning and being proud of the many different things they like.” All that matters is the ethos of mixing different themes, eras, and styles in how we dress; Harajuku, along with other looks, reflects that “and a bit of a rebellion against the norm.”