“Yami Kawaii”: Japan’s Mental Health Scene in the Streets of Harajuku

No one can really say the reason why mental health is so much of a taboo in Japan. It seems that no one has a deep understanding of what depression really is or what any other mental illness is with regards to people struggling with it.

Japan remains to be a country with extremely high suicide rates amounting up to at least 25,000 people taking their lives per year. Despite being a developed country with technology and resources (both tangible and intangible) that is richer than many others, the vast majority still struggles with mental health problems that no psychologist or psychiatrist can seem to fathom.

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View of Ginza – Photo by Margaret Lee

The question is, why is this still happening? Maybe it’s because of the typical Japanese work ethic. Their overboard dedication in service in the corporate world seem to lead them to constant fatigue. According to several sources, there were many instances in the past wherein workmen were seen sleeping in random streets and trying to squeeze in breaks from their busy schedule.

But maybe it’s also because of their sheer inability to speak out and socialize. The Japanese are generally found to be quiet and reserved people, keeping thoughts to themselves and words left unsaid. Hikikomori is a popular term from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. They define hikikomori as people who refuse to leave their house and isolate themselves from society in their homes for a period exceeding six months. Does that mean that the Japanese has the need to expand their horizons more in this area? Probably.

Based on the aforementioned statements, perhaps some people would understand why the adult suicide rates are still evident. But what about suicide rates resulting from teenagers?

Think of rainbows, sparkly shoes, Thrasher statement tees, Supreme beanies, and frilled clothing. A place where cute and aesthetic things are displayed and sold by so many business chains, Harajuku certainly became a certified go to area by many — by both Japanese and tourists alike.

As you walk through its long and compact path filled with bright colored advertisements and attractively displayed items, many fail to notice a dark subculture that recently emerged in what was once a “cute” or “dainty” hallmark. It’s hard to take note of, but if you pay close attention, many of the merchandise some stores sell encourage pessimistic ideas that can lead to outlets for self harm.

Japanese teens (most especially girls) go into deep deep depression and disregard the idea of “the want to live” and have a certain way of life that inhibit them from recovering.

The way I see it, the media has a lot to do with the way the Japanese shape their mindset on their suicidal thoughts and the like. I’ve watched several videos and shows that relay this certain issue, and what I’ve realized was that when one is depressed it always had to end with suicide. It was the formula that had been promulgated to a big part of the population, hence the consistency in high suicidal rates in the country.

In relation to this, I’ve read an amazing book by Ruth Ozeki entitled “A Tale of The Time Being” and it talked a lot about Japan’s mental health scene. It was from a young girl’s point of view. As she shared her experience of moving from the United States to Japan, she experienced a culture shock and fell into a deep recession from both her family and friends. I remembered reading this one part of the book where she described going to a store somewhere in Tokyo and redirecting herself through buying pink stationary and notebooks.

Then something came to mind. What if kawaii was actually an outlet for the Japanese to “escape” reality and dive into a whole new world?

Apparently, this whole new world is already a thing in the streets of Harajuku. It’s called Yami Kawaii.

In English, it literally means “sick cute”. It’s a type of fashion style many people dive into. They dress eccentrically, wearing lace and unusual colours people usually wouldn’t opt for. People who are into yami kawaii believe in breaking style norms, creating their own outlet for mere self expression.

A popular Japanese social media influencer, Kuua, is a great example of someone who embodies yami kawaii. Instead of the usual dark clothing people perceive a depressed person would be, Kuua actually explained in an interview that yami kawaii encourages pastel colored clothing or anything that looks soft with a few dark elements on the side.

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A Yami Kawaii Poster – Photo courtesy of Google Images

In my personal trip to Japan, I encountered a store called 25 Spinns in Harajuku. The shirts, pens, clothing pins were all so well decorated and were attractive to the eye.

However, there was a certain spin in all of these items. All of them contained negative connotations and anti-social phrases such as “I want to die” or “I want to kill you”. It was definitely shocking to find out that many actually buy these items as a coping mechanism for them to feel better. Apparently, the spin of cute and dark elements in the merchandise help teenagers “reconsider” their decisions in their suicidal thoughts. To many, this culture is a popular form of therapy to become happier people.

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View of Takeshita Street in Harajuku, near 25 Spinns – Photo by Margaret Lee

In the perspectives of various Japanese teens, this yami kawaii culture isn’t negative at all. First handedly, it may seem like it truly is. But what it really encapsulates is the feeling of being cute and dainty. By dressing up kawaii, it helps teenagers look and feel kawaii. Yami kawaii is just kawaii in another form. It helps them appeal and interact better with others through physical appeal and chic style.

People struggling with these problems may be seen as troubled. They are usually seen as signs of weakness and liability. But yami kawaii is a symbol that the negativity in you can always be turned or redirected into something positive.

I asked one of my newly made Japanese friends in Asakusa (who requested not to be named) what advice she would give to people who are going through tough times like depression or suicidal thoughts to name a few.

“You can always turn what you feel around. Always choose to reconsider the bad decisions you would ideally want to make and look at the consequences. Seek for help, speak out, and don’t be afraid. You can do it.”

Wise words, indeed. You are in control after all. Choose to be better and choose to improve. Or for some, maybe choose to go into yami kawaii.

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