Famed Photog Yasumasa Yonehara Wants Kids to Take Back Fashion For Themselves

August 28, 2013

Photos: Daniel Szpara

Yasumasa Yonehara wants kids to take fashion back from the corporate think tank.

In the mid-1990s he empowered models with instant cameras to fill the pages of his startup “Egg” magazine with authentic snaps of girls, by girls. His subsequent work on the reader-submitted photography zine “Aufoto” and gravure book “Smart Girls” brought international attention his lo-fi Lomographic style, though he stays true to his hometown Harajuku roots.

Yonehara has seen trends come and go over the past twenty years through the lens of his trademark Cheki instant camera and past the bill of his sideways cap. Some die out on their own, while most are hunted to extinction – by conformity.

You were a major player in the 1990s Shibuya scene. How did you end up leaving it for Harajuku?

Understand that fashion magazines are run by old businessmen, by ossan. They manufacture trends to force their ideal of femininity, which is to say, quiet, conservative, and clean. During the 1990s, a new breed of girl exploded onto the scene in Shibuya and broke this mold with their loose socks, mini skirts and tanned skin.

These so-called gyarustyled themselves after what other girls were wearing, ignoring what the ossan prescribed. And they succeeded in bucking the system – for a while.

But then the ossan realized that there was money to be made! They hijacked fashion magazines and turned them into how-to-be-a-gyaru textbooks. Businesses want people to simply buy, not create. Culture becomes consumption.

In challenging the status quo, the radical gyaru became the new corporate norm. They used to be social outcasts, with maybe one or two in a class. That took guts. Now, you get bullied if you don’t dress like a gyaru. What began as a way to express individualism became a uniform. And everyone will buy the uniform.

Seeing a major model sporting a brand makes it a symbol of class. It seems like you could fabricate any trend with enough media coverage.

The media creates a hierarchy, with designer brands at the top and everything else way, way underneath. Fashion magazines advertise to teens, but their readership can’t afford luxury goods with their allowance! The situation is totally insane. Gyaru brands, and later Harajuku brands, were a push back towards sanity.

Gyaru are the new ossan – people that brag about their brand items. But they started with pure anti-establishment intentions. Harajuku girls share the same roots.

What were guys doing during the gyaru boom?

They created the gyaru-o style, a male version of “host club” fashion. But even though the style emerged as a reaction to this new breed of girls, the two are not opposite sides of the same coin. There’s no overlap in male and female fashion in Japan. Promoters only focus on what’s hot now and don’t bother to cross-pollinate. If Harajuku is for girls, then Ura-Hara – the back streets of Harajuku – is for guys, and middle-aged guys at that. Young dudes are stranded in Shibuya.

Photo: Getty Images

At least the girls escaped…

Harajuku was a lighting rod for people with fresh ideas. The ossan couldn’t snuff out the spirit of counter culture – it literally just moved down the street from the area around Shibuya train station. See, kids get bullied for standing out or dressing different. You need to be a rebel with a strong sense of individuality to soldier on.

Is this individuality at the heart of kawaii?

Look at your wardrobe, and ask yourself: Am I wearing this because everyone else is, or because it fits me personally? Kawaii is the latter.

Here’s the rub. Being aligned with a big company is considered the sign that you’ve finally made it. This isn’t true of course, it just means you got yourself a cushy job! But even fashion brands created to fight the system end up getting absorbed by it, some diving in head-first even.

This happened to Tokyo Girls Collection, a fashion show I helped launch in 2005. We started with real models from off the street, but over time the organizers teamed up with big promoters and the next thing you know, celebrities and ossan brands had taken over the catwalk! Fashion hierarchy was back with a vengeance.

People abroad are fascinated by Japan’s street fashion. Doesn’t that count for anything?

In Japan, you get written off as a joke if you don’t work with foreign companies. It’s just another status symbol. There’s ad agencies that exist solely to promote Japanese brands abroad – a good thing, right? Except the goal isn’t to open up the foreign market, it’s to make the brand look cosmopolitan and drive sales back home! Domestic promotion done internationally.

Photo: Getty Images

And if the system ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it, right?

Exactly! Except, the system is broke. Promoters have been rehashing the same scheme for the past twenty years because it’s what they know. If an employee gambles on something new, something unproven, then they have to take responsibility if the deal goes sour.

Kyary and similar artists seem to have a dedicated fan base abroad. Could they become the new model for success?

Kyary is a free radical, she’s outside of the system. But she’s also accepted by the mainstream. The real taste makers aren’t Tokyoites – they’re the yankii in the suburbs and countryside. See, yankii are a class of kids that are basically juvenile delinquents who rule the schoolyard with the threats of physical violence. If the boss yankii doesn’t approve of your digs, you better get a new outfit! Recently yankii have adopted Kyary’s fashion, which makes it “safe” to wear.

So yankii set the bar…

The same thing is happening with idol culture. Eight years ago you’d get beat up for being an AKB48 fan. But the kids from that generation are now in high school, and yankii have come to accept idols as a normal part of life.

Otaku don’t get bullied for being nerds anymore. Yankii listen to idol music, yankii play video games – yankii are otaku. Back in the day, delinquents could join bosozoku bike gangs. But the cops clamped down on that scene, so geeking out is their only option. If all the kids are otaku, then it means that Japan is growing up otaku. The ossan are the only ones still blind to this fact.

All fashion is a kind of cosplay. Most people in Japan don’t live their fashion. A rapper will diss ‘yo mama on stage, then be all subservient after his set. Goth kids wear crosses and shout at the Devil, but most of them don’t know Christianity from Christmas. It’s an act based on our perception of how we’re supposed to perform in uniform.

Conflict comes in when this perception clashes with reality. Harajuku style is more about being trendy then playing a role, so it’s relatively stress-free. Akihabara is a 24-hour cosplay party – an escape from reality – and that’s where things get complicated.

Photo: Getty Images

If you cross the line and live your fashion, doesn’t it define your identity?

It causes an internal struggle to re-establish self-identity. That’s why Akihabara kids can be very troubled and tend to shut out society. Some, such as, are able to transform this negativity into self-affirmation.

Fashion is often based on sometimes seemingly arbitrary brand images. Does Akihabara have its own culture which props up the lifestyle?

Think of Kyary and DEMPA as high-level cosplay. The culture informs their choice of clothing – but these outfits aren’t exactly practical. I want cosplay kids to stay true to themselves after removing their outfits. The lack of self-identity in contemporary Japan makes people follow trends instead of doing what they want, so identifying with a culture can be a way to counter this.

This is a good time to ask – how do you prevent yourself from projecting the male gaze onto your models?

I become a seventeen-year-old girl! (Laughs) Like a channeler, I let their spirit enter my body. If I’m on the same level as my model, they can see me as their peer. I don’t go into a shoot thinking how I can direct the girl to give me what I want—that would be projecting something insincere. Rather, I try to pull out her natural essence. That’s what her teenage readers expect.

 I find it interesting that your works can be erotic, while at the same time considered kawaii by women.

There’s a bit of a misunderstanding there. (Laughs) Like I said, the goal is to play up the model’s inherent strengths. So if I’m working with adult video stars, then yeah, I’m going for super-sexy. (Laughs) But if my party snaps look sexy, well, blame the model!

Going back to your current work – what’s your take on the scene?

Fast fashion brands totally warped the market. Japanese boutiques can’t compete with H&M’s low prices and dashing foreign models. It goes back to a lack of youth culture. Kids don’t care about authenticity as long as they look the part. Considering that Uniqlo provides pre-packaged lifestyle on the cheap, I can’t blame them.

Do you see fast fashion as the end of fashion?

Not really. I’m down with it, so long as people spin it their own way. What bothers me are the haters who won’t accept a trend until a foreigner adopts it—I’m talking about Japanese not acknowledging other Japanese and trying too hard to be Western. It’s like expecting someone else to make up your mind for you.

A big issue with Japan is how everyone loves to nitpick the country but hates to force change. So you think Tokyo isn’t as cool as L.A.? And you’re not contributing to a solution? Either step up your game and make it happen, or move to the west coast!