Japan, nowadays, does not seem as distant from our culture as it was two or three decades ago. In recent times there has been a real invasion of Japanese popular culture, an invasion that makes me think that it is not possible to reduce the world simply to an American “global village”.
It is certainly true that everyone on a daily basis is never too far from the signs of American commodities (Storey, 2010), but how can we not notice the huge impact of Japanese manga, anime and so forth in this recent period?
Japan seems less far from Western society, and this can also be seen in the appropriation of typical Japanese subcultural style underpinned by girls all over the world and the proliferation of online communities talking about Mamba, Celemba, and last but not least Lolita.
The last decade of the twentieth-century was characterised by widespread feelings of disillusionment and alienation that spread throughout the Japanese society as a consequence of the economic recession, which started when the bubble burst in the 1980s (Kawamura, 2006).
The 1990s in Japan was a period of hopelessness, uncertainty, loss of Japanese traditional beliefs such as perseverance and group identity; a period in which the traditional patterns of life were swept aside like in Britain after WWII.
The same generational consciousness among young people that could be found in Europe after WWII and lead to the development of spectacular subcultures (teddy boys, mods, skinhead…) could be found in Japan, more or less thirty, forty years later.
It was “under these social and economic conditions that Japanese street fashion became increasingly creative and innovative, as if the teens wanted to challenge and redefine the existing notion of what is fashionable and aesthetic”. It is important to understand and clarify the context and historical period in which each subculture has emerged; all of them have been a response, a “solution” to a specific situation, problem or contradiction.
It is only by considering the interests and values of the dominant group and contextualising them that we are able to understand the way each subculture deviates from the norm and creates a rupture, an interruption in the process of “naturalisation” through which human societies have reproduced themselves.
It was in Japan in the last decade of the twentieth-century that Lolita emerged, and obviously, it was not by chance that they appeared during that period.
Lolita is a subculture that stands out in comparison to the ones to which we are accustomed for different reasons.
Firstly, it is a subculture in which girls, always relegated to a position of secondary interest within subcultural studies, play a key and central role.
In a nation like Japan, where women were considered of a lower status and had to walk behind their husbands, Lolita helps women to finally come forward and become visible. Moreover, It has a non-violent, rebellious connotation or at least not in any obvious or aggressive way (Rahman et al, 2015).
Even if at first sight they are not seen as explicitly reactionist like punk or skinheads were, the style created and followed by Lolita members, who behave like children who have never grown up, has represented a real threat and challenge to Japanese society, contradicting every single traditional value: from self-discipline to women’s responsibilities.
They define themselves through their “differences”, trying to “resist the imposition in sexual objectification and the accelerated, material world through the aesthetic of their spectacular subculture”. They have resisted mainstream society through their fantasy aesthetic and emphasis on youthfulness and modesty.
Although Lolita members were not initially seen immediately as shocking, they were able to violate the accepted codes not through the way Western cultures are accustomed (xenophobic attitude, violence) but mainly through a distinctive style and jargon that spoke only a language; the language of cuteness.
Cuteness, or kawaii, has been the principle that has literally invaded Japan since the 1980s. It represents a Japanese trademark, but it has also become an international phenomenon serving as “a postmodern encyclopedia reduced to infantile mirage of a culture that has lost its meaning, forgotten its roots and looks for a moment of oblivion in the pure land of fantasy”.
A cuteness that has prevented them from being objectified and sexualised through the eye of the beholder and has found its expression in the use of extravagant opulence of lace, ribbons, corsets, language and use of dolls.
Once again, like in all subculture, the challenge to hegemony is not expressed directly by them but obliquely, displayed at the superficial level of appearance or in other words at the level of signs.
Their way of dressing was pregnant with signification, and it was through their style that subcultures, and obviously Lolita, have been able to reveal their secret identity and to create, mentioning Umberto Eco, the powerful and threatening “semiotic guerrilla warfare” which made Lolita followers stand out in the Japanese society.
Indeed, since its appearance, it has represented a form of resistance, an interference in the orderly sequence of Japanese everyday life and, as Hebdige has underlined, the consequences and the effects they generated should not be underestimated, at least because of the temporary blockage in the system of representation they created through their spectacular style (Hebdige, 1979).
Consequently, In what way have Lolita created a semantic noise? How are their differences, which are key to any spectacular subculture, expressed and communicated? They have done so not only developing and adopting a certain style made up of “large bows adorning the air, bell-shaped, knee-length skirt, frilly blouses, parasol” but also through a specific argot (creating a distinctive linguistic community), appropriating historical elements and a certain genre of music (Visual-kei ).
They have constructed their “possible world” through analogies and the reworking of pre-existing sources, mixing elements coming from the Victorian era, Romantic and Rococo period with their native culture, acting as a bricoleur, obsessed with a childhood that has never belonged to them, a Neo-romantic Victorian notion of childhood.
Their eye-catching style has been an example of postmodern pastiche as Fredric Jameson defined, “a complacent play of historical allusion” (Storey, 2010), a style, full of quotations of things belonging to previous cultural production.
This has been a way to project themselves in an idealised childhood where fears and pressures seem to disappear. Lolita’s followers dress, pose and behave like little-girls, often carrying dolls with them.
“She resembles a doll, regularly collects and plays with dolls and designs and makes dolls’ clothing. She is even sighted parading with a doll dressed identically to herself”. Carrying dolls and behaving like them is a way to escape to a safer and more familiar place, no longer dominated by the idea of Japanese motherhood as a “sacred mission”.
Dolls carry ‘secret’ meanings, “meanings which express, in code, a form of resistance to the order which guarantees their continued subordination”.6 It was their appropriation and expression of a whole cluster of contemporary problems concerning the role of women in Japan that made them so attractive and outrageous.
There are different Lolita subgenres, from Punk Lolita, Sweet Lolita, Wa Lolita to Goth-Loli. Although I will only highlight the subversive operations of the latter, all these subgenres share a particular characteristic that I have tried to underline before: the desire for escapism.
This is a commonly shared underlying factor. Even if this desire of removing themselves from everyday reality is translated into different stylistic solutions, they all succeed not only in fantasising about their imaginary world but also in living it as the reality itself. They exemplify, with the fantasy setting they lived in, the blurring of the distinction between the real and the unreal, the hyperrealism mode typical of postmodernity.
They live in a fantasy world where the “real and the imaginary continually collapse into each other”, the result being that reality and simulation are experienced without any difference.