Face to face with Harajuku
Photos and text by Peter Oxley
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Along with endurance shows, squeaky lift attendants and Hello Kitty, Yoyogi Park will always have a special place in the hearts of Tokyo Expat. It is not often that I find myself reminiscing like an old obasan, but the demise of the Sunday carnival cum rock concert cum comedy show in Harajuku and the fall from grace of the legendary Elvis wannabes, strutting their stuff through portable boom boxes, twisting in their sole-less shoes, quiffs flying and grease dripping, was a travesty for Tokyo street culture. (The kill-joys responsible have now, it seems, got their sights on eliminating the illuminations on Omotesando at Christmas.)

But the whingers have not completely eradicated the fun. The noise may have gone but the somewhat screw-loose spirit lives on in the bizarre fashion parade cum street performance of the teenage madonnas now resident outside the main entrance to Meiji Shrine, between Yoyogi park and Harajuku Station. Street theater is back in town. And this time it is the girls who have taken the lead.

We' all seen them on the bridge above the Yamanote line, dressed up in the most outrageous and colorful costumes they can rustle up, attracting tourists' camera lenses as the old Elvises used to. Most of the girls are middle or high school students, aged between twelve and sixteen. Many make their own costumes, although some of the more ornate designs are bought in specialty boutiques around Harajuku. The only rule: anything goes. Hair colorings come in brilliant hues, anywhere from incendiary red to canary yellow. Punk is most definitely a flavor, but only one of many. There are people dressed up as doctors and nurses, with stethoscopes and white coats, their faces ashen, their smocks smeared bloodied red. One group wore hospital headgear and black frocks, another heavy white porcelaneous make-up and elegant Chinese military outfits, like a strange cocktail of Mao Tse-tung and Marlene Dietrich. On another occasion the theme seemed to be 17th Century France: Louis Quatorze hairstyles and yellow brocades, blue fabric shoulder pieces and gold trim.

Every picture tells a story and, as their flamboyance suggests, a great deal of time, effort and often money goes into preparation for the Sunday show. Ponta, one of the male minority on the bridge, is a sixteen year old student lurking in a curious leather-tweed outfit like some sort of Tom Jones-Sherlock Holmes hybrid. He spends JY30,000 a month on outfits and it takes him an hour to prepare. Miyuki, seventeen, looking strangely like a Culture Club groupie from 1985 only slightly more ghoulish, spends up to JY20,000 on one costume and it takes her almost two hours to get ready. Both Ponto and Miyuki are lucky-their parents don't care. Not surprisingly, though, many feel it necessary to hide their Sunday jaunts from their parents. Yoko, who today is a sort of manga heroine cum punk queen, says she keeps the more outrageous parts of her wardrobe-the wigs and some of the jewelry - hidden from her parents and only completes her costume in the toilets of Harajuku Station just beforehand. She is not alone. Those toilets become more like a theatrical dressing room on Sundays in preparation for the performance on the bridge above.

When they move out onto the stage feathers and boas are as "in" as metallic spikes and baubles. For the most important thing, whatever the clothes, is the attitude: cool defiance. In effect these artists, models, or whatever they are, do little more than every other teenager in Harajuku on a Sunday: shop and then chill out and giggle with their friends. But when the lens caps come off, the laughter stops and it becomes more than just a fancy-dress party. This is art. It's almost like a fashion shoot, almost like a Marcel Marceau sketch, almost like a pop-video, totally Tokyo.

The one question rattling around behind the puzzled faces of the casual observer is: why? Ask any one of them what on earth they are doing outside Meiji Shrine on a Sunday afternoon dressed up like some sort of punk-retro-pearly-queen carnival act and you'll more than likely get the same unassuming reply: "Just hanging out."

Forgive me for being conservative but am I alone in thinking this is not a normal way of "just hanging out?" Surely when two fifteen year old girls feel the need to dress up like satanic nurses on a weekly basis, one handcuffed to the other's neck in a pseudo-S&M way, one should not hesitate to probe deeper. Along with crazy TV, rampant drunkenness and karaoke, is it an escape from the Yamanote routine of work, or study, and no sleep? Is it a cry of individuality in a society which doesn't encourage difference? Probably both. But as one confused observer put it, at least they're not doing enjo kosai.

In truth, this is just another area of life in Japan where it is futile to ask questions. It just happens. Someone starts something and someone follows. This is Tokyo and ours is not to reason why. Anyhow, if they just want to be different they are certainly succeeding. And if nothing else, they certainly brighten up their day and ours. Green hair and bondage gear is much more interesting to look at than your standard Harajuku uniform of big white cotton socks and a blue sailors jumper. And I did feel a mite ordinary in my drab gray sweater and faded old jeans. Perhaps it would do us all good to forget the economy, the stock market, austerity measures and consumption taxes and be someone else for a day. Personally I'm happy to leave that to Halloween. But if for nothing else but honoring the memory of the Elvises and brightening up Sunday in the city, long may the weirdoes reign.

Peter Oxley is a Tokyo-based photographer who has been documenting this city for years. He has never dressed up as Elvis. He may be contacted at 040-829-4384 or by email at

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