by Henry Scott Stokes

Every now and again someone writes a piece from Tokyo that puts everything else into the shade. I have in front of me an article by Sarah Mower. Written for the Evening Standard magazine in London, it makes the mugwumps among us who constantly foresee the end of the world look like so many, well… mugwumps.

Here goes: “Having just come back from Tokyo, all I can say is: I wish I were a Japanese girl. Being a Tokyo teen looks like the most fun it’s possible to have on this earth. As far as fashion and boys are con­cerned, it looks as if they’ve got it all. Plus oodles of disposable income. The Japanese economy may be in trouble, but the rebel­lious hordes of Tokyo girls appear recession immune. They dress to kill, change their looks weekly, trav­el and spend, spend, spend.”

Hey look, this is all very incor­rect politically. But I appreciate the way Sarah Mower ploughs into her topic:

“Until last week, I thought London girls were the world’s lead­ing hipsters. But Tokyo girls make us look like a bunch of lackadaisical scruffs. The Gunguro trend—the fad for deep tanning—is over. Now, the very same girls are deeply into whitening potions (a long­standing Japanese beauty tradi­tion). What they do with their hair beggars belief—dye, hairpieces, extensions—anything to go against nature. If London girls think pierc­ing and tattooing is radical body modification, that’s nothing to the extremes to which Tokyo girls will go to achieve the look of a 21st-cen­tury cyberfantasy pop star. If Western fashion people regard Devon Aoki as an astonishing look­ing one-off (and I did, until last week), in Tokyo she’d be as normal as any supermarket checkout girl.”

Not content with wowing over Japanese girls, the Evening Standard‘s Mower lays into their contemporaries in London at every opportunity:

“What’s really inspiring to see is how Tokyo girls don’t copy from the West—what they’re up to is way, way out there and beyond anything our designers or fashion magazines are capable of imagin­ing. Their remix of trends and sub-trends pays scant attention to the catwalk—it’s a liberated, 100 per­cent original mass youth culture, a creative force we haven’t seen in this country (meaning the UK) since the Sixties. Needless to say their parents are disgusted.”

Yes, it sent me back to the ’60s, reading this piece. Or early 70s. I recall the years when Issey Miyake, Kenzo and others were establishing themselves in Paris. Somehow, they were on a vein of their own, and no one could touch the Japanese newly arriveds in Paris of that era. Well Issey and Kenzo are elderly gentle-men by now, but something the like of what they achieved overseas 30 years ago is being echoed—in spirit—in Tokyo right now.

Or that is what Sarah Mower observed adding that:

“The difference between this generation of girls and any other is that they are staging a real cultural rebellion by rejecting the idea of corporate office jobs for life (which are dwindling anyway) and acting against the traditional, uniform, submissive Japanese way of womanhood. Many of them are ‘freeters’, part-time workers, whose agenda is pleasure-seeking, clothes, holidays, boys, more clothes.”

As she continues in this vein, Ms. Mower keeps making the point that the girls she saw here are mak­ing a contribution:

“Establishment Japan may dis­approve deeply, but the contribu­tion these girls make to the econo­my should be regarded as one of the country’s crucial financial assets. They are the world’s most rabid female consumers. Even more cosmetics are bought in Japan than in the USA and a gob-smacking 49 percent of the world’s fashion luxury goods are bought by the Japanese, mainly when travel­ling. If Japanese girls decided to turn conventional and stay at home, whole fashion empires in Paris, Milan and New York would totter and fall.”

I read this and I see before me the greybeards and the wise souls, gathering weekly in the Foreign Correspondents Club in Yurakucho, to get their regular dose of worry about the bad debts in the banking system. Who is right? The irreverent lady columnist from London who freaks out over the novelty in the air here—or the morbid souls who find the world’s coming to an abrupt end?

I go along with the former:

“And so—my respect to this great, rebelling, misbehaving horde. When I came up against them in their habitat, Tokyo’s 109 building, I was in mouth-open shock. Imagine hundreds of fashion extremists happily rammed into a skyscraper which is like Topshop, squared, on speed. The shop is packed with tiny, themed bou­tiques, crammed with a zillion trends, thumping music and smil­ing shopgirls dressed in a way that makes Cher looks like Ann Widdecombe. Let’s be honest—I was the Ann Widdecombe in there that day, but what the hell! I left the building toting three bulging bags full of clothes that wouldn’t fit me in my wildest Japanese dreams— though strangely elated.”

When I first read this piece I promised myself to run the whole article in my column space in Weekender. This has never hap­pened before. I take it that some­thing totally out of the ordinary is afoot. Don’t you? That is unless you conclude that Sarah Mower is out of line. But she doesn’t read that way. The words roll. The zip she detects in Tokyo is missing in London and/or Paris and/or New York, she is saying. Frankly, I take her word for it. I am going to get up to the 109 building at the next opportunity and check it out for myself.

Sarah Mower’s piece helps me to put into perspective some remarks over dinner the other night by a couple of visitors from New York—the publisher Jason Epstein, and the writer (America’s poet lau­reate betimes) Robert Pinsky. They had been upset by the spectacle on Omote Sando. The girls rollin’ and rockin’ on their Jack and the Bean Stalk heels. The folks all dressed up with nowhere to go, as they saw it. The whole show was utterly bizarre and sadly lonely in the eyes of my visitor friends (to whom more power). They reacted about as dif­ferently as they could possibly have done, as compared with Ms. Mower.

And who do you think got it right? My inclination is to side with the irreverent lady from London. She enjoyed herself. She got something unexpected out of her visit to Tokyo.

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