Embodying Japan: Cultures of Sport, Beauty, and Medicine 2017

Gothic Beauty

            What typically comes to mind when we think of the word “Gothic”? We know this has something to do with wearing primarily black, but does wearing all black change us in some way psychologically, or say something about our personal beliefs? How does it function as a beauty standard? To begin, when I challenged myself to think of just the word “Gothic” in isolation from the myriad other things I have read regarding Gothic fashion, I came up with funerals, and in a lot of ways this is an incredibly Western gut-reaction to the term. After all, the tradition of wearing black to funerals comes to the U.S. from Victorian-era England, when it was standard to mourn by wearing all-black for many months following the loss of a family member or loved one.[1] However, in Japan, the Gothic functions in a very different context when used in Lolita fashion (see section 4,) transforming the pink and pastel hues into black and white not out of mourning per se, but rather, as I argue on this page, to become a Victorian doll (for more on doll beauty in Japan, see section 2.) It also functions differently, as we saw in class this semester, when used in the context of alternative body-modification subculture in Japan, as seen in the short story Hebi ni piasu. Exploring these two versions of Gothic beauty should give us an idea of how the Gothic theme differs from a mere funerary dress tradition and becomes something Japanese youths incorporate into their urban fashion.
            Beginning with Gothic Lolita, Anne Peirson-Smith notes in her 2012 article “Do Gothic Lolitas Just Wanna Have Fun?: An Examination of the Goth-Loli Style Tribes in Hong Kong and Tokyo”, that “Goth Loli” is “a fandom... [that] continues the Gothic preoccupation with clothes or costume in the search for self. The ‘look’ then is depicted by a hyper-feminine take on the Victorian porcelain doll...” (91). Peirson-Smith goes on to discuss the connection between the Gothic Lolita style and actual Gothic style. She asserts that “Goth Lolis continue the trend of utilising familiar Gothic motifs—black clothes, crucifixes, coffins, bats, pale skin, and dark looks—to signal and enact their identity in a liminal, performative and material manner, whilst also reflecting the shadow-like aesthetics and sensibilities of a Gothic world...” (92). There is certainly some element of fear of the unknown implicit in wearing these kinds of Gothic symbols: black or inverted crucifixes are one thing to wear in the U.S., but something entirely different in Japan, in that there is an outsider quality to wearing a plain Christian symbol in Japan, let alone a Gothic response to the plain crucifix. (Christians make up only about 2.3% of the Japanese population, according to survey data from year 2006.)[2] In this way, Gothic Lolitas use Gothic beauty in combination with the already established Lolita fashion to add yet another wrinkle of nuance to their ensemble, creating their own Gothic world that can be cute and frightening at the same time.
            As we have seen in class, Hebi ni piasu is a novella that also includes cute and frightening all at once in the form of its protagonist, Lui. Lui is described as a Barbie girl throughout the story, in that she insists on being called Lui (short for the high fashion brand Louis Vuitton) and also associates with one friend who is a true Barbie girl. In most other respects, however, Lui is a character that would be frightening for a Japanese person to encounter on the street, at first simply due to the presence of her “scary-looking” boyfriend Ama and perhaps on a second glance due to her tongue piercing. However, adding to the Barbie side of her persona, the tongue piercing and her tattoos can all be hidden away from view, as she frequently does for her job as a sort of after-hours drinking companion for tired and overworked salarymen (for more on the topic of the salaryman in Japan, see David Takamiya's comprehensive guide from our class.) The most interesting aspect of the novel for me in relation to the topic of Gothic beauty is certainly the conflicted nature of Lui’s identity as alternative or Gothic in some way contrasted with her Barbie girl persona: this is expressed narratively via her agency, or lack thereof.
          It is very unclear (perhaps intentionally so, on the part of author Hitomi Kanehara) as to whether or not the decisions Lui makes are actually her own, or if she is feeling masochistically compelled to do things that make her uncomfortable, such as meeting Shiba-san for her tattoo sessions one-on-one. She is torn in this way between someone who is intentionally making taboo decisions (getting elaborate tattoos and refusing to eat, for example) to rebel, or doing so out of a sense of helplessness, as Ama and Shiba fight over who “possesses” her. While Shiba appears to win out over Ama at the end, it is then that Lui realizes her own power and agency: “I kept my eyes on [Shiba] as he slowly got out of bed, my mind still on the river that had grown inside me. I wondered if it would flow stronger if I were to stretch the hole in my tongue to a 00g” (Kanehara 120). While in previous instances in the story the tongue gauge had been something Ama and Shiba controlled by initially piercing her (in the case of Shiba) and advising on when to swap sizes (in the case of Ama,) at this point it is something only she controls, along with the “river” that perhaps serves as a metaphor for her understanding that Ama’s death was a crime and that she knows this and can do what she wants with this information.
            As explored in this path, Japanese standards of beauty in music and fashion vary in many ways depending on the context. Whether it is a tube of whitening cream from a department store, an idol group performing practiced “amateurish” idol identities in a shopping mall, or a girl in Harajuku wearing ball-jointed doll tights, there are many messages sent in Japan through fashion and aesthetic choices. These messages can and do change in response to forces like globalization and capitalism, and they are also subject to interpretation in popular media like movies and works of fiction. The more we critically analyze these kinds of messages, the better we can understand how Japan’s Beauty Regime operates on the micro and macro level. How does Japan understand itself in relation to the rest of Asia through its beauty standards? Is Lolita fashion’s childish shoujo aesthetic liberating or hypersexualized? While I was not able to come up with conclusive answers to every question raised over the course of this project, it is my hope that I have contributed some meaningful insights to the overarching discussion regarding Beauty in Japan, which will certainly evolve and become increasingly complex as we approach the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and experience its aftershocks.


Kanehara, Hitomi. Snakes and Earrings (Hebi ni piasu). Trans. David James Karashima. New York: Plume, 2006. PDF.

Peirson-Smith, Anne. "Do Gothic Lolitas Just Wanna Have Fun? An Examination of the Goth-Loli Style Tribes in Hong Kong and Tokyo." Ed. Eoghain Hamilton. 
The Gothic - Probing the Boundaries. Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary, 2012. 89-96. Critical Issues. Inter-Disciplinary.net, 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.

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