Harajuku in peril?

Tokyo's most flamboyant shopping district may be threatened by high-street retailers

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As a dedicated follower of Japanese pop culture and the coauthor of a book on Japanese teen fashion, I confess that I’m getting a bit concerned about the direction in which the Harajuku district is headed these days.

While the influence of the area’s percolating youth cultures and stylish indie brands (both of which have helped to make Tokyo a fashion capital) are spreading out to the world, big changes and big business now stand to give Harajuku a major makeover via globalization.

The newest change to the Harajuku landscape comes in the form of a 1,500-sq.-meter H&M store. By all accounts, the grand opening event on Nov. 8 was a resounding success for the Swedish company, one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing clothing chains. More than 2,000 people, some waiting as long as 15 hours before the doors opened, braved rainy weather to be among the first to snap up H&M’s low-priced stylish apparel alongside limited items produced in collaboration with legendary Japanese label Comme des Garcons.

Says David Marx, chief editor of Japanese fashion business Web site MEKAS, “H&M have been working on market entry for a long time now. The first (Tokyo H&M) store went up in Ginza to show that they are part of ‘adult fashion culture.’ The Harajuku store will show a place for the brand within Japanese youth fashion.”

While the opening of an H&M in the center of Harajuku itself may not signify the end of the party, it is cause for some concern. Philomena Keet, a British anthropologist and the author of “The Tokyo Look Book,” points out, “Harajuku has a strong mix of very expensive high fashion and very cheap secondhand shops, so the area as a whole can adapt and thrive in changing economic climates. The arrival of ‘budget high fashion’ chain H&M has therefore been very timely, but if the trend of opening foreign high-street chains continues then the independent boutiques and edgy atmosphere could be set to suffer.”

Marx believes an actual decline of Harajuku would probably come in the form of a “weakening youth consumer, rather than some foreign threat” (meaning that H&M will really have to go up against Japanese chain Uniqlo, rather than the local indie labels, for control of the growing “fast fashion” market). But he also notes, “The price point and actual design of H&M fits better with Harajuku than Ginza, so this opening may actually be the most consequential.”

And it’s the possibility of how those consequences might play out that have some long-term Harajuku tenants concerned about the future.

Sebastian Masuda, owner and creative director of a Harajuku boutique named 6%DOKIDOKI, speaks for many when he says, “What concerns us about big chains coming to Harajuku is that the special atmosphere of this place might be lost. People are interested in Harajuku because it is full of styles that came from the street, along with stores owned by individuals. But when a chain is expanded around the world, it winds up creating the same kind of landscape everywhere you go. People might eventually lose the need to come to Harajuku if they can just get similar goods in their local town.”

6%DOKIDOKI was the first Harajuku shop I ever visited, nearly a decade ago. A small store filled with original and select items for young women, the interior feels like a circus on acid, staffed by catwalk-ready “shop girls” who look like Barbie dolls after a night of debauched clubbing. Filled with eye-popping colors and surreal design touches like a merry-go-round erupting from out of the wall, 6%DOKIDOKI embodies the one-of-a-kind quality that can be found in Harajuku; and it made me a believer that something creative and special was taking place in this part of Tokyo.

Masuda, often seen wearing fuzzy headgear that makes him look like a boyish Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, opened 6%DOKIDOKI in 1995, during the first wave of the current Harajuku renaissance. He recalls of that heady time, “Then as now, Omotesando Street and Takeshita Street were very mainstream areas. The back alleys of Ura-Harajuku were just a shopping district for the locals. The rent was cheap and young people who weren’t satisfied with current trends could open their own stores there. They started to gather in the area to show off their original fashion creations and to sell their own handmade goods and accessories in the street. It was the time of the so-called ‘Harajuku kids’ and because of them, Harajuku became bigger and bigger.”

Eventually, the world took notice. After all, as Marx puts it, “There is no fashion neighborhood in the rest of the world that compares in size, scope or scale to Harajuku for the amount of stores, the size of market, the diversity and the number of weekend visitors. It is the global Disney wonderland of youth culture. Once foreigners discovered it, they were sure to fall in love.”

Over the last few years, hoodies and sneakers from Harajuku-based indie label A Bathing Ape have become coveted items for hip-hoppers worldwide. The book version of FRUiTS magazine, a collection of Harajuku fashion street snaps taken by photographer Shoichi Aoki, became a long-term best seller outside of Japan. Currently, shopping malls in the United States are clogged with faux Japanese fashion and accessories from brands such as Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Lovers and tokidoki. The hunger for all things Harajuku seems to be growing overseas, but the buzz is a double-edged sword back home.

“It’s getting harder and harder to exist in this area,” Masuda insists. “The price of real estate in Harajuku continues to increase even during this current economic recession. Many big companies are investing in the area and many celebrities are gathering here. It feels like no one can stop this kind of momentum.”

While the buzz is already building for the next H&M store set to open in Shibuya next year, it remains to be seen what the next high-profile international fashion company to arrive Harajuku might be. The best one can hope for now is a sort of stalemate.

“As long as the global chains don’t encroach too much into back streets,” Keet says, “Harajuku is not in danger of terminal decline yet.”

Now the back streets will have to do their part to keep Harajuku vital, too. For instance, one of Masuda’s recent projects is “Harajuku Unlimited Generation,” or H.U.G., a series of talk-show-style events aimed at creating a dialogue about Harajuku’s potential and its future. The most recent H.U.G. session, held in late October, focused on how “Kawaii culture can save the world.” Masuda believes this sort of optimism is at the core of Harajuku, more so even than just the business of selling clothing or chasing trends.

“Harajuku style was created by the passion of a young generation of people who gathered here and made their own culture,” he says. “It’s more than just a look; it’s a spirit. Maybe it would nice if that spirit left Japan and went on to inspire more people around the globe.”

Now that’s the kind of globalization I can get behind.

Patrick Macias is the coauthor of “Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno: Tokyo Teen Fashion Subculture Handbook” (Chronicle Books). He can be found online at www.patrickmacias.blogs.com