AKB48 has reshaped the landscape of youth culture in modern Japan. The pop-idol group’s rapid rise to stardom across a wide array of formats has provided the country’s children with a fairly straightforward path to commercial success: fame is ultimately achieved by attracting a broad fan base via popular vote.

Such a strategy encourages young people today to chase dreams of being in the spotlight that many Japanese would have shunned years ago. These days, long-term goals of careers in politics or medicine have been replaced with the need for instant gratification and glamour.

Nowhere is such an ideal more apparent than in the fashion industry, and youth fashion, in particular, has undergone changes in the past five years or so that makes it virtually unrecognizable from its former state.

The modeling opportunities that exist for preteens in Japan nowadays were certainly evident at Yoyogi National Gymnasium at the beginning of August. Almost 350 models under the age of 14 participated in Tokyo Top Kids Collection, competing for such categories as best fashion, best smile and best runway walk.

Among the contestants was 12-year-old Suguri Shishikura, who was making her second appearance as a model and her first at Top Kids Collection. Suguri first became interested in fashion around three years ago after flicking through her elder sisters’ magazines. Before long, she was slapping on her sisters’ makeup and strutting around in various outfits of her choosing as she sought to find a style that she could call her own. Now, however, the balance has shifted and her sisters these days teasingly complain about being unable to wear any of Suguri’s 19 designer dresses or her 12 pairs of high-heeled shoes.

Being the center of attention on the catwalk doesn’t come naturally for the shy middle schooler from Chiba Prefecture, who still asks her mother to tie her hair back in a pony tail before leaving for school each morning. Once she started striding down the Tokyo Top Kids Collection runway, however, she underwent something of a metamorphosis, and by the time she struck her final pose at the end of the catwalk, she was confident enough to break into a smile and bask in the applause of the thousands in the crowd who had gathered to attend.

“Once I am on the stage, all my nervousness disappears,” Suguri said.

Suguri dreams of becoming a professional model, but competition is certainly tough and each of her rivals at the Tokyo Top Kids Collection are essentially eyeing the same goal.

Web-based preteen fashion store Kids Online launched Tokyo Top Kids Collection six years ago in an attempt to promote designer brands for children. Held once a year, the show now attracts a crowd of around 4,500 — three times more than it started with. Visitors pay as much as ¥3,900 for a ticket to the event.

“We were surprised that it grew so big,” said Isao Toyama at Little Andersen, the operator of Kids Online and maker of popular preteen brands such as Earthmagic, Hysteric Mini and Chubbygang. “This shows that there is a high demand for such fashion.”

Over the past six years, however, the Tokyo Top Kids Collection has become more than just a commercial avenue for fashion houses to showcase the latest preteen trends. Nowadays, the show also serves as one of the primary testing grounds for aspiring children who wish to become models, with amateurs who have never modeled before comprising at least half of the preteen models who take to the catwalk.

Competition at the audition for the collection is fierce, with judges eventually settling on just 10 percent of the 1,600 applicants who wish to take part in the event. Many of those who don’t make the initial cut try to make an appearance at the collection as an audience member on the off chance they might invariably catch the eye of one of the various modeling agency scouts who are also in attendance.

“I have come to learn from other models in order to be selected to be on the stage next year,” said 10-year-old Miyu Ota from Nagoya, who failed to make the cut this time around. Like a number of other preteens in the audience, Miyu was dressed to the nines. Her mother, 36-year-old Akemi, had helped her apply a subtle baby blue eye shadow that was cleverly offset by glittering lip gloss and a radiant pink hue that emanated from her cheeks. She wore a yellow and pink dress that completed “her look.”

Youth fashion has changed substantially in Japan over the past three decades. Starting with the subtle shifts observed in gyaru fashion (a girly-glam style that is often classified as a sign of rebellion) in the 1990s, youth fashion has evolved into the more commercially viable Tokyo Girls Collection, a semiannual fashion event that showcases popular streetwear by domestic brands.

The emphasis on street fashion throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s helped create an atmosphere in which almost anyone could become a trend setter. Popular streetwear-oriented fashion magazines and television segments during this period increasingly featured so-called dokusha moderu (amateur models), or dokumo for short, who submit their own portraits for publication at the discretion of an editor.

That trend has trickled down to influence many of today’s preteens — and their doting parents. Nowadays, preteen girls are more than happy to trade in their Barbie dolls and other toys for makeup, designer clothes and blogs about fashion.

It’s certainly a huge market that fashion houses across the country are seeking to exploit. Worth an estimated ¥880 billion, top brands are increasing the number of production lines, collaborating with toy makers to create fashion-related games and launching their own independent fashion shows and auditions.

Narumiya International is an example of a domestic firm that wants a bigger piece of the fashion pie. The children’s apparel maker first made waves in Japan with the launch of its Angel Blue line, a brand that regularly filled the private wardrobes of idol groups such as Morning Musume in the early 2000s. The company’s success, however, was short-lived.

Consumers increasingly started to gravitate toward large-scale shopping centers in order to purchase clothes, effectively bypassing the department stores that Narumiya had forged supply contracts with. The executives of Narumiya realized they had to find new ways to attract and retain a loyal customer base, and therefore introduced the concept of an annual children’s fashion competition.

“Preteen fashion is a very difficult market to succeed in because it’s hard to build a solid customer base with children whose body figures are constantly changing,” Narumiya President Toshiaki Ishii said. “We also have to make clothes that are not too sexy, not too childish, and appeal to mothers as well.”

Narumiya’s approach to hosting such independent collections is, perhaps not surprisingly, commercially driven. Anyone wishing to submit an application to join an audition must first purchase clothing items at related shops such as Lovetoxic, Lindsay or mezzo piano in order to get an application form. Last year, about 4,000 kids enrolled to take part in Narumiya’s audition, and fans were encouraged to cast their votes online for the grand prize winner. Just 22 girls, including Suguri, were selected to represent Narumiya at myriad fashion shows across the country, including the Tokyo Top Kids Collection.

Suguri and her mother, Reiko, typically go shopping together once a month. When pressed to choose a favorite label, Suguri said she usually prefers something from the Narumiya catalogue.

“Oh my God, this is so cute,” said Shishikura as she tried on a Narumiya denim miniskirt and a complementary white T-shirt at a Lindsay store in Chiba. “I love it.”

Reiko, who doled out ¥30,000 on her daughter’s clothes that day, pointed out that they “feel loyal to Narumiya because Suguri was selected (to represent the Lindsay label).” Preteen fashion certainly isn’t cheap.

Elementary schoolchildren’s interest in fashion and modeling was initially sparked by the success of a preteen magazine called Nico Puchi. Offering bi-monthly style and modeling competitions, Nico Puchi quickly became an essential bible for the nation’s joshi shogakusei (female elementary schoolchildren), or JS for short. Each issue would be based around a specific theme — for instance, “back to school fashion” — and readers were encouraged to submit style ideas or send in images of an amateur fashion shoot. The magazine typically received more than 300 applications each month, and the editing staff selected around 40 to 50 kids to include in each issue as a model.

And yet the choices that were selected in each issue invariably moved increasingly away from the streetwear that had been the mainstay of youth fashion in Japan until at least the mid-2000s. Trends became more and more decorative than functional in nature, moving closer toward the fanciful arthouse looks inspired by brash contemporary domestic designers such as Toshikazu Iwaya of DressCamp fame. And yet, the young female readers added their own individual touches to each portfolio. Kids posed for their shoots with huge Minnie Mouse ribbons tied in their hair or oversize glasses that had no lenses. They wore heels that were so high they could barely walk to the nearest convenience store, let alone all day in the school playground. Elementary schools, it should be said, also tend to frown upon pupils turning up to class in chiffon skirts and fishnet stockings.

“It’s hard to draw the line between reality and dream,” said Nico Puchi Editor-in-Chief Takuji Yamamoto, who started the magazine at Shinchosha Publishing in 2006. In 1996, Yamamoto originally launched a sister publication called Nicola that catered to an elementary and middle school demography. However, he decided to exclusively feature fashion for elementary school children by concentrating on Nico Puchi a decade later.

When the editors at Nico Puchi first asked readers to submit photographs of their everyday fashion choices, they were flooded with images of attire that was, in a word, bland. However, Yamamoto decided to highlight the over-the-top pop cuteness and rebellious nature of many of the images submitted because he believed kids were smart enough to extract the elements of particular fashion brands they identified with, especially styles that borrowed bits and pieces from haute couture.

“We are amazed at how serious they are,” Yamamoto said. “They always beat our expectations with unfathomable fashion ideas.”

Yamamoto’s editorial strategy has so far proven to be a commercial success. Bimonthly magazine subscriptions have grown by 20 percent since 2010 to around 100,000 copies. The magazine’s website gets 5 million page views per month, offering a community space where readers are able to exchange information and tips on topics such as autumn wardrobes.

Yamamoto attributes the growth in magazine sales to a rise in kids’ overall ambitions following the success of AKB48, which now seems to place more emphasis on being in the spotlight.

At Nico Puchi, a competitive “career path” for a small selection of readers does indeed exist. Ten frequent contributors can ultimately become “super dokumo” by attracting a steady stream of votes from readers. As such, these models are typically invited to sign short-term modeling contracts with the magazine that include reasonable fees for their work on a regular basis. Dokumo models, on the other hand, must cater entirely for their own needs. They have to buy their own outfits, ask their mothers to sit in as their makeup and hair stylists at photo shoots and pay all travel expenses.

It’s certainly an expensive hobby for kids to take up on a long-term basis, requiring regular trips to expensive clothes shops and cosmetics stores. However, most parents try to be supportive of the fad because they don’t want to deny their children any opportunity that could lead to a lucrative career in future.

“In a way, this is a great opportunity for Suguri to learn how society works,” her mother said. “However, she has to show more seriousness by practicing how to walk, how to pose and also remembering to keep up with her blogging.”

Reiko admitted to being something of an aspiring actress when she was her daughter’s age. However, after an argument with her parents, she said she gave up on her goal. She said that she doesn’t want that to happen to Suguri. She also worries about her daughter’s modesty, mentioning that Suguri is too shy to discuss her modeling career with many of her closest friends.

However, her daughter has her own way of ensuring she sticks to her modeling career.

“I would love to join the tennis club at school but I can’t,” Suguri said. “Playing sports will make my legs fatter or look more masculine, which I don’t want.”

A number of aspiring models are going one step further than Suguri.

In April, 11-year-old Yua Ishikawa decided to add walking lessons to after-school activities that already included cram school, English lessons and hip-hop dance classes.

Born in Shizuoka, Yua is an established model for a fashion brand called Inner Press. Like Suguri, she also participated in the Tokyo Top Kids Collection, but felt she needed to take additional walking lessons to pass the myriad auditions she hopes to apply for — both now and in future. Every week, she goes to Nglobal, a Shizuoka-based enterprise that offers specialized modeling courses and includes classes for children.

“My favorite after-school activity is the walking class,” said Ishikawa, whose 90-minute curriculum consists of a hip-hop dance as a warmup exercise, association training that helps her respond to an art director’s desired collection theme and actual walking lessons.

Cocoro Fujii, an instructor at Nglobal and a finalist for the 2006 Miss International beauty pageant, said there is an increasing demand for such classes in Tokyo.

“It’s not easy to teach kids how to walk as they tend to forget easily,” Fujii said. “We also have to teach them how to walk in a way that they can maximize the attractiveness of their clothes.”

As for Suguri, she is honing her style and skills by studying fashion magazines so that she can one day become the ideal Nico Puchi model.

Nevertheless, she also has a plan B prepared — just in case the catwalk comes to an end.

“If I can’t be a model, I would like to become a patissiere,” she said. “Either one sounds fun.”

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