Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 32 July 2013

Bracketed Adolescence:
Unpacking Gender and Youth Subjectivity
through Subcultural Fashion in Late-Capitalist Japan

Isaac Gagné [1]

  1. As Japan's global pop-cultural influence began to rise in the 1990s with the spread of Japanese animation, comic books and video games, Japanese youth cultures in the form of subcultural expressions began to capture international attention. Fashion, or more precisely a visual expression of one's identity, has become a dominant vehicle of self-expression and activity for many young people in Japan. One of the most popular objects of both media and scholarly analyses outside Japan has been the youth culture known as Lolita, which is characterised by dressing in Victorian and Rococo-inspired fashions and affecting a 'princess-like' demeanour. This subcultural style is a fashion-based youth culture of young women who draw their aesthetics from the stage performances of bands and the fantasy worlds of anime, manga and dolls. Similar to other subcultural practices manifested in other societies, Lolita performance is also anchored in specific urban spaces and particular moments in the course of participants' lives.
  2. Perhaps owing to its aesthetic similarities to widely popular girls' comics (shōjo manga) and its growing popularity overseas, Lolita quickly spread through overseas fans by the early 2000s and its global presence drew the attention of scholarly analyses and popular commentators. In the field of literary studies, previous research on Lolita-related novels, manga and anime have analysed the implications of Lolita as a new subculture. These analyses also reflect the growing field of scholarly works in the vein of 'shōjo theory' that employ psychoanalytic approaches to understanding 'girlhood' in late capitalist Japan. For example, for Thomas Lamarre, Vera Mackie and Theresa Winge Lolita was interpreted as a reaction against becoming an adult woman.[2] Similarly, Brian Bergstrom has analysed Lolita as a symbol of 'anti-social rejection' of social responsibility. As a result, Lolita has increasingly be seen as a political action to challenge patriarchal bourgeois heteronormativity.[3] Such analyses highlight the deep ambivalence and anxieties that characterise social commentators' readings of the 'transnational bricolage' within which the Lolita aesthetic has developed and globalised.[4]
  3. Broadly speaking, Lolita is a predominantly female subcultural aesthetic whose participants strive to embody a 'princess' theme through fashion and mannerisms. In 2003, when I conducted fieldwork with participants in this subculture, young women who participated in Lolita stood out among other subcultural groups in their striking 'anachronistic' dresses and total coordination of 'princess-like' fashion. As I got to know different Lolita informants, I spent Sundays visiting clothing stores with informants and sitting on Jingū Bridge in the western Tokyo area of Harajuku, where different youth groups gathered. This way, I was able to meet their Lolita friends in informal gatherings, learn about their passion for their clothing, and conduct interviews at nearby cafés as well as in the homes of two Lolita participants. Altogether I came to know over thirty-five individuals who self-identified as Lolitas or as having participated in the Lolita subculture in the past. In 2005 and 2007 when I returned to Tokyo for follow-up interviews with informants, however, I found that many of the Lolita participants from 2003 had participated less and less in the subculture or had 'retired' altogether. Thus, I conducted follow-up interviews to understand this bracketed adolescent time and space of Lolita with twelve individuals—all young women who were in their late teens or early twenties when I first met them.
  4. Lolita, like other subcultures, is characterised by constant flux in both its articulation with broader sociocultural conditions and in the kind of aesthetics that individual participants draw from.[5] However, what marked this kind of Japanese subculture from other subcultural scenes in the West (such as Goth and skinheads) was flux within one's life course.[6] In speaking with Lolitas and former Lolitas in the early to mid-2000s, it became clear that Lolitas' particular enjoyment is deeply rooted in their anticipation of their own life course and the social normativity (including fashion and aesthetics) attached to maturity and adulthood in Japan rather than about simple resistance against or denial of maturity, adulthood or broader society. In other words, it was their particular consciousness of the situatedness of Lolita as an aesthetic pursuit in their lives that emerged as most meaningful for my informants. Thus, rather than focusing on the psychoanalytic readings of literary and media images of Lolita, this article draws from the reflections of actual participants to offer a case study of the emergence of the Lolita subculture in its historical, sociocultural and personal contexts.
  5. Based on this fieldwork, by introducing actual Lolita participants who I met during 2003 and 2005, I take a psycho-social approach to Lolitas' subcultural performance within individual lives and within Japanese society. By examining how participation in the Lolita subculture enables participants to temporarily blur everyday mundane reality with fantastic play, I show how Lolita's anticipation of their own future and social normativity can become a driving force of their fantasy. At the same time, I argue that Lolita's particular construction of fashion and gender within a bracketed moment of adolescent possibility is situated within and further reinforced participants' self-conscious awareness of the limits of their aesthetics and the particular stage of their own girlhood.

    What is Lolita?
  6. In the West, 'Lolita' connotes a man's attraction to adolescent girls.[7] In Japanese as well, the word Lolita has become a sexualised term associated with the word lolikon, short for 'Lolita complex' which is similar to western usage.[8] However, among young Japanese like those who participated in Lolita, the Lolita subculture thrived independently from this connotation and came to mean a particular style of fashion and performance. Lolita participants are generally young women between the ages of fourteen and twenty years old who strive to realise their 'Lolita ideal' through particular aesthetics that draw from a broad, syncretic range of fashions and activities. More specifically, they most commonly combine the aesthetics of Japanese visual rock musicians with Victorian and Rocco-style European motifs which are manifested in doll-like clothes as well as in accessories with fairy-tale motifs such as Alice in Wonderland, Gothic motifs such as vampire stories, and girls' comics (shōjo manga) motifs like The Rose of Versailles.[9]
  7. One of the most prominent influences in the Lolita subculture are the Japanese visual rock musicians known as 'visual kei,' which is a label used to characterise musical artists who combine theatrical costumes and concert performances with an eclectic mix of rock, metal, goth and pop music genres.[10] More than a particular genre of music, 'visual kei' is better described as an aesthetic that combines fantastical imagery, flamboyant costuming and performance, and frequently an element of cross-dressing by the mostly male band members.[11] In addition to influences from 'visual kei,' the Lolita aesthetic was further materialised by a range of novels, movies and comic books, ranging from fantasy motifs of European fairly tales, Gothic vampire movies and girls' comics (shōjo manga).[12] Such fairly tale motifs, often used in shōjo manga, offer Lolitas a 'visual idiom emphasising sentiment and depth' and a distinct 'homogender world' which has found increasing popularity among young Japanese women.[13] Thus such motifs in the medium of shōjo manga have long provided readers with a particular 'visualisation of fantasy' in Japan.
  8. In terms of actual fashion, Lolita is best recognised in the form of one-piece dresses with bustles and panniers, corsets, bonnets, parasols and other items that represent (imagined) aristocratic fashions. As Lolita participants told me, the goal of such fashion is to embody a 'princess'—a particular construction of fantasy among these girls—which implies being a refined and leisured individual who belongs to a different world.

    Figures 1 and 2. Two styles of Lolita dresses by the popular brand Metamorphose Temps de Fille. Photo by Isaac Gagné, Shinjuku, 2013.

  9. In terms of activities, being a 'princess' means not only wearing Lolita fashions in public, but also consuming products, such as 'visual kei' music, fantasy movies, and shōjo manga, as well as collecting dolls and Lolita-like charms in order to refine and reinforce their aesthetics. Specifically, during my fieldwork in 2003 many Lolita informants spent their weekends or time after school or work pursuing individual activities including clothes shopping and making their own dresses, as well as participating in virtual or real Lolita communities. Bonding through similar tastes and passions, some went to 'visual kei' concerts or fashion events or doll exhibits with friends, while others went to cafés together dressed as Lolitas to spend their afternoons leisurely over tea. Some even chose to go to 'maid cafés' in order to indulge in feeling like a 'princess' by being served by the waitresses dressed in French maid outfits.[14] Furthermore, in both these social contexts and in online communities, individuals' efforts at princess-like behaviour are most noticeable in the distinctive style of speech used by the more ardent participants.[15]
  10. During the height of the Lolita subculture in 2003, the most popular activity was hanging out in their Lolita clothes to express themselves on Jingū Bridge in Harajuku. This activity was one of the least expensive for Lolitas, and it was also one of the most symbolic activities as well, as this was the moment to be publicly recognised as Lolitas and to reinforce their own sense of being a Lolita. This public performance stood in contrast to other individuals who remained active mostly at home and through joining online Lolita internet forums. The practice of younger Lolita participants who visited Harajuku also stood in contrast to Lolita participants on the older end of the Lolita spectrum who became more conscious of their age by being surrounded by younger Lolitas and by being in the spotlight of tourist cameras.
  11. Despite this 'princess' motif and these leisured activities, many of the Lolitas I spoke with were neither from aristocratic backgrounds nor from Europe, but rather they were from middle or lower-middle class Japanese families. In fact Lolita as a subculture was born during the so-called Lost Decade of the 1990s post-bubble economy and continued to evolve during the subsequent languid stagnation of the early 2000s. It was in the middle of Japan's long economic recession that certain kinds of youth subcultures were reaching a peak of media representation in the 1990s and 2000s, and the popularity of Lolita also peaked in the early 2000s. The popularity of Lolita also peaked in the early 2000s. Since 2005, they have been less visible in Harajuku, although the aesthetics and mystique of Lolita have since fed into broader mainstream fashions in Japan and into subcultural aesthetics around the world.[16]

    The making of Harajuku as a leisure space for fashion and performance
  12. In 2003, it was common to see various subcultural groups coming together every weekend around Jingū Bridge and nearby Yoyogi Park in Harajuku, on the western edge of Tokyo. The variety of youth cultural styles ranged from cosplay[17] of anime characters and 'visual kei' bands, to punk, to Lolita. During the height of Lolita's popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, Sundays in the spring and summer were the most popular days for Lolita participants to gather in Harajuku. On these days, Lolitas came out to Tokyo to meet up with old friends and make new ones, admire one another's fashion, exchange information about clothing stores and music, and generally socialise in the streets and shops.
  13. Lolita was not the first group to gather in Harajuku, or in Tokyo more generally. The particular atmosphere that enabled the development of the Lolita subculture is rooted in the distinctive history of Harajuku as a space for leisure activities for young men and women since the post-war period. The transformation of the Harajuku area was first initiated by the Allied Occupation of Japan. The U.S. military forces built their barracks in this area, which they called Washington Heights, and their presence attracted a range of leisure industries to serve them. Soon Harajuku and most of what became Yoyogi Park in western Tokyo became known as a leisure quarter for Americans.[18] After the U.S. military forces withdrew in the early 1950s, Yoyogi Park and the adjacent roads became an alternative space for Japanese youth. As the streets were purposely closed to vehicular traffic on weekends as a 'pedestrian paradise' (hokōsha tengoku), a large number of youth groups emerged, called zoku or 'tribes': the Harajuku Zoku who cruised in cars around the area in the 1960s, followed by the leather jacket-clad Rock 'n Roll Zoku of the 1970s who gathered in Yoyogi Park to dance to rockabilly music, and the Takenoko Zoku who performed choreographed techno-dancing in the late 1970s and 1980s.[19] By the 1980s, Harajuku became a site of concentrated youth consumption and cultural production, while simultaneously gathering media attention as a leading site for urban fashion and culture.[20]
  14. Since the 1980s, urban planning and shopping mall development turned Harajuku and the neighbouring area around Shibuya Station into the centre of commodified Japanese youth fashion, and subcultural styles continued to diversify. During the 1980s and into the 1990s, when the bursting of the economic bubble sent the Japanese economy into a deep recession, the retail market of fashion became increasingly oriented toward young women's fashions and shopping practices. In the midst of this advertising and consumption trend targeting young women in the 1990s, female youth subcultural groups and activities reached a new level of media attention and flamboyant diversity.[21] These groups drew from a wide range of pop-cultural influences, changing youth opportunities and pressures, and diversifying consumer conditions.

    A typical day at Jingū Bridge
  15. On one Sunday in early August 2005 I visited Harajuku with one of my long-term informants, Hirayama-san. Hirayama-san was twenty-three years old at the time and was working part-time at a clothing store in Shinjuku. It had been a few years since she had last gone to Harajuku to sit on Jingū Bridge. On this day she was dressed as a 'Sweet Lolita' in a light pink pastel ruffled skirt and blouse. Not knowing any of the current Lolitas on the bridge, Hirayama-san ventured to introduce herself to a group of three young women dressed as Lolitas sitting at one corner of the bridge. Upon her polite greeting, the two of us were allowed to sit with the group of Lolitas. Hirayama-san explained to me later that if one was not dressed appropriately it would be difficult to connect with others because demonstrating one's commitment to a shared aesthetic is a key point for Lolitas.
  16. The group of three Lolitas turned out to be much younger than Hirayama-san. 'Kuro-san' was seventeen years old, from Saitama Prefecture (north of Tokyo), and dressed in the Gothic end of Lolita with dark makeup, a corset, and a black dress with a cross motif. 'Alice-san' was sixteen years old, from western Tokyo, and was dressed as a 'Sweet Lolita' in a long pastel pink and white dress with many ribbons and with pastel beads woven into her hair. 'Hime-san' was the oldest of the three; she was nineteen years old, also from Saitama Prefecture, and was dressed as a 'Classic Lolita' in a floral motif dress with a white lace blouse and a lacy bonnet.[22] It turned out that the three of them had in fact never met in person before that day—they had met on an online forum (Mixi, Japan's largest indigenous social networking service) and had agreed to meet together in order to 'try sitting on Jingū Bridge.' While showing one's fashion on Jingū Bridge can be very daring for many Lolitas, as a group—even a virtual group of previously unknown individuals—it was much easier to enter the space together.
  17. For most of the afternoon, we just spent time together sitting in a small group and chatting about fashion, movies and bands. Unlike previous kinds of zoku in Harajuku in the past, Lolita activities do not involve choreographed dancing or singing but instead are mainly about staging oneself to the public and to other Lolitas through the way they dress. Over the course of a typical day on Jingū Bridge many would also take pictures of each other and would be asked to strike a pose for anonymous foreign and Japanese tourists. In such cases photographs play an important role for personal consumption as well as for the building blocks of friendships in a similar way as photobooth pictures (purikura).[23] Though the more outgoing Lolita participants would sometimes cross the unspoken boundaries of other styles such as 'visual kei' cosplay or punk on the bridge to talk to other subcultural groups and inquire about where they bought their clothes or accessories, for the most part the individual groups sitting together on the bridge maintained boundaries based on distinct styles.
  18. One of the young women in the group I was sitting with, Kuro-san, told me how she was surprised by this territoriality as she expected the Harajuku space to be more open and collegial. Nonetheless, when I asked if she was interested in getting to know the other groups on the bridge, she shrugged and told me that they looked 'too happy' to her. She was very guarded about her own privacy, like many of the informants I met on the bridge in 2003 and 2005. However, when the other girls were busy getting their pictures taken by a tourist, Kuro-san confided to me that it was difficult to meet friends who shared the same interest in fashion and music at her current high school, and so she was thinking of going to a design school for fashion in the future.
  19. Like Hirayama-san, Kuro-san only visited the bridge a few times after that day in August 2005, and instead continued to attend more private gatherings with these new internet-found friends at cafés and music events. Kuro-san's experiences highlighted how Lolita participants' desires for 'princess-like' aesthetics and their hyperfeminine mannerisms were inextricably tied to personal and social contexts, particularly in terms of the transition in their life stage from high school to work or junior colleges.[24] From the interviews I carried out among twenty-six Lolitas in 2003, nearly 50 per cent of respondents became interested in Lolita during high school, 30 per cent during the second or third year of junior high school, and 10 per cent began participating in Lolita in junior college or when they started working after high school, leaving only a small number of Lolitas who attended four-year colleges.[25] Like Kuro-san, Lolita informants often commented on their difficulty in connecting with friends in the same high schools, partly because they did not share the same taste with classmates, and partly because they were not going to cram schools with classmates for four-year college entrance exams.
  20. The fact that participants felt isolated from the shared desires for particular tastes as well as the shared pressures of college entrance examinations and cram schools simultaneously enabled them to participate actively in their aesthetics and hobbies on weekends. Some participants explained to me that Lolita friends were 'more genuine' as they had no ulterior motives or pretence. Indeed, in listening to informants' stories, it is plausible that Lolita's seemingly extreme fashion can invoke images of what Bergstrom and other observers call 'anti-sociality' and 'non-productivity,' as their elaborate fashions, speech patterns and mannerisms may seem to 'function as a way to reimagine the very aspects of girlishness that render them a "crime" against sociality and productivity.'[26] Listening to Kuro-san and other Lolitas like her, however, it was clear that gathering at such spaces of Jingū Bridge or on online virtual community sites reflected an inherently social desire and purpose where they could reaffirm that there were others who had similar aesthetics, even without much verbal exchange regarding who they actually were or where they actually came from.

    Unpacking the hyperfemininity of Lolita
  21. As mentioned above, Lolita participants can be seen as 'anti-social' or even as pursuing a 'sacred criminality' because of the overly feminine dresses and mannerisms that materialise an exaggerated prepubescent fantasy through hyperfeminine girlhood.[27] Such hyperfemininity is often an object of social analysis in other societies and as such hyperfeminine performance is usually seen as reflecting conservative gender and sexual norms.[28] During my fieldwork with Lolita participants, however, issues regarding the male gender were noticeably absent in the performances and conversations among Lolitas; this may leave some observers wondering what the point of pursuing such hyperfeminine performances might be.
  22. With the domestic permeation of shōjo cultural products and fantasy modes, some scholars have analysed Lolita's shōjo-like expression as representing alternative sexual desires or a challenge to patriarchal bourgeois heteronormativity.[29] This theorisation is rooted in the argument that while shōjo manga was originally created by men as a 'conservative' aesthetic which functioned to 'preserve' girls for heterosexual marriage by defusing potentially subversive female desires, in the contemporary moment actual girls have begun to emulate such aesthetics themselves, outside of the original intentions of male manga artists.[30] As Mari Kotani sees this as a new power of resistance for girls, Lamarre describes this phenomenon as a 'preemptive capitulation … which undermines the effectiveness of the preemptive strike on female desire.'[31] In these arguments, shōjo cultural products and fantasy modes become more than just an aesthetic influence. Drawing from the psychoanalytic readings of Tamaki Saito and Jacques Lacan, scholars such as Bergstrom, Kotani and Lamarre see the potential for new forms of gendered and sexual political power among young Lolita participants.
  23. In talking with actual Lolitas ranging from their mid-teens to former Lolitas in their late twenties, it became clear that not only were many Lolitas aware that their fashion was not well appreciated by men or even other women, but more importantly they did not wear this fashion to send either subversive or conservative messages to men or women, either. When I asked them about such analyses of the Lolita subculture, they were rather surprised by such readings. Indeed, Lolita participants appeared to me to be immune from such interpretations, as they often said that they were used to such one-sided readings, including being confused with the Lolita Complex. Nonetheless, in examining their particular desires, Lolitas' aspirations to be princesses indeed echo adult women's emotional explorations in shōjo-like fantasy.
  24. Lolita informants often told me that, 'Lolita is about having a Lolita spirit,' which includes being 'princess-like' regardless of the actual situations they are in. This particular 'spirit of being a princess' resonates with the literary concept of shōjo (young girl) within the genres of shōjo literature and shōjo manga. In these literary genres, the 'homogeneous shōjo' are imagined to be relatively free of the constraints of adulthood. As John Treat shows, this shōjo concept is the ideal and nostalgic concept of a young, innocent girl who is in a liminal period between childhood and adulthood—a time in life when young girls are '"off the production line," lacking any real referent in the "economy."'[32] The roles of these girls are not to make products (either economically or reproductively), but 'to symbolise their consumption' until they get married. Treat argues that the concept of shōjo can thus be 'relegated to pure play as pure sign,'[33] an idealised concept of girlhood that cannot really exist in a world ruled by economic realities. Similarly, Kotani also focuses on the active and deliberate role of consumption in 'shōjo culture' and argues that 'shōjo-ness is not a condition or result of being born or raised.… Shōjo is something performed, and the sense of performance is crucial to its construction.'[34] In these ways, Lolitas' construction of 'princesses' mirrors the role of shōjo as purely leisured consumers.
  25. Still, one may wonder why some young girls feel such aspiration to perform a 'princess' or shōjo-like fantasy. At first glance, this would seem to be counterintuitive; as opposed to adults, who may nostalgically long for a shōjo period and subjectivity that allows them to escape the real world of economy or any adult responsibility, these young girls are biologically and socially in the midst of 'girlhood.' However, central to shōjo fantasy is a sense of akogare or 'longing' for something fantastic, regardless of the specific conditions in their lives. Such 'longing' is a common element of many forms of fandom and consumption in Japan. In studying fans of the all-female Takarazuka theatre, Karen Nakamura and Hisako Matsuo show that this longing for fantasy can take different forms, by arguing that such safe and protected fantasy serves as an 'empty vessel for fan dreams,' where different fans are enabled to project their individual desires and dreams.[35] Takarazuka fans are often heterosexual and married housewives and physically beyond the life stage of shōjo, however by emotionally immersing themselves in romantic fantasy in the limited time and space of the theatre, they can temporally embrace a shōjo-like feeling through this intense engagement.
  26. For Lolitas, first and foremost, with increasing female labour and expectations for women in Japan, the time spent in schools and colleges before employment or marriage has been extended for many young women. This social condition has expanded the actual 'lived shōjo period' to include young women in their late teens and early twenties, and through the popularisation of shōjo culture the concept of shōjo has become a theme for consumption that is open to all ages (and genders).[36]
  27. At the same time, while Lolitas are still physically young, unlike other classmates who often plan to go to four-year colleges, the time before reaching adulthood and entering the 'real world' seems more pressing as many are in the midst of the transition from high school to work or vocational/junior colleges. Thus, as they chose what kind of occupation or which design school or junior college they would pursue, they were quite conscious of the limited time left before reaching adulthood (the age of twenty in Japan). In this way, Lolitas' longing to be 'princesses'—in this case shōjo-like consumers—highlights how the concept of shōjo has been increasingly abstracted from and fantasised by actual young girls under the accelerated processes of modernisation and the commodification of youth in late-capitalist Japan.
  28. Indeed, this separation of shōjo as a concept from shōjo as a biological period may simply be seen as another fetishism of capitalism in which new methods of commodification transform affective and aesthetic experiences of youth into objects of exchange and consumption. However, this very abstraction also frees the concept of shōjo for creative consumption and reappropriation by a range of individuals in contemporary Japan, from middle-aged female Takarazuka fans to adolescent Lolitas. This double-movement thus reveals the changing micro-level social and economic conditions for individual young people in Japan within broader macro-level conditions of late capitalism.

    Getting down to serious business – 'graduation' (sotsugyō)
  29. As much as Lolita participants pursue a leisured consumption through dressing in extravagant ways and embodying fairy-tale and shōjo manga motifs, their lives are not completely independent from the issues that other young people face in Japan. Lolita informants were indeed conscious of the fact that their time to pursue such aesthetics and activities was limited, and that the norms and expectations of adulthood were waiting for them. At the same time, the hyperfeminine aesthetics and shōjo-like behaviours have led many literary scholars to see the desire of Lolitas as reflecting young girls' reactive fears against growing up and becoming adult women in both social and biological terms by affecting 'a surreal and fantastic childlike appearance.'[37]
  30. In her provocative analysis of the novel Shimotsuma Monogatari, one of the most widely known Lolita-related cultural products about the friendship between a Lolita and a female motorcycle gang member,[38] Vera Mackie explains that the story expresses 'the young woman's horror of the adult woman's body.' Similar to Kotani's and Winge's readings of Lolita as resistance against normative expectations and demands of biological and sexual maturity, Mackie sees this fear of the mature female body as taking the form of horror in becoming an adult woman, and thus as inspiring a rejection of adulthood among Lolitas.[39] While these analyses make the symbolic implications of Lolita vis-à-vis adulthood quite clear, how do actual Lolita participants view the 'business' of growing up? How do they foresee their own futures as adult women?
  31. When I returned to Japan in 2007, I found that most of the informants I had met in 2003 were either married or working full-time jobs, and a few had children of their own. Indeed, like most of my informants, as they grew older most Lolitas probably no longer went to Harajuku on Sundays to dress up. Although it was not always easy, at some point they felt the need to end their engagement with Lolita and move on with their lives. In this section, I introduce a few informants and analyse their particular way of 'growing out of' Lolitahood, a process that is commonly known as sotsugyō or 'graduation.'
  32. The pressures and expectations that encourage Lolitas (and members of many Japanese subcultures) to graduate are both physical and social. First, Lolitas' particular clothing—corsets, skirts and doll-like shoes—simultaneously make Lolitas aware that there is an 'age limit' to wearing Lolita clothing and make it relatively easier to 'move on' from the overly 'cutified' dresses to more mature ('normative') fashions. One informant, Matsumoto-san, who thought she had reached the older end of Lolita's 'appropriate age' range, jokingly called herself 'Oba-Loli' (middle-aged Lolita) in 2007. We met through a mutual Lolita acquaintance in 2005, when she was nineteen. As she reached the age of twenty-one in 2007, she said, 'Now is the only time that I can wear this kind of fashion.' But Matsumoto-san sometimes wondered if she might not look as good as she used to. She was careful not to offend other Lolitas, and 'retired' from 'overly cute Lolita' clothing brands. When I asked Lolita informants like Matsumoto-san how long they would continue to wear the style, most said, 'Someone can wear it as long as they want.' However, when I asked them how long they themselves would wear it, they usually answered more specifically, saying something like, 'Ideally as long as I can feel cute, though the clothes are not made for people past a certain age … so maybe until my mid-twenties?'[40]
  33. In addition to physical and emotional dimensions, there are social dimensions to 'graduation,' especially since the homosocial devotion to Lolita aesthetics and the practices of going out in small groups to places like Harajuku often seemed 'anti-social' or 'anti-male' to outsiders. Omori-san, the oldest Lolita I met, told me that her mother started worrying about her because she thought that Lolita clothes were what turned potential boyfriends away from her. Omori-san had just turned twenty-seven when we met at a café in Harajuku in 2005. She said that she understood why her mother might think that way, but she told me flatly that her mother was wrong because she wore regular clothes every day at her part-time job at a clothing retail store and still did not attract a boyfriend. When I met with her again in 2007, she was no longer wearing Lolita clothing and was working full-time at an advertising company, while she still had no imminent prospects for marriage.[41]
  34. Kuro-san, the Lolita in her late teens who I met on Jingū Bridge in 2005, tied the physical dimension of Lolita with the social dimension. For her, Lolita fashion was 'a kind of fashion that is seen as the farthest from the adult world and social responsibility.'[42] In this way, one could say that the challenge for Lolitas emerges from the tension of trying to manage one's devotion to Lolita aesthetics without jeopardising the social dimensions of who they are as young adults. If Lolitas grow old enough to begin threatening that dimension, Kuro-san said that 'it is time for them to move on (sotsugyō).'
  35. As the concept of sotsugyō most often connotes graduation from a school, it also signifies individuals' consciousness about moving from one phase to the next, as well as social recognition of a symbolic ending. Perhaps, then, what marks the concept of graduation in this context is the actor's self-consciousness toward and acceptance of social maturity in Japan. Contrasting American conceptions of social maturity in terms of independence and autonomy, Merry White argues that the symbolic transcendence of attaining social maturity in Japan is not 'gaining rights, independence, and freedom,' because 'legal and economic independence are not critical denominators of maturity in Japan.'[43] Similarly, Nana Gagné explains that rather than becoming a socially independent individual as expected in American contexts, the Japanese concept of 'social adulthood' (shakaijin) reveals a heightened awareness and acceptance among Japanese citizens regarding the importance of recognising one's 'social embeddedness' and 'act[ing] according to it.'[44] Experienced Lolitas told me that their awareness came socially and phenomenologically in the very action of wearing such 'frilly, ruffled and girly' dresses in public.[45]
  36. My informants' stories of the particular transitions in their lives resonate with Ikuya Sato's study of young Japanese motorcycle gang members. While Sato's informants reflect a very different kind of all-male subculture centred on delinquent and borderline criminal activity, the consciousness and processes of social maturity share important similarities with Lolita. In direct contrast to the booming studies of juvenile delinquency and youth deviancy in the late 1970s and 1980s, Sato explains the temporality of gang members' activities as part of the life-course of young men growing up in affluent Japan.[46] Certainly, youth cultures in other societies also follow similar patterns in terms of individuals participating for a time during their youth and then 'growing out of' such activities as they mature. However, it is important to consider the crucial distinction that Sato raises concerning the social sanction and subjective reflexivity of such participation in Japan in terms of participants' self-awareness and the temporality of such 'play' within their life-course.
  37. Of course, Lolitas ultimately differ from motorcycle gang members in their particular gendered performance: Lolitas aspire to be hyperfeminine, while motorcycle gang members perform hypermasculine aesthetics and practices. And while Lolita may be seen by some as 'sacred criminality,' motorcycle gang members' activities can be blatantly criminal and even violent. Nonetheless, they share a similar self-reflexivity in their life course and the 'built-in' mechanism of ending their engagement. Furthermore, while some motorcycle gang members continue their delinquent activities into a life of organised crime as yakuza,[47] Sato notes that most regard graduation as 'irreversible and socially desirable.'[48] Similarly, Lolitas rarely expressed to me an eagerness to continue dressing and performing as Lolita when they got older. Lolita informants also did not speak of their aesthetic in terms of subversive motives nor as a self-destructive 'denial of the future' that some analysts have read into other female subcultures such as kogyaru.[49]
  38. As former Lolitas' comments show, in reality, Lolita participants anticipate adulthood and they grow up into adult women, revealing how Lolita is one vector of self-expression and social negotiation during one's youth before one transitions to another life stage in contemporary Japan. Furthermore, similar to young men's subcultures, Lolitas' hyper-consciousness of their stage in life highlights and even intensifies these temporally bracketed moments of freedom to 'play' in ways that can also be a part of productive socialisation processes in Japan. In this way, for some Lolitas, socialising in Harajuku or on online communities is an important source of comfort and sentiment. Thus, for my informants, Lolita was not so much about either adulthood or society as a target of resistance, but rather how the imminent social realities, responsibilities, and expectations of approaching adulthood fed into their sense of enjoyment as a Lolita.
  39. It is important to remember that for many Lolitas, as well as for many adult women and even men, the concept of shōjo can be symbolically juxtaposed with, yet not antithetical to, adulthood. This self-awareness was made clear to me by the words of a long-term informant, Kawahara-san. Kawahara-san was twenty-one, single, and working part-time at a clothing store when we first met in 2003. Over coffee at a café in 2003, she told me, 'Once I get older and busy, I can only wear Lolita clothes as cosplay.'[50] Indeed by 2005, she was no longer performing Lolita; after graduating from technical college, Kawahara-san became a systems engineer. In 2006, although she had sold most of her Lolita clothes, she wore her favourite Lolita dress as her wedding dress. By 2007, she was a mother and a professional, juggling her career and child-raising. She spent her limited free time socialising with other young mothers who lived nearby, and spent some time sewing cute Lolita-inspired clothing for her son. In retrospect, Kawahara-san's comments in 2003 already revealed her increasing awareness of the twilight of her adolescence—an awareness which thus intensified the spirit of shōjo that was reflected in her fashion. Interestingly, what makes the Lolita subculture particularly fascinating as a space of fantasy in late-capitalist Japan is that while Takarazuka fans or avid readers of shōjo manga and novels may find respite from their otherwise busy lives through embracing shōjo-like fantasy products, Lolitas can 'seriously play' with shōjo through their embodied performance in anticipation of their future lives.


      In many ways, Lolita helped me a lot, as I was not so happy at school … so by becoming a Lolita I was able to make friends and gained confidence! Now I just turned twenty-five, and so I started selling my Lolita clothes online, as I got busier with my job. Although I am still single, I felt that it was time.… Besides, the clothes are made for young people … so I think it's hard to keep wearing the style past a certain age. But perhaps because of this, those clothes left me with a great memory of my adolescence.[51]

  40. There are many ways of engaging in and disengaging from Lolita. In the context of one's life course, to join and to graduate from Lolita (or any subcultural activity) is socially and biologically driven. Some, like Hirayama-san, a woman who was in her early twenties when we first met in 2003, went to Harajuku and to Lolita gatherings less and less as she noticed that there were fewer members of her same age cohort. A small number of others turned to other less time-consuming subcultural fashions as they grew older and became busier with work. Some got married and had children, and found new opportunities for infusing certain Lolita aesthetics in their choice of home decoration and baby clothes. Regardless of how they might disengage, for many Lolitas, the ritual of graduation is further symbolised by getting rid of their dresses. Some give clothes away to friends, and others sell them online. Indeed, when Lolita clothes are being sold in bulk in online auctions, most likely somewhere a Lolita has graduated.
  41. As I have shown in this paper, most Lolita participants are self-conscious of their life stage as well as their anticipation of the future trajectories of their life course. The comments by former Lolitas Omori-san and Kawahara-san highlight their increasing awareness of the twilight of their adolescence rather than a simple rejection of maturity or adulthood. The meaning of their participation in youth subcultures comes across as particularly heightened precisely because of their stark awareness of this bracketed period in their lives as young women who have the time and freedom to spend weekends freely, devoted purely to the pursuit of aesthetic enjoyment. It was during these times that they experimented in socialising and gender play on the path to 'social adulthood.'
  42. Lolita emerged precisely at a time when many young women were growing up within the discourse of recessionary Japan. At the same time, the discourses of 'shōjo culture' and the range of female subcultural groups that emerged alongside Lolita represent different degrees of affluent anomie, indifference and over-consumption, all of which pushed some Lolita participants to actively embrace a pure fantasy of 'girlhood' that enabled them to find friends and express themselves through a devotion to aesthetics within the liminal moment of their girlhood. In this way, one could say that Lolita was a modern invention of girlhood—an active and explicit performance of an already artificial construction, the concept of shōjo.


    [1] This paper was presented at the conference 'Cosplay: Media, Identity and Performance in Japan and Beyond,' held at Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan, in November 2010. I would like to thank Patrick Galbraith and David Slater for organising the conference. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful and insightful comments and Lolita participants who were involved in my extended research. All personal names of Lolitas that appear in this article are pseudonyms.

    [2] Thomas Lamarre, The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation, Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2009, pp. 263–64. See also Mari Kotani, 'Metamorphosis of the Japanese girl: the girl, the hyper-girl, and the battling beauty,' in Mechademia 1: Emerging Worlds of Anime and Manga, ed. Frenchy Lunning, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006, pp. 162–69; Vera Mackie, 'Reading Lolita in Japan,' in Girl Reading Girl in Japan, ed. T. Aoyama and B. Hartley, London: Routledge, 2010, pp. 187–201; Theresa Winge, 'Undressing and dressing Loli: a search for the identity of the Japanese Lolita,' in Mechademia 3: Limits of the Human, ed. Frenchy Lunning, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008, pp. 47–63.

    [3] Brian Bergstrom, 'Girliness next to godliness: Lolita fandom as sacred criminality in the novels of Takemoto Novala,' in Mechademia 6: User Enhanced, ed. Frenchy Lunning and Thomas Lamarre, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011, pp. 21–37; Mari Kotani, 'Doll beauties and cosplay,' in Mechademia 2: Networks of Desire, ed. Frenchy Lunning, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007, pp. 49–62; Lamarre, The Anime Machine, pp. 263–64. See also Frenchy Lunning, 'Under the ruffles: shōjo and the morphology of power,' in Mechademia 6: User Enhanced, eds Frenchy Lunning and Thomas Lamarre, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011, pp. 3–19, pp. 10–11; Deborah Shamoon, 'Situating the shōjo in shōjo manga: teenage girls, romance comics, and contemporary Japanese culture,' in Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime, ed. Marc W. MacWilliams, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe Publishing, 2008, pp. 137–54.

    [4] See Vera Mackie, 'Transnational bricolage: gothic Lolita and the political economy of fashion,' on Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, issue 20, (2009), online:, accessed 27 June 2013.

    [5] By 'subculture' I refer to the definition developed by Dick Hebdige, Stuart Hall and Phil Cohen to refer to a group of people with a distinctive style and jargon existing within a larger culture. See especially Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, New York: Routledge, 2002 [1979], p. 45.

    [6] For example, on the continuity of subcultural identity across one's life course in western societies, see Paul Hodkinson, Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture, New York: Berg, 2002; Kevin Young and Laura Craig, 'Beyond white pride: identity, meaning, and contradiction in the Canadian skinhead subculture,' in CRS/RCSA, vol. 34, no. 2 (1997): 175–206.

    [7] See Debra Merskin, 'Reviving Lolita? A media literacy examination of sexual portrayals of girls in fashion advertising,' in American Behavioral Scientist, vol. 48, no. 1 (2004): 119–29.

    [8] See Sharon Kinsella, 'Minstrelized girls: male performers of Japan's Lolita complex,' in Japan Forum, vol. 18, no. 1 (2006): 65–87; Mark McClelland, 'No climax, no point, no meaning? Japanese women's boy-love sites on the internet,' in Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 24, no. 3 (2000): 274–91.

    [9] Alice in Wonderland was written by Lewis Carroll in 1865 and was first published in Japanese in the late 1800s, but it is mostly known today through the Disney film produced in 1951. In Japan, the story has also been remade into a manga several times and by different artists. Among Lolitas I spoke with, references to Alice in Wonderland were made in terms of the aesthetics of 'a young girl in a fantasy world' rather towards the plotline of the story per se. Moreover, the aesthetics of Alice's dress and the motifs of cards and animals from the story have also influenced Lolita clothing companies. The Rose of Versailles (Berusāyu no Bara) was a popular manga series set in the late 1700s which featured elaborate European aristocratic motifs including luxurious dresses and sumptious palaces. The series was written by Ikeda Ryoko between 1972 and 1973. It was adapted as an anime series and movie in 1979–1980, and also was adapted for the stage as a Takarazuka theatrical performance in the 1970s and again in 1989. Many Lolita participants mentioned their love of this manga, and it is thought to have influenced the clothing styles of certain Lolita brands in terms of European aristocratic-style dresses as well as the shojo manga aesthetics of elaborate floral details on the clothes and accessories. For more on the aesthetics of The Rose of Versailles as a manga see Deborah Shamoon, 'Revolutionary romance: The Rose of Versaille and the transformation of shōjo manga,' in Mechademia 2: Networks of Desire, ed. Frenchy Lunning, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007, pp. 3–17.

    [10] See Carolyn Stevens, Japanese Popular Music, London: Routledge, 2008, pp. 56–58.

    [11] The male guitarist Mana for the 'visual kei' band Malice Mizer is credited with having first created the commodified Lolita style and inspiring (female) fans to copy his style as a sort of 'costume-play' at Malice Mizer concerts and events. For a discussion of Mana's 'feminine' performance within the Lolita subculture's magazines and other media, see Isaac Gagné, 'Urban princesses: performance and "women's language" in Japan's gothic/Lolita subculture,' in Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, vol. 18, no. 1 (2008): 130–50, p. 148.

    [12] On shōjo manga, see Matt Thorn, 'Shōjo Manga—something for the girls,' in The Japan Quarterly vol. 48, no. 3 (2001): 43–50.

    [13] See Shamoon, 'Revolutionary romance,' pp. 4–5; see also Shamoon, 'Situating the shōjo,' pp. 137, 142.

    [14] See Patrick Galbraith, 'Maid in Japan: an ethnographic account of alternative intimacy,' in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, issue 25 (2011), online:, accessed 27 June 2013.

    [15] See Gagné, 'Urban princesses.'

    [16] See Mackie, 'Transnational bricolage'; Masafumi Monden, 'Transcultural flows of demure aesthetics: examining cultural globalization through gothic & Lolita fashion,' in New Voices Volume 2: A Journal of Emerging Scholars of Japanese Studies in Australia, Sydney: The Japan Foundation, 2008, pp. 21–40.

    [17] 'Cosplay' (kosupure in Japanese), refers to the subcultural practice of 'costume play' in which individuals dress up as fantasy characters. See Patrick Galbraith's Introduction to this issue. See also Theresa Winge, 'Costuming the imagination: origins of anime and manga cosplay,' in Mechademia 1: Emerging Worlds of Anime and Manga, ed. Frenchy Lunning, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006, pp. 65–76.

    [18] See Shun'ya Yoshimi, 'What Does "American" Mean in Postwar Japan?' in Nanzan Review of American Studies, vol. 30 (2008): 83–87. See also Shun'ya Yoshimi, Toshi no Doramaturugi?: To?kyo? Sakariba no Shakaishi [Dramaturgy of the City: The Social History of Popular Entertainments in Modern Tokyo], Tokyo: Kawade, 2008 [1987].

    [19] See Across Henshūshitsu, Sutorīto Fasshon, 1945–1995: Wakamono Stairu no 50-nen Shi [Street Fashion: Fifty Years of Youth Style], Tokyo: Parco, 1995, pp. 196–97.

    [20] See Across Henshūshitsu, Sutorīto Fasshon. See also Hirosuke Mizuno, 'Toshi Media Ron 5: "Toshi to Eiga" (Sono 1) Josetsu [Urban Media Theory 5: "Cities and Movies" (Part 1) Preface],' in Saitama University College of Liberal Arts Bulletin, vol. 46, no. 2 (2010): 205–12.

    [21] Sharon Kinsella, 'What's behind the fetishism of Japanese school uniforms?' in Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, vol. 6, no. 2 (2002): 215–37, pp. 219–22.

    [22] Most Lolitas I met used pseudonyms or nicknames when dressed as Lolitas, and these three Lolitas also used pseudonyms.

    [23] See Daisuke Okabe, Mizuko Ito, Jan Chipchase, and Aico Shimizu, 'The social uses of purikura: photographing, modding, archiving, and sharing,' in PICS Workshop, Ubicomp, 2006, pp. 1–4.

    [24] See Isaac Gagné, '"Hyperfeminine" subcultures: rethinking gender subjectivity and the discourse of sexuality among adolescent girls in contemporary Japan,' in Girls' Sexualities and the Media, ed. Kate Harper, Yasmina Katsulis, Vera Lopez and Georganne Scheiner Gillis, New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2013, pp. 157–71.

    [25] Interview with Hirayama-san, Kuro-san, Alice-san, and Hime-san on Jingū Bridge in Harajuku, Tokyo, 14 August 2005.

    [26] See Bergstrom, 'Girliness next to godliness,' p. 30.

    [27] See Bergstrom, 'Girliness next to godliness,' pp. 23, 30.

    [28] See Alexandra Allan, 'The importance of being a "lady": hyper-femininity and heterosexuality in the private, single sex primary school,' in Gender and Education, vol. 21, no. 2 (2009): 145–58; Carrie Paechter, 'Masculine femininities/feminine masculinities: power, identities and gender,' in Gender and Education, vol. 18, no. 3 (2006): 253–63.

    [29] See for example Bergstrom, 'Girliness next to godliness;' Kotani, 'Doll beauties and cosplay.'

    [30] See Kotani, 'Doll beauties and cosplay'; see also Winge, 'Undressing and dressing Loli.'

    [31] Lamarre, The Anime Machine, pp. 263–64. See also Mari Kotani, 'Metamorphosis of the Japanese girl,' p. 167.

    [32] John Treat, 'Yoshimoto Banana writes home: shojo culture and the nostalgic subject,' in Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 19, no. 2 (1993): 353–87, p. 362.

    [33] Treat, 'Yoshimoto Banana writes home,' p. 362.

    [34] Kotani, 'Doll beauties and cosplay,' p. 60.

    [35] Karen Nakamura and Matsuo Hisako, 'Female masculinity and fantasy spaces: transcending genders in the Takarazuka theatre and Japanese popular culture,' in Men and Masculinities in Contemporary Japan: Dislocating the Salaryman Doxa, ed. James E. Roberson and Nobue Suzuki, New York: Routledge, 2003, pp. 59–76, p. 70. For a similar argument regarding the 'homogendered world' of shōjo manga, see Shamoon, 'Revolutionary romance,' p. 14.

    [36] See also Lunning, 'Under the ruffles,' p. 4.

    [37] Winge, 'Undressing and dressing Loli,' p. 50. Similarly, Lunning sees both shōjo culture and Lolita as marked by what she calls 'abjection.' Lunning writes that, 'Abjection is evidenced in the fear of seepage between the inner psychic states and the outer body. For shōjo bodies, the menstrual blood of the mature female body represents this.' See Lunning, 'Under the ruffles,' p. 8. See also Bergstrom, 'Girliness next to godliness,' pp. 30, 32–33.

    [38] This novel, written by the male author Takemoto Novala (Tokyo: Shōgakukan, 2002), was later made into a film directed by Tetsuya Nakashima and was distributed overseas under the title Kamikaze Girls (San Francisco: Viz Pictures, 2006). It chronicles the 'unlikely' friendship between two young women: a tough-acting teenager who is a part of a 'yankee' (biker-gang) group, and a (usually) demore-acting teenager who is a devoted fan of Lolita. The movie uses frequent references to the well-known Lolita clothing brand, Baby, The Stars Shine Bright, and also features a trip to the shop's Daikanyama headquarters (although the actual Daikanyama shop is quite different from the one in the movie). This movie was very popular among Lolita fans and non-Lolita fans alike, and my informants often noted that it had made the Lolita style more widely recognisable in Japan (though some were critical of how the film popularised the clothing among individuals who did not necessarily understand the Lolita style as a "total aesthetic"). See also Mackie, 'Reading Lolita in Japan'; and Mackie, 'Transnational Bricolage.'

    [39] Mackie, 'Reading Lolita in Japan,' p. 187. See also Mari Kotani, 'Metamorphosis of the Japanese girl,' p. 167; Winge, 'Undressing and dressing Loli,' p. 50.

    [40] Interview with Matsumoto-san and Omori-san in Harajuku, Tokyo, 5 August 2007.

    [41] Interview with Omori-san in Shinjuku, Tokyo, 7 July 2007.

    [42] Interview with Hirayama-san, Kuro-san, Alice-san, and Hime-san on Jingū Bridge in Harajuku, Tokyo, 14 August 2005.

    [43] Merry White, The Material Child: Coming of Age in Japan and America, New York: The Free Press, 1993, p. 170.

    [44] Nana Gagné, 'Reexamining the notion of negative face in the japanese socio linguistic politeness of request,' in Language & Communication, vol. 30, no. 2 (2010): 123–38, p. 129.

    [45] Interview with Omori-san in Harajuku, Tokyo, 12 August 2007.

    [46] Ikuya Sato, Kamikaze Biker: Parody and Anomy in Affluent Japan, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, pp. 15, 157–77.

    [47] Sato, Kamikaze Biker, pp. 168–70.

    [48] Sato, Kamikaze Biker, p. 177.

    [49] On kogyaru, see Laura Miller, 'Those naughty teenage girls: Japanese kogals, slang, and media assessments,' in Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, vol. 14, no. 2 (2004): 225-–47. For a similar argument regarding 'self-infantalization' in 1980s and 1990s 'cute culture' in Japan, see Sharon Kinsella, 'Cuties in Japan,' in Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan, ed. Lise Skov and Brian Moeran, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995, pp. 220–54.

    [50] Interview with Kawahara-san in Shimo-Kitazawa, Tokyo, 15 June 2003.

    [51] Interview with Hirayama-san in Kichijoji, Tokyo, 10 June 2007.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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