Color & style in Japanese fashion

For the young women of Tokyo, fashion is glitter, color, and the boldness of youth: an expression of flair - and freedom

You can't possibly fail to note them on the streets and subways of Tokyo.

They're the youthful fashionistas of contemporary Japan, young women in their teens and 20s who glide through the urban landscape, flashing brightly colored leather miniskirts, teetering precariously on the edges of steeply heeled boots, and dangling clusters of kitschy miniature toys from the mouthpieces of their cellphones.

Although omnipresent in the city, they turn out in particularly large numbers at certain shopping meccas. One is Takeshita Dori, a funky pedestrian mall lined with inexpensive boutiques of flamboyant punk, secondhand, and nostalgia clothing, side-by-side with nail salons, tattoo parlors, and tacky gift shops.

Another is Store 109, a trendy Shibuya department store, where young women giggle together behind glittering clawlike nails as they rifle through racks of violently colored sweaters and skin-tight bell-bottomed trousers, and where the ultra-cool salesgirls reign as cutting-edge arbiters of youthful fashion.

"Japanese fashion today is all about adding color," agree Miyuki Masuo and Chiemi Yoshino, school friends who are eager to display a nubby-textured hot-pink and orange sweater, black-vinyl zippered trousers, and other goodies they're hauling home from Store 109.

To some adults, however, the styles speak of more than color. In the 1960s and '70s, when young Japanese started adopting in large numbers some of the more exotic youthful Western fashions, the older generation was utterly alarmed. They referred to these young ones as shinjinrui or "new human beings" - not a complimentary term.

But a decade or two later, as the vast majority of these shinjinrui ended up slipping into the familiar grooves of fairly conventional Japanese lifestyles, parental alarm over bizarre fashions subsided.

"My father worries," admits Asami Ikuta, a Store 109 salesgirl sporting a purple leather miniskirt, hip-high leopard-skin boots with chunky soles, and a black top with a plunging neckline. "He thinks about other people's eyes and tells me to dress more normally, but I tell him that we don't know what normal is."

Her mother, however, she says, loves to see her adopt attention-grabbing styles and sometimes even advises her to get a little wilder. "My mother's generation couldn't," Miss Ikuta explains, "so my mother tells me that since I can, I should."

Certainly the potential to indulge exists for today's young Japanese women - who often postpone marriage and keep expenses to a minimum by living with their parents - as it never did in the past.

But perhaps in the end what keeps these young woman fixated on being seen in the latest pair of fishnet stockings or glittery cow-bell earrings is the same force that drives fashion everywhere.

"It's like a hobby," says Aya Sato, who also works at Store 109, and one recent afternoon was found sporting a leather mini-skirt laced tightly over stretchy black synthetic pants, with hair arranged in gleaming corn-row braids and ears dripping with tiny silver baubles. "It's what I like to do, what makes me feel happy."

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