This Dark Version Of Kawaii Subculture Spotlights Mental Health Issues In Japan

When you think of kawaii fashion, the first thing that pops to mind is Japan’s Harajuku district filled with people in frilled, pastel-colored outfits, crazy wigs, adorable accessories like ribbons, pins, tiaras and such. It’s cute, upbeat and innocent.However, in this technicolor universe of wonder and excitement, a different branch of kawaii subculture is unfolding, and it’s much darker than you might imagine.

Yamikawaii or Menhera refer to the “sick cute” aesthetic that manifests through accessories inspired by bondage gear, medical instruments like syringes, bandages, pills, fake blood, basically, anything that suggests the wearer is fragile, sick, emotionally wounded. It is meant to represent the tension between our inside and outside selves.

According to the series’ host Connie Wang, “Westerners think kawaii means cute, but literally, it means the ability to be loved. It’s not a descriptor as much as it’s a request.” In that sense, Yamikawaii (Yamistands for darkness) and Menhera (a slang word to describe someone who is mentally unstable) draw attention to Japan’s biggest taboos – depression, self-harm and other mental health problems that tend to get swept under the rug.

“People see mental illness and depression as being the same as an injury. They see a troubled person needing reprieve, and take it as a sign of weakness.

I want to change the negative image of mental health issues. And I think it is doing that. It uses those negative feelings that everybody has, whether it be some darkness or sadness, and makes it cute,” says Bisuko Ezaki.

Refinery29’s new “Style Out There” series took a deeper dive into Yamikawaii by visiting Harajuku with some of the most famous representatives of the subculture – Kuua Oyasumi and Bisuko Ezaki.

The country has one of the highest suicide rates in the world so it is definitely out of the ordinary to see an aesthetic that capitalizes on symbols related to death, pain, emotional suffering. Check out their video below and to read more about the emergence of Yamikawaii/Menhera, check out this article by Omri Wallach.