Tag Archives: japan

But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Image copyright MGM.

I’ve been re-reading Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita recently, partly because I could feel my brain beginning to atrophy as a result of reading too much nonsense (good nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless, The Russian Concubine et al) and I needed something possessing the verbosity only found in “classic literature” (and I’ve had my fill of Wilde for a while)… and partly because I wondered what it would feel like to go back to this controversial story after becoming that which is so often confused with it: a Lolita by fashion terms. I think the first and last time I read this book must have been at the end of my junior high career or the beginning of high school, so a number of years ago. I’d never heard of Lolita fashion at that time and I got a little scandalous thrill from reading the book because it was actually banned in my school district. The movie was even more scandalous– for my 14-year-old self.

Anyway, I digress. I just wanted to make a bit of a comment about these two oft-confused but readingfundamentally different usages of the same name. Lolita fashion is one of those gross misnomers that would have benefited SO much from a simple name change in its early stages (I can’t help but think about the English school NOVA, which would probably be doing a LOT better now if its name had been changed after it collapsed and before it came back…). But that can’t really be helped now, and forever the fashion will be incorrectly equated with Nabokov’s famous Lolita (and as a result, “lolicon” in Japan, which takes it’s name from “Lolita complex”– also from Nabokov’s famous 12-year-old).

There are a lot of debates about why the fashion is called “Lolita” and whether it’s related to the book, or the film (in which Lo is fundamentally different as a character: in the book she’s a fairly typical kid to everyone except the perverted Humbert Humbert, but in the film she is presented as a seductive young woman). Personally, I think that if the name has any significance at all, they have to be related. But I don’t think that means that Lolita fashion should be considered something inherently sexual. Perhaps this was just yet another misinterpretation of Lo’s character; or perhaps it was something a little deeper.
First, let’s think about Lolita the character’s two personalities.
In the book, she’s a grubby little girl who is just interested in being a kid until her life comes crashing down– thanks entirely to Dr. Humbert, a middle-aged man who can’t contain his desire for her. Her world becomes increasingly wild and unpredictable and extremely mature, especially considering she’s only 12. If the fashion is consciously based on this version of the character, then we might say that the idea is to give girls who find themselves thrown into a world that is changing too fast, and becoming too dirty, some sort of lovely fantasy to cling to.
In the film, Lolita is a 14-year-old tease who seduces Humbert. If we want to think of the fashion as related to this version of Lo we might conclude that it is for girls that are young at heart but still mature and worldly in their heads. She’s quite a tough cookie, after all. Which is actually a kind of compliment if you think about it– and certainly many a Lolita I know is an intelligent young woman wrapped in a very colorful package.

Honestly I don’t think there’s anything insulting about relating the Lolita fashion with Nabokov’s character. The insulting thing is when it is done by someone who actually knows very little about either. Whether there’s any real connection, we may never know (and while it’s interesting to ponder, there’s no point in fighting over it).

LolitaAs for whether Lolita the fashion is intended to be about sex, I’d say decidedly no; but as a friend of mine once said, Lolita might not be inherently sexual, but humans are, and that’s bound to connect at some point. But people who wear blue jeans have sex too– that doesn’t make blue jeans an automatic statement of sexuality. If Lolita WAS originally intended to have some sort of sexual connotations, I think it’s moved pretty far in the opposite direction by now. I can’t see how wearing a two-tier cake or a cupcake on your head could really be seen as an invitation for lowbrow activities (but that’s just one girl’s opinion).
Unfortunately, there has been enough media exposure of Lolita fashion, linking it to maid fashion and the “moe” phenomenon, that in Japan there are a number of people assume all kinds of Lolita fashion are actually some sort of fetish.
Among people who know about the fashion though, there is a particular idea– that Lolitas can be downright frigid. As one of my Japanese friends explained: Lolitas and gyaru don’t get along because “Lolitas are prudes and gyaru are easy”.
But that’s for a different essay altogether!

And in conclusion, I recommend both the book and the movie Lolita to anyone who hasn’t yet read or seen it. If nothing else you’ll probably learn some new vocabulary!


When in Rome

Long time no see :O I’ve been really busy the last month, and also I was at a bit of a loss about what I should write about here when I seem to cover everything in various other places. Luckily a friend suggested that I write about Japanese perception of Lolitas, and voila! a topic was born.

Just as many people– specifically so-called Japanophiles– think of Japan as a magic land made of candy and brand where everything is beautiful and clean, they also tend to think of the Japanese (in Japan) as being an otherworldly creature. There are a lot of misconceptions about Japanese culture, daily life, et cetera, but of course it would take many volumes to cover such a vast quantity of information and that’s not what I seek to do anyway. I do think, though, that it’s at least interesting to take a look at how lolitas are seen in Japan.
This is based on my own experience living in Osaka and Nagoya, and visiting other cities, as well as using anecdotes from friends who are also into lolita or other fashion subcultures.

A lot of people ask me whether, because lolita fashion originated in Japan, people are widely accepting of it. I think the answer to this is no; certainly more people are aware of it, but the majority don’t understand it and mistake it for something else. Of course it depends on where you are while in lolita– a big city is going to be different from a small mountain town, whatever country you’re in. There are certain places in Japan, most famously Harajuku and Shinjuku– and in Osaka Shinsaibashi/America-mura, and in Nagoya Osu and Sakae– where lolita isn’t going to attract all that much attention, and is likely to get a more positive response than negative. The reason for this, though, is that these are fashionable areas, and the people that frequent them are used to seeing lolitas. That said, being a non-Japanese lolita is ALWAYS going to attract some amount of attention, just as being a foreigner at all is going to attract attention in almost every city (except perhaps Tokyo and some places of Osaka– even in Nagoya, Japan’s third largest city, people are often surprised to see foreigners at all).

One of the most interesting responses that I get, and many of my friends here in Japan agree, is that elderly women tend to be the most vocal about their love for lolita. Businessmen tend either to simply stare or to titter amongst themselves, young women are torn between admiration and disgust, and I’ve seen my fair number of boys get scared and run the other direction (quite literally– a group of friends and I, two of us in full lolita, came across a group of young men, who saw us and played a quick game of rock-paper-scissors to decide who was going to do whatever they had planned. The winner/loser stalked up to us boldly, but stopped several feet away and shouted “I can’t do it!” and made a dash back to his buddies. Things like this happen more often than you might think, but I don’t think they meant any harm). I have had people say inappropriate things to me and make situations quite awkward, but I don’t think these are because I’m a foreign lolita versus a Japanese lolita; I think it happens to all of us. And in some cases I think it’s more because I’m not Japanese, rather than the outfit I’m wearing. Like anywhere else, you should stay away from creepy-looking areas and just generally use common sense. Japan IS safer than most countries, but that’s not a license to be stupid.

At any rate, the general outside reaction varies greatly, but don’t be surprised to have people discreetly or not-so-discreetly snapping photos of you every time you stop moving.

While the general opinion of lolita is important to note, perhaps the closed-door opinion is even more important. What I mean is how your friends, (host) family, and coworkers are going to react when they find out your “secret”– even if you don’t consider it to be one. This may or may not vary from the reactions you already get in western countries, I’m not sure because it was never an issue for me in my home country.

I have been very lucky in Japan to have coworkers and students who more or less found lolita interesting and cute. I didn’t want anyone to know about it for the longest time, because I learned when I was a student in Osaka that many people confuse lolita with fetish/maid. As far as friends being accepting, I’m generally not worried about that because I firmly believe that a friend who can’t accept something as basic as my fashion choices isn’t a friend I really need.

I’ve gotten a few shocked “eeeeh?!” reactions, but nothing more serious than that, and it can definitely be more serious. I have had friends who were ordered by their superiors at work to never wear lolita in any place where the customers/students might see them (which, depending on where they worked, could mean never wearing lolita without leaving the city). I have also had friends whose host families had some trouble accepting a “weird” lifestyle– once to the extent that the family eventually demanded the host daughter be removed from their house, according to the girl solely due to their arguments about her fashion choices. While there are a lot of families that are fine with their new charges dressing strange, there are still many who are not.
Japan remains a country with a very conservative core, and despite what the world knows of Japan through its pop culture, there are more people on the conservative side than on the wild street-fashion (giant-robot-riding) side. Young Japanese lolitas and other street fashion wearers are noted for carrying suitcases around with them at all times– frequently this is because they carry a change of clothes with them. If Japan were as open-minded as people in the West believe, kids would probably be able to change clothes at home. But whether their fashion choice is a secret from their families (which is possible because many post-high schoolers live at home and have a part-time job or two to earn money) or simply not accepted in that “not under MY roof!” way, a lot of people have to change clothes on the go.

A friend once said, and I totally agree, that being a lolita is a matter that should be handled with delicacy– kind of like coming out. A lot of people are perfectly fine with homosexuals– that is, until their child or best friend or employee comes out. It is a lot easier to accept something when it doesn’t have a direct impact on your life.
As terrible as this seems, it does make sense. In a society that prizes conformity, it’s tough to accept something that doesn’t fit that mold. When a business hires a foreign employee or a host family agrees to accept a student, theoretically they should also accept whatever idiosyncrasies that person brings, since we all have them. From the point of view of the family/company though, they may feel like they didn’t get what they “signed up for”. Coming from America, I can’t stand the idea of a business controlling what the employees do in their off time, but in Japan things are different and it does happen.

I’m not saying “When in Rome…” though, because being a hard-headed American I can never accept that. And I’m not saying you shouldn’t come to live or work in Japan, either. I’m just recommending some delicacy in a delicate matter. As a non-Japanese lolita in Japan you are definitely going to stand out, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.