Yami Kawaii is bubbling to the surface from people too far down to see the light. Sprouting from the Yume (dream) Kawaii aesthetic of ethereal pastels crossed with Guro and Goth Kawaii’s darker themes, Yami Kawaii is a style defined by the harshest truths of mental health issues framed by tooth-aching sweetness. Some of the culture’s hallmarks include cute bandages, syringe-shaped jewelry, and fabrics with pill patterns. While some might see the movement as the glorification and commercialization of people’s suffering, the reality is that it may be saving lives.
The trend can be traced back to Menhera-chan (“menhera” being a term for individuals who require mental health care), a mentally ill magical girl character dreamt up by artist and illustrator Ezaki Bisuko. At the time, Bisuko was studying for university entrance exams while enduring emotional abuse from his grandparents. He’s been quoted saying, “At first, I was drawing as a form of therapy.”
The mascot has since enjoyed a healthy amount of success akin to a subcultural symbol. Although he now considers upkeep on Menhera-chan as work, he confirms that it still carries a therapeutic element. It turned out this wasn’t a unique reaction as it didn’t take long for other creatives to adapt the aesthetic into their own work. Creators like Oyasumi Kuua and Aoiuni show how far the voice of honest, artistic expression can carry when a drawing of a cute little girl can grow into fashion lines and art galleries respectively.
The fact that these creatives experienced success suggests that the stigma towards mental illness in Japanese society might be weakening, and none too soon for it. The World Health Organization estimates that one in five people will experience mental illness in their lifetime and by the year 2020, mental illness is projected to be the second leading cause for illness the world over. If these numbers are to change, then the silence needs to be broken.
Many countries treat mental health as a taboo talking point, but Japan may be especially averse. Due to a community-focused culture that values the collective over individuals, a cry for help can be seen as troublesome, or worse—a burden. Reaching out to others becomes a non-option for fear of imposing on someone else and being thought of as incompetent due to lacking abject self-sufficiency. For some, it’s worse to reach out to friends and family as taxing a loved one is worse than subjecting a stranger to the same trouble.
The external elements don’t help matters, either. These fears exist in part because the truth is that it’s difficult to feel sympathy for a feeling that only comes out of irregular brain chemistry. Outsiders looking into the life of a patient might see them as weak, lazy, and/or outright unstable.
This sentiment often seems to have a direct-correlation with the age of Japanese citizens. Keep in mind that the climate many of these citizens grew up included eugenics as a fact of life thanks to Japan’s 50-year-long forced sterilization program for people with disabilities and/or mental illness. It wasn’t until 1996 that the program ended, but the animosity towards those who require aid from society survives.
Sadly, prejudice towards the mentally ill is deep-seated within the culture which means it’s not likely to go away easily or soon for that matter. Strangely, Yami Kawaii might be a step in the right direction thanks to some of the factors that make it appealing. But to get there, we need to go back to where it started.
Contrasting with its modern use, “Kawaii” originally showed up in Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji with a connotation that implied qualities that inspired pity more than adoration. The common interpretation has changed but traces of this ancestry can be seen in the adjectival noun kawaiso (roughly) meaning pity arousing compassion. The mutation point for the family line might be found in Professor of Japanese literature and film for the University of Oregon Alisa Freedman’s definition, “It’s a very vulnerable kind of cute. It’s forcing, like—it’s so cute that you make people want to take care of you,” from the modern usage of Kawaii.
This is why Yami Kawaii is a game changer. In both modern and older uses, vulnerability is a common element. The difference is that one form inspires empathy while the other is scorned. By reframing the vulnerability of mental illness, public perspective on patients might shift from ‘people who are hopeless’ to ‘people that need help.’ Kawaii aesthetics have already shown a similar effect with Guro and Goth styles by making them publically acceptable to the point creating/improving commercial viability.
If the World Health organization’s statistics are to change, the silence needs to be broken. Pill jewelry and glittery bruise makeup tutorials may just be what it’s going to take to breach the topic. It’s difficult to ignore someone covered in head-to-toe with bright pink “KILL ME” print. At the same time, sugar-coating suffering can ease unfamiliar parties in. Improving visibility alone would be a step towards normalizing mental illness.
Fashion itself is artistic expression. For people who can’t find the words, the answer might be to wear their emotions on their sleeves. Instead of festering under a veneer of shame, mental illness can become a fashion statement for many and a badge of honor for some. Patients are able to take back power from the thing that has no universal cure, no single traceable cause, and no sense of mercy.
The therapeutic elements Bisuko feels through Menhera-chan is echoed in the voices of fans and figures alike. Any given search result through multiple social media sites will render comments like, “it’s simply a way to deal with it by turning your sorrow into beauty,” or “this fashion helps me with the embarrassment as it’s a way for [me] to embrace it.” At the Menhera Exhibit—an art gallery dedicated to works highlighting mental illness—artist Aoi-uni put it, “Art is one of the tools for communicating with the society, the viewer, the work, yourself. You will not be represented if you don’t expose all of your mind. Through art, Menhera connects the world. Both online and offline. Tell your reality with Menhera. Spread awareness with Menhera. I wanted to make an exhibition like this”
What’s more, these voices are have come together which might wind up being the most valuable thing that fans can take away from the movement. Like any niche hobby, Yami Kawaii has a wealth of healthy (relatively)communities from Reddits to Discords to message boards—on and on. For a collective who regularly experience shame, isolation, and powerlessness, what better medicine (other than maybe medicine) is there than the knowledge that you’re not alone? It’s one thing to have a healthy outlet for negative feelings, let alone one that you can share with people who are less likely to judge and more likely to listen.
Yami kawaii is proof that mental illness exists. It makes a statement in a way that can’t be easily be suppressed. Moreover, the addition of yume kawaii design makes the subject matter easier to digest and spread. The result is a softening on a taboo that is only doing more damage the more time passes. It’s a tiger that wanders into the village at night and picks-off children because no one wants to do the hard work of putting a stop to it. Ultimately, you’re left with two choices—deal with the inconvenience, or wind up with a child-less society. Only, the ones who need the most help have started putting in the leg work, so what’s everyone else’s excuse?
What’s Menhera? – tumblr
Aoi-Uni quote, Menhera Exhibit – tumblr
hStyle Out There – The Dark Side of Harajuku You Haven’t Seen Yet – refinery29
Japanese Subcultures You’ve Never Heard of: Guro Lolita & Yami Kawaii -HypeBeast
Can ‘Sick-Cute’ Fashion Break Japan’s Silence on Suicide? – Business of Fashion
This Dark Version Of Kawaii Subculture Spotlights Mental Health Issues In Japan – Konbini
World Health Organization
How a melancholy egg yolk conquered Japan – YouTube
Japan’s media out of step with mental health issues – Japan Times
Lifetimes of pain: Victims of Japan’s forced sterilization program hope for justice, or at least an apology – Japan Times
Eugenics in Japan: some ironies of modernity, 1883-1945. – National Center for Biotechnology Information
Shiokawa. “Cute But Deadly: Women and Violence in Japanese Comics”. Themes and Issues in Asian Cartooning: Cute, Cheap, Mad and Sexy. Ed. John A. Lent. Bowling Green, Kentucky: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999. 93–125.
CGL Thread – rbt.asia
Thoughts on Yami Kawaii thread – reddit/
Yami Kawaii, the sick subculture of kawaii. かわいいのアンチテーゼが実は可愛すぎる。「病みかわいい」とメンヘラの関係 – Tokyo Fashion Diaries/a>
Ask Asian Boss – YouTube