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How Japan is Shattering Mental Health Stigma Through Fashion

If there’s one serious hot-button issue in Asian cultures around the world, it’s absolutely mental health. Discussing it in any way is a universal taboo across East Asia, and by extension Asian communities in the United States and around the world. Yet as much as Asian cultures treat mental health as something to not be […]

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振袖を着た若い女性
振袖を着た若い女性

If there’s one serious hot-button issue in Asian cultures around the world, it’s absolutely mental health. Discussing it in any way is a universal taboo across East Asia, and by extension Asian communities in the United States and around the world.

Yet as much as Asian cultures treat mental health as something to not be discussed openly, mental health issues such as depression take their toll; in South Korea, for example, suicide is a leading cause of death in younger generations, while the suicide rates in Japan are at a crisis level. In the South-East Asia region, India has taken the lead with the highest suicide rate since 2016.

Yami Kawaii: Harajuku’s Latest Street Style

As an Asian American, this topic is very personal to me. If there’s a movement to change the status quo, I want to join — Sign. Me. Up. But how do Asian cultures even begin to approach mental health in ways that circumvent the strong taboo about discussing such things? Well, through fashion, of course.

The highly influential Japanese counterculture fashion from Tokyo’s famous Harajuku district has always been tastemakers. Recently, the newest trend in fashion known as Yami Kawaii has met the challenge of bringing awareness to mental health in cultures that wouldn’t be caught dead talking about it otherwise.

Sickly-Cute: So Cute You Could Die

Yami Kawaii, in a nutshell, means “sick-cute.” It’s a creepy cute aesthetic that expresses depression and suicide through fashion. This new fashion movement takes the long-standing kawaii counterculture, which focuses on cute, adorable, and often girly fashions, and combines it with a surprisingly dark aesthetic.

The style focuses on physical representations of mental illness: makeup to simulate eyes red and puffy from crying, dark messages emblazoned across clothing such as, “I want to die” worded, ironically, in flowery and cutesy fonts.

Accessories like fake syringes, pills, and bandages are used to complete the look. Because nothing screams, “I need help” more than a top with empty pill bottle designs all over it or a comb representing a box cutter knife, dangling from your wrist like a charm bracelet.

Kawaii culture originated in Japan as a rebellion against traditional Japanese society and emerged from student protests against the rigid customs of post-World War II in the late 1960s. The word kawaii means “cute,” and it’s this style that allows the younger generation to express their individuality — but the essence of Yami Kawaii fashion is to “ask for love.”

Expressing your emotions through fashion sends the message that you’re not alone, so dressing kawaii can make other people feel good too. The culture itself is an art form that brings goodwill to those who understand the meaning behind it.

Menhera-chan the “Wrist Cutting Warrior”

In English, Menhera-chan translates to “a person needing mental health care.” The artist behind the creation is Ezaki Bisuko. He started drawing her as a way to cope with life when he was dealing with his own mental health struggles. Menhera-chan quickly gained popularity with Japanese teenagers, so much that it sparked a movement in a society where depression is seen as a weakness, not an illness — and suicide is rampant.

Bisuko is trailblazing the movement by using his art to change the negative image of mental health. He expresses sadness through Menhera-chan by making her cute and relatable. Those who connect with the message adopt her style as a way of breaking Japan’s silence over mental health and suicide.

His art is reminiscent of culturally attentive therapy among Asian and Asian American clients, as therapists are encouraged to use somatic terms when working with this population. By describing symptoms concerning the body instead of referring to it as depression, helps clients to understand that it’s an illness, not a character flaw or weakness in personality.

Grow Old or Die Young

You’re never quite the same when someone close to you dies, especially if it’s by suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a suicide leaves behind at least six survivors. In 2017 alone, there were as many as 1.5 million people who unwillingly became part of this club.

Suicide loss is unlike other types of grief in that grievers experience both grief and trauma, leaving those impacted by the loss with complicated bereavement. Survivors experience PTSD that’s on par with soldiers in military combat, yet suicide is still very taboo and stigmatized, and this is universal across all cultures.

Cultural shame and religion can also complicate the grieving process by isolating grievers. Recognizing these cultural dynamics can help break the silence so that we can help one another get the support we need.

Mental wellness needs to be a priority for everyone. It should not be a luxury afforded to a select few.

We’re All in This Together

Societal stigma often hides the truth. This can isolate grievers to make them believe that no one else could understand such a loss. I’ve lost two people to suicide — an aunt and a dear friend who survived 9/11 by a fluke, only to take his own life later. They were both very important people in my life.

But in shame-based cultures like mine, survivors protect their families from losing face, so the suicide is rarely discussed. And faith traditions have not always provided the best support for those grieving.

I want survivors to know that they’re not alone. Others have traveled the same painful path, and we survived. You will too.

If you have survivor’s guilt, know that it’s a false guilt. Don’t feed into the what ifs and if onlys, our loved ones took their own lives to end their pain. It wasn’t to hurt us — it had nothing to do with us — the suicide isn’t your fault. Suicide often comes at the end of a long journey of mental illness. If there were recent painful experiences, try not to take it personally. You can choose to only remember the happier times.

Some religious circles may view it as a sin. Despite what I learned from the church growing up, I don’t believe God would punish people who suffer from mental illness. Choosing to die isn’t a moral choice when the person is struggling with their mental health. Because like cancer or diabetes, it is a disease. It’s okay to let go of your sense of guilt and responsibility for the death.

Find Your Gift, Then Give It Away

Survivors are at a higher risk for suicide. But studies have shown that even children of parents who died by suicide were resilient and went on to live ordinary lives. So, if they can bounce back from this, then we all have a shot at living functional lives.

Some fall into unhealthy patterns of self-harm behaviors. Crying helps. It can be painful and also cathartic if you allow yourself to heal by feeling the pain instead of running from it. Just don’t go at it alone.

Healing takes place in the context of community, whether it’s with friends, family, grief/loss groups, or a therapist. Even though grief isn’t something you fully recover from, you will have a greater appreciation for life after enduring that level of pain — if you do the work.

Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” came highly recommended by a friend just weeks before I graduated from college, forever changing my worldview. When someone you love dies a part of you dies with them. But you always have a choice: do you bury your hopes and dreams with them, or do you honor them by living life to the fullest?

Looking death in the eye allows you to see that we all have something to contribute to the world in our short time here. There’s meaning in that — and it gives you purpose.

When you have a purpose, you live like a warrior. You figure out how to adapt and survive when life knocks you down. You learn to pick yourself up.

Will This Fashion Trend Shine Light to The Darkness?

Innovative ideas walk the line between ingenuity and ridiculousness; it’s that boldness that inspires change. That’s why avant-garde designers are the visionaries of fashion.

Yami Kawaii challenges existing ideas with the duality of cute and disturbing, which is why it’s such a success.

Sugarcoating the realities of life makes it easier to digest.

This style is, without a doubt, fashion-forward and avant-garde. It’s also proven to be more than a trend — it’s a means of self-expression in a community that celebrates conformity.

Cultural factors that influence why Asians don’t seek mental health support could change if enough people challenge the status quo.

In a society where you simply can’t discuss your mental state, literally wearing your emotions on your sleeve becomes an effective way to express how you’re not okay without actually saying it.

Not only that, but it also shows you that you’re not alone, that other people are suffering too. That alone helps to normalize the idea that depression is real, something crucial for a culture that punishes you when asking for help.

While it might be seen as morbid, the potential for Yami Kawaii to have a positive impact on how Asian cultures look at mental health certainly makes it the movement of our time.

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