Subterranean Japanese Youth Culture: Fighting Conformist Style

In this blog post, we’ll explore a few youth groups that deviate from cultural norms by heavily investing in rebellion, deviance, and individualism. They risk social approval and at times, a steady job.



Their faces move in stillness.

In the shinkansen, at Shinjuku Station, during peak travel hours, bodies press, compress, and lift each other into the air. So many bodies yearn to fit within a constricted space and impressively, manage to do so, at the price of physical comfort and free space. Professional train pushers, decked out in station-men uniforms of white, blue, and black (nicely capped) cram stragglers into the train in the precious moments before take-off.

A highly efficient system, this.

Onigiri and bottled tea, snacks, and candies can be munched quietly while sitting inside, but smelly food and drink will absolutely not be tolerated. Glances will hit like a blow, although the original direction will be questionable.

Morning commuters crowd into a full train at Shinjuku station during rush hour, Shinjuku district, Tokyo, Japan
Morning commuters crowd into a full train at Shinjuku station during rush hour, Shinjuku district, Tokyo, Japan

Calls received are calls not successfully made; turn off the cellphone while in the train. God forbid, if one needs to take a call they must speak as if the voice was as quiet as a heartbeat. (Probably why I can never hear the children speak to each other in Japanese at the English language immersion school where I work. Near-silent communication is natural communication, I suppose.) There are so many social rules and so many foreigners who ignorantly bypass them all, for the Japanese will rarely voice their displeasure with a simple “Sumimsasen“.

If you can’t feel the heat then you can’t feel the beat.

The crowd’s judgement is supreme.


It comes as no surprise that many Japanese parents doom their children to cram school and daycare, just to get them off their hands for a bit longer. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in middle and high-school, with both students and teachers, cutting their lives short rather than endure bullying for a minute longer. According to, the “suicide rate in Japan is the second worst among the Group of Eight nations after Russia.”

Yikes. There really does seem to be a large amount disrespect that students display towards both parents and teachers; a modern day concern.


In public, on schooldays, students wear school uniforms, with slight alterations in skirt length and style, or two piece boy’s cut, according to school affiliation. Some students fight against the conformity of appearance with dyed hair and hemmed skirts, but these are often seen as the troublemakers, for Japan is by and large a group-oriented conformist society. In America, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. In Japan, this is not so. Rather, as the proverb goes, the stake that sticks up gets hammered down. Of course, there is a whole diverse field of stubborn stakes out there.


Some bullied students regress into virtual caves, lurking at home where the only sound that can penetrate video games or television series is the repeated knock-knock that signals a parent dropping off a meal before a stolidly shut door. Others jump off bridges, leave raised scars in secret spots, or develop harrying nervous habits: chewing hair, letting the garbage heap into mountains, facial ticks. These young people who chose a life of seclusion over confrontation with self and other, are hikikomori.

We don’t see them but we know they are there, in our midst. Their image perpetrates graphic media, portrayed as privileged and introverted slobs who are magically transformed into genius gigolos by some miraculous happenstance: some random faery daemon or sexy lost angel. Graphic novels (manga) can make any reality digestible, while simultaneously white-washing the pain and isolation that is part and parcel of hikikomori’s ascetic lifestyle.


These outcasts hoard habit, material, and static. They don sweats, haunt cyber-reality, and fantasise about “what-ifs”. Their time is full of leisure but is enclosed in a deeply familiar room, whose every corner is well-known.

Their experience is not one of adventure.


On the opposite side of the spectrum, there lies cliques like Decora. One of the oldest and most pervasive Harajuku styles, Decora girls (and boys) sport a plentitude of cheap colorful hair clips stuck in bangs at random, clashing colorful pattern, knee high socks, dyed hair, and coloured enlarged pupils. The Decora style orginated in the late 1990s and featured many layers of clothing and accessories, curated on the body to create a bright kawaii effect.


This eclectic group travels and hiccups along in large groups, not dissimilar to a school of tropical fish. Amidst fast-travelling Japanese businessmen and women, the elderly, and outfitted school students, this cute niche sticks out like a sore thumb.

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Check back next week to learn more.


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