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YONE Interview

Interview With Photographer YONE: History Through the Lens

Yasumasu “YONE” Yonehara has long been looking over Harajuku & Shibuya, the center of Japan’s youth culture. His activity as a photographer, creative director, editor, and DJ has offered him a unique look into the changing trends and creative mindsets that these 2 towns have fostered over his 40 years as a creative professional. He has been at the forefront of trendsetting fashion magazines, helped share the unique expression of the youth that have popularized these districts, and even contributed to the creation of styles & trends that foreigners still recognize even if they are no longer present in Japan.  We sat down with him recently to discuss not only the history of these iconic areas of Tokyo, but also the current state of things and the changes ahead.

Yasumasu "YONE" Yonehara

YONE: Shibuya and Harajuku used to have a completely different culture. When Harajuku became popular with youth culture, Shibuya had no energy, and it was the same in reverse where when Shibuya got popular, Harajuku was dead. You could say that they’re contrasting towns. It was the 90’s when the contrast became so obvious. There was a boom of the DC brand style (Editor’s Note: DC meaning Designer Character) in the 1980s and Harajuku was at the center of that boom, however, people like “Teamers” (Editor’s Note: similar to a street gang) started appearing in Shibuya after 1990. In 1993~1995, girls who were later described as “kogal” emerged as the girl version of Teamer boys. With that trend, the gal magazine “egg” was first published in 1995, which I created the concept for. Anyway, young people were starting to gather in Shibuya. In the meantime, the band boom present in Yoyogi park in Harajuku was facing its end.

OTAQUEST: The band boom was extended from Takenoko-Zoku (Editor’s Note: Public dance groups) who were popular in the late 1970s to early 1980s, right?

YONE: Yes. People were gathering in the pedestrian paradise (Editor’s Note: An area of street where vehicle traffic would be closed off for long periods of time on select days) rather than gathering in Harajuku itself. I think there were not so many “Harajuku-ish” people in Harajuku.

OTAQUEST: But, you opened your office in Harajuku in 1995.

YONE: Urahara started gaining prominence. Jun Takahashi and NIGO opened their shop “NOWHERE” in 1993. After that, various brands started opening up shops as well. Also, people who are still good friends of mine started to gather in Urahara around 1995. SHINGOSTAR, who now runs a company called ODDJOB, reached out to me and we opened and office together in Harajuku. The reason why I went to Harajuku was that I had many friends there, rather than because Harajuku was a popular place at the time. What I was doing then was just Shibuya. I was only going after Shibuya. This applies to anything, but when something becomes a boom, always matured media comes after it. For me, Kogal was just an element of street culture but it suddenly became a major hit and became a more developed culture in itself. The Kogal trend moved away from Shibuya, and people “who had seen it on TV” started to gather in its place. This is how a culture ends, it gets overtaken by people who copy it because of its popularity and don’t contribute or create anything new. This happened in 1997-1998.

OTAQUEST: In late 1990’s, we had the “Urahara boom”.

YONE: Exactly. This is why all girls who were in the front line of Kogal moved from Shibuya to Harajuku. Girls who could have been called Kogal at that time moved to Harajuku. The Urahara boom which was going around for boys spilled out to girls around 2000. “BAPY” came out, and the number of girls who wear a smaller size of Urahara fashion, suddenly increased.

OTAQUEST: You published the sexy girls magazine “smart girl” in 2001 in which you had models from the magazine “mini” wear Urahara men’s brands.

YONE: “mini” was a Harajuku style street magazine, and I think 650,000 copies were sold at its peak in 2002. When I looked around at girls in Harajuku and Shibuya at that time, Harajuku girls obviously didn’t have any sexual context, so I thought it would be interesting to add a bit of sexiness to the look, and that’s how I made “smart girl”. Around that time, Urahara girls started gathering attention but just as before, adults started to follow. I don’t like photo books where the market is focused on older men, so I wanted to change the philosophy of making photobooks that shows sexiness which would appeal to women as well. I wanted to make a magazine of girls that was geared toward girls, but eventually, it was consumed by older guys and became a part of the usual sexual culture after all. I couldn’t stand it and fled from it. After that, Shibuya had a new boom of charismatic shop clerks at stores in 109. While that was happening, amateur models for Aomoji style began to sprout in Harajuku. Aomoji (blue letter) style is a generic term based on girls’ fashion magazines that emphasized individuality and uniqueness to get compliments from girls, compared to Akamoji (red letter) style which emphasized getting attention from boys.)

OTAQUEST: At that time, you started taking photos of girls in both Shibuya and Harajuku.

YONE: Since around 2004, I started taking pictures of half-Japanese models because the deputy chief editor of “SCawaii!” suggested we coin the word “ERO-KAWA” (*erotic + kawaii) and said, “Let’s shape the trend together.” What I wanted to do in “smart girl” and the idea of applying sexual context to fashion had blossomed into a flower at this point. At that time I met Rina Fujii. Tiaras and tutus which used to only appear in Aomoji style magazines started appearing in “ViVi” magazine, which was considered an Akamoji style publication at that time. It was a revolution. The word “kawaii” used to be applied only to Aomoji style, but it started being applied to Akamoji style too. I think this was the time when Harajuku and Shibuya became similar towns. In 2007, Rina Fujii and I made the jacket of DJ KAWASAKI’s debut album after getting an offer from Shuya Okino, and it sold great. The word “ERO-KAWA”, which was only used in “S Cawaii”, had become “KAWAII” and spread all over Japan. When the culture becomes so big, again……

OTAQUEST: (laughs) Adults go after it.

YONE: It’s completely against my intention that older guys decide the meaning of the word erotic. In order not to perpetuate that, I once thought I shouldn’t get involved. Meanwhile, my friend Yusuke Nakagawa, the president of ASOBISYSTEM, introduced me Kyary-chan (Note: Kyary Pamyu Pamyu) when she was in high school. When I researched her, I realized that Shibuya and Harajuku trends from before are now social media trends for her generation. The more I researched, the more I thought it was interesting. This was around 2010. My thoughts had returned to Harajuku where ASOBISYSTEM’s office is located. During that time as well, male amateur models started appearing with “WEGO”. It was shocking to me. I thought “Another new trend is here! This time social media is prominent, so adults won’t understand it at all.”, however, the flow of information was too fast this time. Because both Shibuya and Harajuku were getting the latest information so quickly, it was gone before I even had a chance to get into it…

OTAQUEST: It faded out before settling as a culture.

YONE: It’s like Aotagai (Editor’s Note: green harvest / featuring before getting popular). Adults promote “This person is very popular now!” before it actually gets popular among young people, so young people are turned off and it ends in failure. Back then, when adults learned about something, young people had already known about it for so long. Now when something gets just a little popular, some giant advertising client sponsors it right away. It’s good if they actually support and raise it as a culture, but when it ends in failure, they just throw it away. They don’t intend to create popularity. Back in the day, when adults started going after something, there was a way of escaping from them. This is how both Harajuku and Shibuya had been creating so many great new movements, but now adults are already waiting ahead in the places where young people escape. Adults are waiting around like “Welcome!”, and young people don’t like that, so I think now is the time when we should have adults who focus on protecting and raising the culture.

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OTAQUEST: Looking at the trends there was a flow back then, Kogal (Shibuya) – Urahara girls (Harajuku) – 109 Charismatic shop clerk (Shibuya) – Aomoji style amateur model (Harajuku) – ERO-KAWA half Japanese model (Shibuya) – KAWAII (Harajuku), what do you think is next?

YONE: As you can see, the two towns, Shibuya and Harajuku are becoming the same. Both towns have too many big buildings now. The reason why young creators who have influenced the people’s sense of value gathered in Urahara is because the rent was cheaper back then. It was easier to create a brand and open a shop. It was the same for Shibuya when Teamers were around. When they went to these town, they could find many people with the same sense of value. Now there are not many places where those young people who don’t have money but have a lot of ideas can gather.

OTAQUEST: There were a lot of small shops in Harajuku apartments and Dojunkai apartments.

YONE: Yes. Harajuku used to have so many small shops and the overall town was like a mall, but now many big buildings have been built and there is not much difference from Shibuya. They can have big buildings but I wish they were divided into smaller spaces as to have many smaller shops inside. Adults have destroyed the good part of Shibuya and Harajuku, so now I think we need to create and develop to restore that. I hope we don’t just merge everything together into one and that we consider every small characteristic.

OTAQUEST: People in the towns are standardized also. Harajuku used to have a lot of people wearing punk, lolita, and gothic-lolita too.

YONE: Now people who wear unique fashion like that are only foreigners. For example, if you go to Kawaii Monster Cafe in Harajuku because you like lolita, there would be no Japanese people. It’s like the same for punk in London.

OTAQUEST: How would distinguish the difference between Harajuku and Shibuy now?

YONE: I basically call Shibuya “Taiikukai-Kei” (Editor’s Note: jock/conservative), a place for students who are rough and ridged and stand out in the class. Harajuku is a place for students who are picked on in the class. Which group stands out more has the same meaning as which becomes major. Actually, both students who stand out and students who are picked on are the minority. A minority group is always creative in any generation. Whatever has more non-creative supporters becomes a boom. When rough students are popular, Shibuya is stronger, but when otaku students are popular, Harajuku is stronger. Now neither of them are stronger. Everything is so neutral right now.

OTAQUEST: There is no borderline between otaku and Yanki (a similar meaning as Taiikukai-Kei) nowadays.

YONE: Now there are many people who are otaku but also Yanki, and vice versa. Nowadays, I think only a girl with a strong confidence can walk around Harajuku dressing the way Kyary-chan used to. It’s not a place anymore where you go and find people who dress just like the same style as you.

OTAQUEST: I used to change in the bathroom in Harajuku station and hang out around Harajuku with friends who shared the same interests with me.

YONE: We used to have friends to share interests and have places to hang out with them, but now people would think “what is this person?” or foreigners would ask “Can I take a picture?”. There are fewer places now where we can escape or where we can just be accepted. As an adult, we should understand the concept, and we should create more such places. Without those places, I think Japanese culture will die. Shibuya and Harajuku have been given a lot of influence in terms of youth culture. Teamers were born in Shibuya and Urahara was born in Harajuku. These are definitely Japanese treasures from the 1990’s and 2000s.

OTAQUEST: It was interesting in the 1990’s in Shibuya that Taiikukai-Kei gal culture and cultural Shibuya style were mixed together.

YONE: We should pass down the tradition. Whether you are the majority in the class or the minority in the class, even if you are in the minority, you can be part of the majority if you go to Shibuya or Harajuku. This was a good thing but now there is no minority group anywhere. We only have the majority. New culture will never be created in this environment.

Yasumasu "YONE" Yonehara

OTAQUEST: In this situation, where would you recommend to readers from overseas?

YONE: I often say “the places that salary-men think are interesting would be interesting”. It’s a strange thing to say, but let’s say if people who spend a lot of money are the majority, businessmen are the majority, however, their existence is very minor and no one understands them. This is very similar to how it was with Kogal and Uraha back then. Businessmen have a lot of economic power but nobody cares. I’m not specifically talking about fashion, but restaurants and places where businessmen go are usually good.

OTAQUEST: So, we should follow business people?

YONE: I think places where local people go are interesting. For Harajuku, places where people who live in Harajuku go might be new to foreigners. For example, the ramen shop “Hope-ken”, which all Japanese people know, in front of Kokuritsu Kyogijo (National Stadium). Places where only local people or businessmen go are interesting when you have no real information beforehand. For entertainment, more and more people are coming from overseas, they should check out places like “GR8”, “L.H.P”, and “NUBIAN” in Harajuku. Korea has broken through globally, but Japan’s editing power is so strong that it’s having more and more influence. Japanese people tend to obsessively collect stuff when they become really interested in something. Such superiority is interesting. Also for street music, there are “Mall Boyz” who have declared that they will not release from a major label. They are only around 20 years old but I think they are very interesting. Youth culture from Harajuku and Shibuya had been created by their own rules with their own value, so adults shouldn’t destroy that. When something gets popular, I think just acknowledging it will not create a new culture. We have to get out and move around. We need to go out to places and feel or smell.

My hope is that young people who say “Harajuku and Shibuya are so boring!” come out to the cities. Actually, I’m planning with such young people to do something this year.

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