Yami Kawaii The subculture battling mental health stigma in Japan

(Header image: Kawaii Wallpaper #502620 n.d.)

Warning: This post contains images that might trigger or make some people uncomfortable, especially those who have experienced issues with mental health. Consider carefully before you continue scrolling down.

Note: This is a Digital Artefact by Michelle Kruger, Grace Quinton, and Mia (Minh-Anh) Do at the University of Wollongong. A Digital Artefact (DA) is a research project communicated via a digital platform (online videos, podcasts, online blogs etc.), often with a creative edge. This DA is part of our fulfilment of the subject requirements in BCM320—Digital Asia. The subject focuses on making sense of how individuals experience cultural products from a culture different than their own, in this case, “Asian” cultures.

The world of Kawaii culture and fashion is much more complex than we initially expected, with at least nine categories as can be seen in this mind-map.

(Images: Kawaii Amino 2016)

The niche domain of Kawaii fashion (and culture in general) that our group chose to focus on is Yami Kawaii, which literally means sick cute (sick as in ill). Our collaborative autoethnography project is both evocative and analytical, since our topic is a highly emotive one but requires certain objectivity to analyse the phenomenon based on our own frameworks.

(Image: Menhera-chan n.d.)

Yami Kawaii started to rise in 2014, as a fashion style that’s playful and light-hearted on the surface, but “[taps] into a moodier side” (Silbert 2018) with the blatant feature of medical objects—syringes, bandages, stitches etc.—and, on a much darker level, objects related to death and suicide—nooses, guns, razor blades.

The fashion movement is so widespread that it even has its own mascot representing mental health issues—an anime girl called Menhera-chan (Silbert 2018). Here she is with wide eyes, pink-themed hair and outfit, and most importantly, her bandaged, slit wrists. (It’s not obvious, but Menhera is a portmanteau of mental health pronounced in a Japanese way.)

Throughout history, clothing has increasingly been utilised as a means of self-expression—an artefactual, non-verbal, form of communication (Rudrow 2014). Here, a large part of the message a person conveys through their clothing articles derives from the connotations of colours; the warm pastel pink and red in Yami Kawaii allude to happiness, cheerfulness, passion while while the white sends a message of lightness and innocence (Malandro et al. 1989, cited in Rudrow 2014)—these make up the surface layer, the first impression, of Yami Kawaii fashion.

Fashion, dress, and clothing are the channels via which members of a social group convey their shared values, hopes, and beliefs (Barnard 2002, p. 39). In the case of Yami Kawaii, active consumption of fashion (Barnard 2002, p. 132) is apparent, as members of this subculture actively seek and even create items that help them construct and articulate certain identities that resist the norm in the larger Japanese society, where it might even be more socially acceptable to harbour stigmas against mental illnesses than to have them (Ando et al. 2013, p. 479).

(Images: Etsy)

The word Kawaii means much more than cute, and if we are to understand how cute and sick can be placed together to describe this fashion culture we need to understand a little more about the meaning of Kawaii.

The original use of Kawaii is to refer to pitiable qualities especially of women. This meaning is still present in the adjectival noun kawaisō -piteous, pitiable, arousing compassion, poor, sad, sorry. Kawaisō and kawairashii still used to mean embarrassing/embarrassed, shameful/ashamed" or "good, nice, fine, excellent, superb, splendid, admirable", in addition to the standard meaning of ‘ability to be loved’. (Wikipedia contributors 2018)

(GQ's Tweet)

Since this is a contentious topic which deals with serious mental health issues, we only experienced this niche subculture second-handedly, by watching a documentary by Refinery29 and view pictures of Yami Kawaii fashion and other items (see the reaction video below for more). We also shared images via Twitter with the hashtag #YamiKawaiiDA and even got an user from Tokyo retweeting one of them.


My first thoughts when we began looking at Yami Kawaii was ‘it shouldn’t be too dramatic’, but that was an assumption I should not have made. I wondered how a fashion that represented illness could be cute, but then I was reminded of emo and gothic styles of fashion which I have come across in Australia and put them on a similar level. An article by Omri Wallach (2017) enlightened me in his suggestion that the cuteness becomes ironic, and the focus becomes the message the artist is trying to convey, that is, a cry for help and repressed negative desires, a reflection of popular culture in Japan. A whole world of symbolism and imagery was opened up to me; the accessories I looked at weren’t just a funny set of pill earrings or the chokers weren’t just a humorous trope or a costume for Halloween, which passed through my mind more than once.

This surprised me tremendously since I come from a society and, in particular, a family where we openly discuss mental health, asking each other are you okay? Therefore, the way that this subculture has had to revert to fashion in order to represent the topic of mental illness is so foreign to me. Like Ellis suggests, looking at Yami Kawaii from an auto-ethnographic research perspective has sensitised me to issues of identity politics or to experiences shrouded in silence (which this fashion and what it represents most definitely are).

[MIA D.]

The word that kept coming back during my experience is juxtaposition. It is this stark contrast between cuteness, femininity, innocence and depression and suicidal implications that unsettled me. As many, I grew up playing with toys like those plastic beads you can make into shapes and used as accessories, or boys would be running around with toy guns. But to see those objects usually associated with childhood and innocence being put next to, or shaped into, things that are related to death and suicide is deeply disturbing.

Some further research confirmed that this, as an intention of those wearing Yami Kawaii, represents the same contrast in Japanese society—the orderly, stoic surface where daily life functions (Ye 2007) versus the suppressed problems underlying it: high suicide rates (Chorlton 2018), plaguing mental illnesses, people suffering both from these issues and from social stigmas. When a person’s outlook doesn’t show any signs of suffering, most people will doubt their illness; correspondingly, details like bandaged wrists and accessories in the shape of medical objects stand out from the overall pleasing pastel colour scheme and playful cut of clothings (Atelier MU n.d.) as a call for attention and for help.


Ellis (1999, cited in Wall 2008) recognises the vulnerability of ‘revealing’ oneself, that you ‘can’t take back what has been said’ and the you have no control over how your audience will interpret what has been said. I found this to be the case in dealing with the issues that are raised when looking at the culture of Yami Kawaii. Especially when concerned with its disturbing and graphic nature you are constantly hoping that you are not offending anyone. I am left with the feeling that Yami Kawaii is just scratching the surface revealing the mental health issues that are being experienced especially by the youth of Japan and thus challenging what is considered ‘normal’ in today’s society.

Although a potential caveat might be groupthink skewing the authenticity of reactions (Chang et al. 2013, p. 32), it seemed much more efficient to spot patterns in thoughts and reactions and analyse them as a group (Chang et al. 2013, p. 27)—unlike with individual autoeth where generalisability is a major issue.

Despite coming from different cultural backgrounds (conservative Asian and more open Western), the three of us shared the same unease and unsettling feelings when experiencing Yami Kawaii, even just second-handedly. This might be due to that, according to the outcome of a recent survey carried out by Kasahara-Kiritani et al. (2018, p. 58), patients with mental illnesses in Japan generally are more vulnerable to social stigmas than those in more developed countries; e.g. Australia where Michelle and Grace grew up in and where Mia has been living in for a long while.

“For those [in Japan] that have mental health issues, painful suppression is the only way. They don’t have an outlet. They don’t have support. People don’t find out their friend had unresolved issues until they read their obituary.”

(Brandon Chin, a copywriter, in Chitrakorn 2018)

(Image: 'Menhera-chan', Ezaki n.d.)

While communication and self-expression in low-context cultures like Australia’s places much more emphasis on being semantically explicit (Jackson 2014, p. 94), the high-context culture of Japan (p. 94) hinders stigmatised individuals from publicly voicing their issues. Therefore, their only option is to resort to nonverbal forms of self-expression, in this case, Yami Kawaii.

Image: 'High- & low context cultures' (n.d.)

In conclusion, as concisely put by Masako Ogura, a Tokyo-based stylist (interview in Chitrakorn 2018),



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  2. Atelier MU n.d., ‘About Menhera-chan’, Menhera-chan Tumblr, viewed 3 October 2018, <https://menhera-chan.tumblr.com/about>.
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  15. Wallach, O 2017, ‘Yami Kawaii—Japan’s Darker and Cuter Version of Emo’, Medium, 6 Mar, viewed 4 October, <https://medium.com/@omriwallach/yamikawaii-japans-darker-and-cuter-version-of-emo-d5c7a63af1f4>.
  16. Wikipedia contributors 2018, ‘Kawaii’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 October, viewed 5 October 2018, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kawaii>.
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  1. Carousel Unicorn n.d., Medium, viewed 13 September 2018, <https://medium.com/@omriwallach/yamikawaii-japans-darker-and-cuter-version-of-emo-d5c7a63af1f4>.
  2. Ezaki, B n.d., Menhera-chan, viewed 6 October 2018, <https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/global-currents/how-sick-cute-fashion-is-surfacing-japans-mental-health-issues>.
  3. femmequartz 2015, Kawaii more like Kowai, DeviantArt, viewed 9 October 2018, <https://www.deviantart.com/femmequartz/art/kawaii-more-like-kowai-506200257>.
  4. High- & low-context cultures n.d., Quora, viewed 10 October 2018, <https://www.quora.com/What-makes-Canada-a-high-context-culture>.
  5. Kawaii Wallpaper #502620 n.d., Wallpaper Gallery, viewed 8 October 2018, <https://wallpaper-gallery.net/single/kawaii-wallpapers-6.html>.
  6. Menhera-chan n.d., Medium, viewed 6 October 2018, <https://medium.com/@riadhillon18/japanese-fashion-and-mental-illness-897f5933a047>.

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