The Dark Subculture of Japanese Youth

Illustration: Keiichi Kunishige 

Recently, there is a growing trend for some young people to lean toward a spirit of something we may call “the dark.” Those of us over 40 have had a feeling for some time now that this trend is fundamentally different from what we used to call “the decadence of youth” or “the gloomy days of youth.”

The taste of these young people for pathological and medical things is extraordinary. As if proud of themselves, they announce they’ve slashed their wrists (cut only deep enough to draw blood) and exchange information on what illness they’ve been diagnosed with and what kinds of medicines they’ve been prescribed.

Rock groups that sing songs with dark lyrics are gathering more and more enthusiastic fans despite their minor-league status in the music industry. Among the bands that go beyond a mere leaning toward the dark and approach something more correctly called “sickness” are bands such as Mook, Raphael, Caligari, and Kinaluna. Mook has singles called “Cut to Pieces” and “Dead Spirit.” Caligari has songs such as “Guillotine” and “The Season of the Slasher.”  Young people mention the names of members of these bands to one another and check to see if they share the same interests, if they are part of the same “tribe.”

Goth-Loli Fashion
While it’s not quite the same thing, there is a kind of fashion that symbolizes this psychological tendency toward “the dark.” It’s known as “Goth-Loli,” and is short for “gothic” and “Lolita.” The keynote color is black. White is used sparingly for effect, and while the overall image is solemn and totally void of color, frills and lace are used to produce an extreme version of the kind of fashion usually popular with young girls. As one would expect from the name gothic, Goth-Loli dressers use accessories like crosses and crowns. In extreme cases, some even carry small models of wooden coffins or blacken the area around their eyes with makeup to suggest a death mask.

In 2003, Goth-Loli fashion went beyond just being the No. 1 fashion among Japanese youth. In a single night, it became the focus of the entire country. What I mean of course is the family murder that took place in Osaka’s Kawachi-Nagano city. On Nov. 1, 2003, an 18-year-old college student stabbed her mother to death and, after injuring her father and younger brother, escaped with a 16-year-old girl from nearby Minami-Kawachi, only to be arrested some time later. The two had become friendly that September. They both had similar interests in checking out Goth-Loli fashion and wrist-cut Web sites, and using cold medicines to get high. They wanted to live together and thought their families were “in the way.” 

With this crime involving death and insanity, young people who have a tendency toward the abnormal—the kinds of things people don’t think happen “around here”—were thrust into the national spotlight.

Disorders in Japanese Society
Now that we have a clear picture of the tendency among today’s youth toward “the dark,” let us try to describe it in more formal, medical terms. To what extent do the self-abusive personality disorder and the tendency toward “the dark” seen in young people overlap?

Before we address this question, let’s take a look at an overview of the history of causes of self-abusive personality disorders in Japanese society.

The Oct. 6, 2003, edition of the Mainichi newspaper carried an article titled “Key Words Paint a Portrait of Japan.” In it I pointed out, “The typical Japanese spirit that arose in the postwar boom years can be linked to the triangle of addiction, coercion, and self-abuse.”

I particularly emphasized “self-abuse” because it is observed in the postwar boom-years generation—people who tended to clench their teeth and continue working until they dropped, feeling that the ability to bear any pain or suffering gained them respect. I pointed out that a kind of masochism very similar to this “worker’s masochism” was favorably portrayed for the last time in the 1980s television hit “Oshin” and then died out.

Around the same time, the term “gloomy old men” (nekura) gained popularity with stand-up comics, and the  previously lauded workingmen with brows knit from their laborious efforts fell out of favor and were no longer respected. The worker’s masochism of people who used to believe that “as long as I endure, someday I’ll be rewarded” has ceased, and I believe that in its place we now have the neo-masochism of young people who tend toward “the dark.”

It’s easy to see what the two kinds of masochism have in common. One defining characteristic of the masochist is exaggeration. The working masochists came off as bellyachers and had a penchant for making people listen to their workplace war stories. The neo-masochists’ habit of posting photos of their bloodied wrists on the Internet is nothing more than behavior that’s designed to emphasize their suffering.

Another point in common is that the working masochists think that they (the suffering workers) are nobler than those who relax and enjoy their lives. Neo-masochists think they (the innocents) are nobler than the sullied, worldly people.

But the elements they have in common end there. The endurance of the working masochists soon changes into resentment. The intensity of this identification as a victim tends to put distance between the masochists and the people around them.

The neo-masochists who expose their bleeding wrists in public are unlikely to ask, “Who put me in this situation?” They are just waiting for another victim to come and soothe them. They are not trying to fight with or accuse those who have sullied their innocence.

Neo-masochists are certainly not insisting on the justifiability or universality of their worldview. They understand all too well that when they state a different interpretation of society, people will criticize them, saying, “You’re just looking for someone to lick your wounds.” Rather than facing this risk, they lock themselves in a narrow world where there is no criticism.

Neo-masochists’ use of the negative is different from the typical self-abusive personality. They don’t try to use their wounds, fatigue, or suffering as active tools to control people and make them feel a sense of sin or guilt. Rather, it seems to me that their negativity is an important opportunity to form intimate relationships.

The process of going from total strangers to intimate friends is crucial in all human relationships, not only in male-female ones. By gradually revealing to each other personal information (and ultimately even personal secrets), intimacy is established. But for neo-masochists, negativity is a main—or rather the ultimate—tool with which to establish intimacy. They look for sympathy and mutual understanding by mentioning the names of Mook and other popular bands and confide in each other about wrist cutting. By sharing this negativity, they deepen their relationships. Still, that is a far, far cry from relationships in which people “talk over dreams for the future” or “have the same goals.”

Here you can see why discussing wrist-cuts or their experiences with medicines and drugs in a cool, indifferent manner has become an aesthetic or etiquette among them.

For neo-masochists, who use such things as tools to establish intimacy, the desire to die isn’t all that much of an extreme thing. Rather, it is just one topic of conversation that they feel is as distant as any other. The mode of speaking in cool, indifferent tones is designed to communicate that they are not troublesome or dangerous. They show a cool attitude and, by a process of self-denial, objectify themselves. Even so, they wallow in the lifelessness of the mood of despair and they make no effort to step out of their lethargy.

Neo-Masochism vs. the “Healing” Boom
Young people escaping to neo-masochism are not forming a psychological space isolated from society. Even if neo-masochism does not occupy a prominent position in society, the atmosphere that gave birth to it has given neo-masochists and older people much in common.

What I’m talking about is the so-called healing boom so prevalent in society nowadays, which is marked by the desire of working people in their 30s and 40s to seek out singers, actors, and products that have a soothing, healing effect.

Don’t feel that your saying the word “healing” is all that far removed from the neo-masochists and their wrist-cuts. Such expressions such as “I’m feeling hurt” or “I’m desperately tired” already imply the pitiful existence of someone taking on negativity. The so-called healing characters (seen in actors and actresses, for example) are kind and uncritical, providing an atmosphere of unlimited acceptance. By putting your “injuries” up front, you are doing nothing other than avoiding all criticism and abandoning all responsibility.

Personally, I see more hope in the neo-masochistic young people than in those adults who, with the simple, cheap words “I want to be soothed and healed,” are fueling the healing boom. At least the neo-masochists reject conformism and choose the heretical, the individual.

But my praise of them goes only so far. That is because they too desire an existence free from criticism and responsibility. This desire is the addiction that has spread throughout Japanese society. Isn’t it only those who see strength in themselves, who can take on the responsibilities of our country and our region in the world, who have the power to change society?

The author is a clinical psychologist at the Yahata Psychological Education Research Center and a lecturer at Seibu-Bunri University. © 2004 by Yo Yahata. Reprinted by permission of the author c/o Iwanami Shoten, Publishers, Tokyo. All rights reserved.