On the back cover of photographer Thomas Card’s new book, Tokyo Adorned (Abrams, March 2014), a young girl with a light pink-and-blue hairstyle wears a brightly colored floral frock accessorized with a pink, patent leather watering can. “Kumamiki was one of the [first] girls who came to have her portrait done,” Card says in his Chelsea art studio, “This is what [she] wears on a day-to-day basis around the streets.”
Kumamiki is just one of the nearly sixty individuals Card photographed for his series examining kawaii—or “cute”—style in Tokyo, one of the many trends that is exploring the complex ideas of identity and self-expression in the Japanese capital. Card’s fascination with the eccentric Japanese culture began roughly ten years ago after reading an article in The New York Times that highlighted a “crazy eye make-up phase” happening in the club scene throughout Asia. “The Ganguro were doing very extreme eye make-up,” he explains. “I thought it was just incredible, the variety and the creativity that went into these different looks. So I wanted to do a beauty story that looked at these girls before they went into the club and at the end of the night, so you could see the progression along the way. There is always this huge difference between the way you see yourself and they way it manifests in the physical world.”
With a hectic work schedule, Card never had the opportunity to travel to Japan and complete the Ganguro photo series. But after the devastation of the 2011 tsunami, he decided to revisit the idea. “It was not quite a year after the earthquake and the tsunami that I started hearing about new things developing on the street [in Japan],” he says. “But I knew it changed and I needed to rethink what the project would be now. The sense of identity, though, is what has stayed with me from the beginning, and I thought it would be a great time to go do an identity study and exploration.”
After six months of trying to reach potential subjects remotely, Card and his team arrived in Japan. They scouted the streets for girls—and a few boys—to photograph and created a Tumblr to attract attention. “I was able to get two girls to come into the studio to do a portrait shoot…To really win the trust of the people you work with, you need them to come into the studio to see what the experience was like, and what I was trying to do.” His project spread by word of mouth and soon, Card had found roughly 75 girls to work with.
Ai arrived in his studio in a light pink dress decorated with strawberries. “She was the head of a Sweet Lolita group,” Card explains. “She holds meetings, and their thing is that they have the Lolita garments, but her specific group was the fruits, so they had to have some variety of fruit on their outfits.” Chibinnu, on the other hand, whose name translates roughly to “small,” carried a white animal bag with an anime face. “One of the things I loved about her was how much she looked like her bag. You just see their accessories and everything embodies their personalities so thoroughly.”
Mitake, a close friend of Card’s cover girl, Aguko, arrived at Card’s studio in a Victorian-style dress. “She explained to one of the interpreters that she had to get dressed and was so sorry that she was coming from work and was wearing an outfit that didn’t represent her,” he says. “So we showed her into the green room to change and we started hearing this ripping sound—we thought her clothes had ripped. I had my interpreter go into the room and she came back just shaking her head. A second later, Mitake walks out, and she’s made her shorts and bra out of black tape. That’s how she went home and out to dinner.”
While most of the girls are in their mid-to-late twenties and hold corporate positions, they dress in a very young, child-like way in the non-work sector.
“There’s this aspiration to be cute,” Card explains, “and they find that to be incredibly empowering and strong, unlike our own culture, where we think about being cute as childish. It’s the antithesis for them. They see the pursuit, and that’s the kawaii.”
While some of the girls hold corporate jobs, others, like Kumamiki, have found a way to transitions this lifestyle into a career itself. “She actually made most of what she’s wearing. At the time we met her, she had a few hundred followers. Now, she has thousands of followers. She’s released her own [clothing] line called, ‘Party Baby.’ She has her own web TV show now.”
It’s this desire and ambition to show their individuality that inspires the girls to dress up in this style. They believe that, without their clothing, they’re not presenting a true vision of themselves. “One of the great things for me was to see how differently they approach things,” he said. “They look outside to other cultures and they adopt things, and then they have such a different meaning and association. Even their sense of identity, I find, is almost the antipode of ours, because we come from the idea of Walt Whitman, I strip down to show myself. For these girls, it’s this process of dressing that allows you to see them for who they are. They really don’t feel you can see them until they are this way. They have such different relationships based on how they see themselves. They’re constantly changing. If you were to go tomorrow, they would be different again.”