Culture Club

For the new wave of Japanese students, London offers freedom, excitement... and second-hand clothes. For just one year, they can live out their sexual and sartorial fantasies, before going home to conformity. Just don't tell mum and dad. By TAmsin Blachar

Nori and Masako may look as if they have just stepped out of the Swinging Sixties, but Masako arrived in London two years ago and Nori shortly after that. They are typical of a growing number of young Japanese - many of them on student visas - who leave Japan each year for London or New York.

In Japan, Nori could wear sharp mod suits, but he is able to indulge his sartorial fantasies to the full here in London, where second-hand clothes are cheap and plentiful. Both he and Masako wear shoes by Patrick Cox, but otherwise their outfits come from street markets and second-hand shops. London offers freedom - a chance to live away from home and an opportunity to rebel, away from dispproving parents. Although the Japanese have their tribal youth cults, there is generally much less freedom of expression - be that dyeing your hair, or dressing to express your sexuality. Things a British or American teenager take for granted are still a battle ground for their Japanese peers. A short hair cut, for example, can cause untold aggravation - being seen at best as a sign of rebelliousness, at worst of sexual deviance.

While the West looks to Japan for the latest in new technology (the Japanese cannot comprehend that you can still buy a black and white TV in the UK), Japanese students and teenagers are required to live a life of conformity that is positively quaint by western standards.

Young people are expected to live at home until they are married even through their university years. Girls must conform to the sexual stereotypes of good wife and mother. It is difficult to be openly homosexual in Japan, even in Tokyo. So, for many young people, the only way to lead the lifestyle they choose is to leave the country.

Ami left Japan, despite a good job in the music industry, because of what she described as the stifling influence of her "typically conservative parents". Tomo, a 26-year-old music journalist, came to England to escape discrimination. "In Japan there is no choice," she says. "If you are over 25, you should stay at home as a good wife and a wise mother." One gay woman is so terrified of being forced to return to Japan that she is planning a "marriage" to a British friend.

Twenty-six-year old Yumi Hasegawa, hair cut in a crop, came to London two years ago to learn English. "Here, I am treated as an equal," she says. "People listen to me." She attends classes in the morning, and works afternoons in a Japanese department store. Most evenings, she goes to a rock gig, which she reviews for Japanese music magazines. Life in London is not necessarily any slower than in Tokyo, but here she is under no pressure to marry.

For Yumi, returning to Tokyo would mean returning to a role that is inferior to that of her male counterparts. "I can't accept the Japanese way of thinking," she says. "Men disrespect women. Even with the same career and education, a woman can't do the same as a man."

Yumi lives in Notting Hill, one of two geographical magnets for hip young Japanese. The other is Camden Town and its neighbouring areas. Notting Hill and Portobello market generally attract the fashion fans, while those who are into music prefer north London for its rock venues, such as The Forum.

Markets are an important factor: they represent London street life and street style. "British people think Japanese people buy lots of clothes," says Yumi, "but clothes are important to express musical taste." (As you can see from the pictures, the London sounds of the Sixties, expressed by bands such as Small Faces, and the recent cult of Easy Listening lounge music, are popular.)

Whatever their inspiration, fashion-conscious Japanese soak up new trends like sponges. Just as they will update a piece of hi-fi equipment to keep up with the latest technology, so, too, they will adopt the latest look down to every detail. This week, the shades are by Diesel. T-shirts are child-sized, by Born Free, the young British company that began on Camden Market and now sells widely in Japan. Jeans are vintage Levi's (Seventies bootleg cut are a must) or Evisu (pounds 150 upwards a pair). Platform shoes are chunky, with trainer uppers by Buffalo. (For those who have abandoned their heavy platforms, any trainer that is a limited edition and all but impossible to find will do.)

One of the first stops is the Vivienne Westwood shop at World's End, which has attracted Japanese customers since the days of the Sex Pistols. The designer opens her flagship store in Tokyo at the end of July, but her clothes are cheaper in London (a suit in Japan will cost around the same price as a flight to London). Christopher di Pietro, sales director of Vivienne Westwood, says: "Vivienne is quite a figure in Japan because she is so quintessentially English." The Japanese are attracted to the traditional English fabrics and Westwood offers a funkier version of the sort of clothes their mothers might buy from Mulberry or Aquascutum. Michiko and Daisuke are both die-hard Westwood fans, and will return home laden with whole wardrobes of her clothes.

Ryosuke is 21, and has been in London for eight months. He intends to go to university here where he will study computer design. In Tokyo, he ran a health food shop. He dresses in Comme des Garcons, bought in Tokyo. His hair is dyed tangerine. His flat has a sign outside the door requesting that visitors remove their shoes before entering. He sleeps on a futon and uses tatami matting as flooring. He is typical of his country, both progressive and fiercely traditional at the same time.

An interesting thing about the people photographed here is that they are all strikingly individual. Admittedly, most of them are linked in some way to the arts, fashion or music, but in Tokyo, even art students have to conform to a certain look. When Ryosuke goes back to Japan, chances are he will keep the designer labels, but may, like Daisuke, who recently returned home, dye his hair back to black.

Men do not have so many barriers to returning home. Shinyu came to London to work as a hairdresser and make-up artist. He intends to learn as much as he can while he is here, and then use his experience to open up his own salon in Japan.

For many, however, there is no reason to return. Mayu has been in London for a year. Her head is shaved to reveal a tattoo on either side of her scalp. (The Japanese mafia, the Yakuza, wear a dragon tattoo, which makes them even more taboo.) The little hair she has is bleached white, an obvious way of making herself look western. She goes to jungle and techno clubs and earns her keep by working as a hostess in a Japanese nightclub. Before going to work she dons a black wig, still managing to conform, at work at least, to the stereotypical image of Japanese womanhood.

For Mayu to return home would mean not only a change of image, but also a new attitude to life. The problem is that, for change to happen, this new generation of Japanese must go back with their new-found freedoms intact. They are going to have to stand up and be counted - bleached hair, tattoos, second-hand clothes and all

Additional research by Yumi Hasegawa

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