The east meets west end

They're young, hip, Japanese, designer-clad and London is their playground. Anna Minton reports

here are two groups of Japanese in London," says Riwa. "The first practises the traditional English life as they see it: tea at the Savoy, cashmere sweaters and gardening. They're young but clean cut. The second, which is far larger, is made up of hip, body piercing types. Many are art or fashion students, aspiring DJs or just music mad."

Riwa is a 25-year-old Japanese journalist in London. She is adamant that if you are young and trendy and Japanese, London is no longer just a place to visit, it is the place to live. Such is the popularity of the capital, she says, that a permanent community of at least 30,000 young Japanese is now thriving. They dress in Vivienne Westwood, dance to acid jazz, go to indie gigs and earn extra money selling second- hand 1960s and 1970s clothes back to Japan.

The vast majority are women, seeking freedom from the confines and conformities of home. Yumi, a 25-year old English language student and music journalist, is typical: "Japanese society caters for men not women. In Tokyo it's very hard for me to find the work I want; here I will have more opportunities. I also like English men. In Japan strong-willed women are not welcome." So every month Yumi enrols on another language course in order to extend her visa. "My parents are always saying, `Please come back and get married'. They're typical Japanese parents. But this life really suits me."

Yumi and her friends immerse themselves in London life. They spurn Japanese restaurants and the Yaohan plaza (Europe's biggest Japanese superstore, in north London). They have no contact with the business community. "They come to England but they only speak Japanese,"says Yumi. "They only eat Japanese food and they don't make friends with other nationalities. It's a waste of time." This animosity is mutual. Fumio, a 48-year-old businessman based in London, is not impressed with the British style of the younger generation. "They come to London thinking they're free, but they're not. They're trapped - just in a different way - addicted to the fashion and music in this country."

He may have a point. Most Japanese learn English by day, but music and clothes are the real passions behind their long-term love of London. Hiroshi, an immaculately dressed 23-year-old, explains: "I'd been making clothes with British designers for five years and selling to American Classics. I've come here to sell in London and around England." Masamichi, 23, has come to rave: "I love transmission and techno. I'd never been to a rave in Japan but now I go a couple of times a week. Usually I see other Japanese in clubs like the Ministry of Sound." Hiroshi loves London's "old buildings and old history". Why? "Because they mix brilliantly with the new culture in music and street fashion."

Philip de Mesquita runs Acupuncture, a Soho store which sells 80 per cent of its new and secondhand British designer stock to the Japanese. "They are so interested in fashion, they have more looks than anyone else. But whatever look it is, everything has got to be right. The full Mod look for example would have to include Sta-press, Loafers and Fred Perry," he says. And one name keeps cropping up. "They go straight for Vivienne Westwood - she's the most collectable designer. It would not be unusual for a Japanese customer to come in and buy all my Vivienne Westwood stock, spending, say, pounds 8,500.

"They look so good partly because they've got more money due to the strength of the yen and partly because they take so much care. For example, when buying a denim jacket my Japanese customers will look for particular lot numbers on the buttons," he explains.

Rika, 28, has done her share of staring at buttons, but now she's had enough. "This is a young scene and I'm too old," she says. "When I first arrived I was 22 with no plans for the future. Now I want to settle down a bit. In London, I never know what's going to happen from one day to the next."

how they live

Cafes: The Stockpot (Soho), Tsukushi (Kentish Town Road).

Bars: Two Floors and Mondo (Soho)

Clubs: Bar Rumba (Shaftesbury Avenue), Ormond's (Piccadilly Circus), The Blue Note (Old Street), anywhere where DJ Giles Petersen hits the decks.

Music: Indie pop gigs at the Garage in Islington. Particularly popular are Velvet Crush, Shampoo and Bjork.

Record Shops: Mr Bongo (Poland Street), Fat Cat (Monmouth Street).

Records: Old school hip-hop from 1988/89 - The Brand Nubians, Main Source, Pete Rock, The Common Sense. Old Funk and Soul from 1960s and 1970s such as Pierre Henry. Acid Jazz remains very popular but is now easily available in Tokyo.

Clothes: Vivienne Westwood, Galliano and Hussein Chalayan.

Shopping: Camden Market, Portobello Road, Vivienne Westwood (New Bond St), Acupuncture (Soho).

Subsistence: Part time work in Japanese department stores/ restaurants. Buying 1960s/70s clothes and selling them back to Japan. Arts/crafts stalls in Camden Lock.

how they look

Men: North Wave or lime green Nike Air Max trainers, big E Levi jeans, Ralph Lauren socks, Vivienne Westwood Smedley top, Berghaus micro- fleece jacket or North Face puffa jacket. Accessories: wallet on Heart of Oaks silver chain, silver rings.

Total cost: pounds 600-pounds 900

Women: Rocking horse shoes, tweed skirt, tweed jacket, bag, rings and earrings (all by Vivienne Westwood, naturally). Total cost: pounds 1,200

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