Japanese and Korean pop idols set trends for Chinese teens
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Saturday, March 5, 2005
BEIJING On weekends, Ma Jingxuan sheds her staid high school garb in favor of more offbeat, colorful clothes. But her sartorial taste is uninfluenced by catalogues or fashion magazines. The 18-year-old spends her spare time reading Japanese comic books and creating outfits inspired by her favorite characters.
Move over Hollywood. Despite the global taste-making power of the American entertainment industry, China’s teenagers are more interested in the television shows and movies produced by their Pacific rim neighbors. From soap operas to music, video games to fashion, Japanese and South Korean pop culture is defining the style of Chinese youth.
The trend has even inspired new terms in Mandarin: “ha ri” or “ha han,” meaning, respectively, copycat Japanese or copycat Korean.
“Asian things appeal to Chinese people and they’re easier to bring here,” said Wang Yun, a former editor in chief of Ray-li, a Chinese magazine devoted to Japanese style. “The cartoons, games and comic books that come from Japan are young kids’ favorite things.”
Most teenagers become interested in fashion through pop music, particularly the J-pop bands that originate from Japan. Groups with names like “Smap” (a kind of Japanese version of The Monkees), “Glay” or “Dreams Come True” play a big role in influencing teenage fashion.
Some children mimic the bands’ style, with boys wearing dress shirts with thin ties, girls in leg warmers or miniskirts; the particularly infatuated, like Ma, create identical copies of their favorite celebrity’s clothes.
“Clothes are related to music and vice versa,” Wang said. “Right now, I think musical groups represent Japanese and Korean fashion in China.”
Striking colors, particularly bright reds and yellows, remain popular among the “ha ri,” the fans of Japanese fashion. Girls wear pastel-colored nails, which peep from the sleeves of their oversized duffel coats; large, short-handled bags and miniskirts are de rigueur.
The “ha han,” devotees of South Korean style, favor wide, baggy pants and long T-shirts that stretch to the knees. “Japanese style is complex,” Wang said. “They pay attention to small details, hair and makeup. Korean style is much simpler.”
Animated children’s shows from Japan and South Korea also play a role. “Growing up, my biggest influence was Japanese cartoons,” said Chang Zhanbo, 24, who is trying to create his own manga comic books. His interest in the genre began at 13, when he saw his first episode of the action-packed Japanese cartoon “Dragon Ball.” He was immediately drawn, he said, to the big-eyed characters and the dark, complex themes. “I appreciate the detailed style of Japanese manga comics,” he said.
His fascination grew as he recognized that many of the stories came from Chinese folklore. Chang, who calls himself a “ha ri,” says that animation has stimulated a great cultural exchange between China and its neighbors. “As the Chinese become more prosperous,” he said, “they want to experiment with different tastes and thoughts.”
Chang also appreciates the vivid colors of Japanese style, which he says are an especially sharp contrast to the drab olive grays and blues of his youth. “In the 1970s and ’80s,” he said, “this was a country of workers and people wore a lot of dull colors.” Today’s teenagers, he feels, are more open to other cultures and have much more information at their disposal, which makes their sense of style more individualized. “Everyone brings his or her own personal style to the overarching concept,” he said.
Ma, who is in her final year of high school, has a more unusual inspiration for her offbeat manner of dress. She and her friends read manga comic books and create outfits based on their favorite characters – from hair to makeup to shoes, they emulate every minute detail.
The trend does not meet with everyone’s approval; critics of “ha ri” and “ha han” teenagers are abundant. Relations between China and its neighbors, Japan in particular, can be tense, and many people feel that Chinese children should not be imitating Japanese or South Korean styles.
“People think we should avoid Japanese products,” Ma said. Others feel that teenagers’ favorite activities – playing video games, shopping, hanging out at nightclubs, collecting robots and dolls based on comic book characters – are far too frivolous. “They think we’re lazy,” Ma added.
Though children as young as 5 or 6 can crave these Japanese and Korean styles, there is a cap at the opposite end of the spectrum. Once they reach their mid-20s, young adults seem to lose interest in these games.
“When people start their career they develop their own fashion independence,” Wang said. “This isn’t cool anymore. It’s too childish.”
Adding to the mixed reaction is the idea of imitation implied by the term “ha” or copycat. “‘Ha’ isn’t a good word, because it means you don’t have your own style,” Wang observed. “We shouldn’t copy another country. But for now, China is mixing ideas and still evolving. Eventually we’ll develop our own style.”