Hello and welcome to my blog! In this post I want to introduce myself, and outline the types of topics this blog will cover. This post is an extended version of my tweet thread here.
I’m a cultural sociologist based in Australia and who collaborates with folks in Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom. Currently I am doing a lot of writing with Harajuku kid Haruka Kurebayashi, as well as Rei Saionji and Tomoe Hojo, who were previous Harajuku business owners and who currently do lots of great work with regional artists in Japan, trying to promote traditional practices. If you visit the projects section of my page, you can see the portfolio of research I am working on.
I’m also a practicing artist, training at Art and Design at UNSW Sydney. I’m currently exploring ways to both research through art and arts-based methods, as well as “translate” research for the public in a way that is accessible and creative. I’ve been networking with artists globally with similar interest. I’ll post separately about my art practice later.
I started this blog because I found some of my information threads on Twitter were going viral. It seems that some of the commentary I have to offer is new and needed. Threads where I help explain in English popular Japanese tweets from artists and alternative community members were also of interest. But also, at the time of writing, Twitter isn’t a safe space for neurodivergent and queer folks at the moment. The algorithm is bringing together groups of people with opposing views in ways that aren’t productive, and also I find people are quite aggressive towards cute-presenting folks on there. I am really protective of the communities I work with, so I figure here might be a better space to share informational content that people can seek out, read and discuss.
I’m trained in social sciences, art and literature, and in combining these different backgrounds, I bring to the table a perspective that’s a little bit different. I’m interested in a range of topics that are centered around the theme of “cute”. Often folks assume that cute is of little significance or “childish”, but I find it to be a powerful form of media through which we can explore parts of the human condition: precarity, trauma, solidarity, wellbeing, connection, intimacies, care, creativity and resistance. I also examine the precarious conditions that cute artists and practitioners experience, including exploitation and violence. This also applies to folks that we “code” as cute, irrespective of their wishes. There is more to cute than what meets the eye.
To explore this theme, I examine case studies like Harajuku fashion, robotics, digital media, and autistic sensory seeking. You’ll see posts on all these topics, but as I’m co-authoring a book on Harajuku, there will be lots of posts about this topic for a while as I work through ideas.
A lot of the work I do tries to create safe spaces for folks who are different. Personally, I am a neurodivergent, queer-hyperfemme (she/her) and ace. A lot of my friends and colleagues are neurodivergent, gender fluid and/or queer. I bring to my work a fourth-wave feminist lens, speaking to issues of ableism, racism, misogyny and queerphobia.
My Research Approach
As a sociologist, I conduct qualitative research including interviews, focus groups, arts workshops, document analysis and critical engagement with texts (usually with an art, literature or media studies lens). The approach I take depends on the topic at hand, but one of my signature methodologies/approaches that I feel quite passionately about is action-led participatory research. An overview of this method can be read here but in short it means that I look for ways to include communities in research in about them. In particular this becomes a vital part of empowering marginalized communities to help shape the narratives about them and advocate for their needs.
This approach to research is a core part of who I am as a researcher. I came to this method through my work with the Harajuku community, including independent artists, designers and practitioners over the past 10 years. Practitioners call themselves “Harajuku kids” as gender neutral term (they are not Harajuku “girls” as per Gwen Stefani’s Orientalist theme). Just for the purposes of positionality: I came to this research as someone who both wore the fashion myself, and was also supporting indie Harajuku designers and artists in exporting their work overseas with Imogen Dall and Manon Marguerite (please go and support their great work!) In the early stages of my career, I consulted a range of kawaii fashion groups in Tokyo to see who might want some support, notably the gyaru down the road in Shibuya. But with Harajuku, the practitioners and I had the best fit, which I feel is critical for research like this. I guess, while we come from different cultural contexts and this must always be recognized, we both think outside the box, and identify as creative and vibrant folk who don’t always fit in. As a gyaru-o once famously told me, Harajuku kids are the “nerds” and dreamers. I met Kurebayashi, Rei and Tomoe very early in the work, and we’ve been collaborators and colleagues ever since.
Over these 10 years, I observed the real structural barriers Harajuku kids have in accessing graduate-level education to then be able to research their own community. The academy in Japan still privileges cis-men, heterosexual and able bodied folks. In Harajuku there are people who break the mould, are highly creative. They may not have fit in at school, or think outside of education systems. Some are queer and/or disabled. Currently, many are not paid very well for their artistic labors.
Harajuku is a space that is considered both highly valuable as a commercial image, but not valuable enough to always empower and pay the artists themselves as leaders. Globally the aesthetic labour of Harajuku artists, designers and kids appears in magazine spreads, music videos, and product design. The Japanese government has used parts of the aesthetic in their Cool Japan campaign. Journalists write tourism pieces, tell-alls, or gonzo style articles “discovering” this “weird” place. Academics find this place and aesthetic and interesting topic to write about, or run public facing events for to promote their discipline to students and publics. Social media has played a big role in connecting Harajuku kids and interested members of the public to counter these voices, but I feel there is more work to be done.
Over 10 years, I’ve watched researchers come and go, extract data from this community and then not necessarily re-invest in the community they’ve benefitted from. There are lots of kind and generous scholars in this space of course, but to others Harajuku kids (and by extension the global community of practitioners) are treated like a passing novelty. As an academic, I felt estranged from these latter behaviors and dreamed of something more. Why is it that some groups are to be studied and be told “who they are”, and others are to do studying and the telling? Many narratives about Harajuku kids are also not available in Japanese for practitioners to read. How can we ever hope to improve conditions for women and gender fluid folks if we never work with them and make sure what we do applies to their lives?
I’ve been particularly disappointed to see this community has been fetishized without their consent in academic texts, when it is well known that Harajuku kids are trying to avoid the imposition of sexualized gaze (and in some cases, are also minors). Sexual harassment and assault is a problem this community faces, with people crossing boundaries, publicly assaulting practitioners, or pushing into community spaces with the intention of exploiting young vulnerable people. I regularly have high school and undergraduate students writing in to me in distress, because they’ve tried to write an essay about their community and have found a professor has openly written in a way that reproduces rape cultures. This becomes even more depressing when we consider the many graduate students from around the world who are practitioners themselves, but have not been able to pursue academic careers due to soft-misogyny or preconceived notions about cute media. This means that their work doesn’t always get published in academic journals, and established academics miss out on hearing their voices.
I feel that being able to research is a tremendous privilege to be shared with others. This might come down to both my disciplinary and personal background; I trained alongside incredible social workers and policy makers, and also as a neurodivergent person who came from a low-socioeconomic background, I have had to work tremendously hard make it this far. I consider myself someone who tears down walls and kicks down doors. I want more marginalized folks to join me. Research should be for everyone, and together, through community, we can bring about change as a collective.
I work under the principles of responsibility, relationality and reciprocity. This means, as much as possible, I try to co-create and co-author with community members. This approach is flexible; For example sometimes it makes more sense or is safer for me to produce content as a sole author if I’m talking about sexual violence or am providing a very broad overview of a phenomena. Not every group I write about is marginalized, or I myself am actually a voice from that specific community myself. And, of course these blog posts and summaries are sole authored. The approach varies according to context. But through activities like creative workshops, roundtables, focus groups, running public panels for folks to speak on, and by bringing on community members to create content for their peers, I believe we can center and empower marginalized voices. In my later work with NGOs around violence against women, and more recently autism, I can see there is a strong case for implementing action-led participatory approach in a wide range of contexts. This blog will document a lot of my work in this space.
For those who have made it this far through the article, thank you! As an autistic person, my posts may sometimes be long, detailed and reflective because that’s the way I think. I look forward to sharing my ideas with you!