‘I’m twenty-one years old and I’ve been working part-time for a fashion shop in Yokohama for two years but now I’d really like to work for My Cute Kawaii Boutique,’ I told Junko, the manager of this delightful shop, during my interview in Harajuku. I was full of hope she’d approve of me as I thought about how wonderful it would be to work in such a pretty place.
My prospective employer looked me over slowly from head to toe. A shiver ran down the back of my neck and I rubbed my clammy palms over the top of my skirt. This was only the second time I’d ever been interviewed.
‘Are you happy to work here full-time?’
‘Full-time work would be perfect for me,’ I replied.
‘I need to employ someone who doesn’t need to be constantly supervised. Do you think you could work in this store by yourself sometimes without any help, Kimiko-san?’
‘I think I’ll be able to manage just fine after a little bit of training,’ I said as I looked around at all the stock packed into one small room. I licked my dry lips and hoped Junko couldn’t see my hands had begun to shake.
‘That’s a good answer,’ said this well-presented lady as she ran her eyes over my resume.
I had to answer a few more questions about my previous retail experience in Yokohama at a shop where I’d sold predictable and appropriate clothing for staid shoppers who’d always wanted to dress exactly the same as everyone else. I thought my responses were good but maybe a bit brief. The shop in Yokohama was nothing like this one. The clothes in My Cute Kawaii Boutique allowed for individualism and creativity. A girl could really make a statement here and channel her inner princess. I’d never feel transparent or invisible wearing the adorable outfits surrounding me. They were calling out for me to try them on as I sat answering interview questions.
Junko finally said the words I’d been waiting to hear all morning. ‘I’m looking for someone reliable and honest who I can depend upon and I think you’ll be perfect for the job. You can start tomorrow.’
‘Wonderful!’ I replied. ‘Thank you so much Junko-san. I really appreciate this opportunity.’
‘Just one more thing, you can’t wear what you’re wearing today if you want to work here.’ She shook her head from side to side as her eyes worked their way down to my black conservative pumps. I’d never been measured up like this before and I felt my cheeks flare up and my bottom lip begin to quiver. I started to feel myself perspire under my grey pinstriped suit and white silk blouse but I knew Junko was right – my look would be completely out of place in a gorgeous shop like this, filled with ruffles and lace. Her style epitomised the Gothic Lolita look. I guessed she was in her mid to late thirties but she had such an enthusiastic and energetic personality. I could see why she could relate to the much younger girls who liked to shop in Harajuku. Her black, tailored blouse with its pin tucking and embroidered details on the cuffs and her grey, ruffled bell-shaped skirt accentuated her curvaceous figure and very tiny waist and I admired the way her smoky eye makeup made her look so sophisticated.
‘You’re just too plain. No one will walk into this shop if they see you dressed like this and your hairstyle is so conservative,’ said my new manager, wrinkling her perfectly made up forehead and throwing her hands up in despair.
‘I was thinking of dyeing my hair lighter and buying some long hair extensions with lots of ringlets,’ I interjected. ‘I’d really like to change my style and completely transform myself into the cutest kawaii girl in Harajuku. Once I start earning some money I’ll be able to buy clothes from your shop but I’m broke at the moment . . .’
‘Come with me Kimiko-san and don’t worry about having no money right now. I’ll pay you one month’s salary in advance when you start work tomorrow. Right now, let’s find something for you to wear. Do you have a kawaii style that you prefer?’
‘I really like the Sweet Lolita style.’
Junko nodded and led me to the front of the store to a rack of clothes on the left. She pulled out a sweet vintage-inspired cardigan with lots of frills on the neckline and the sleeves and a corseted cream lace dress with a fluffy layered skirt covered in small pink polka dots, similar to the display on the wire mannequin bust at the back of the shop. Next, she reached down under the rack for a pair of white 18th century-style leather boots with pretty soft pink ribbon laces before we headed over to the accessories on the other side of the boutique. Junko picked up a wide peach coloured Alice in Wonderland type bow that she clipped onto the side of my ponytail.
‘Take these clothes and go and try them on in the dressing room over there,’ she said to me, pointing to the rear of the store. ‘You can keep the bow but you must return the dress and the boots and I’d like you to wear a different outfit every time you work here. I’d also like you to buy a pair of opaque white tights tomorrow morning. You can buy them at cost price. Do you see those pretty packets of tights on the shelf with the blue and pink garters – the type that go just over the knee? They would be perfect for your outfits if you want to get the look right.’
‘Thank you so much,’ I replied as she piled the dress and the boots into my willing hands. The idea of playing dress up every day filled me with excitement.
As I pulled back a heavy ruby red velvet curtain and entered the dressing room, I could see my boss greeting a confident and glamorous young girl at the front of the shop. I instantly recognised her ganguro style. She’d perfected the look with her sexy pleated tartan miniskirt, as well as her long, fluttering fake eyelashes, her lavishly curled hair, her black gel nail art accented with rhinestones, her vamped up blue contact lenses and her deep, dark fake tan.
I peeked out from behind the dressing room curtain and watched this glamorous girl select a hooded fleecy jacket with little bear ears attached to the peak of the hood. She shrieked with delight as she tried it on in front of Junko who very carefully pulled the hood over her tanned face to show her the full effect, while at the same time trying not to dent the piles of fake curls attached to the crown of her head. The sweet ears that stood to attention certainly increased her cuteness factor.
Well and truly delighted, the ganguro girl admired herself in the mirror for a couple of minutes. After taking off the jacket, she was very quick to pull out her purse. Junko accepted ¥5,000, placed the money in the till and passed back ¥500 as change, before she swiftly wrapped up her jacket in tissue and put it into a My Cute Kawaii Boutique shopping bag. Before the customer left the shop, this ostentatious but sweet girl promised she’d return on the weekend with some friends to try on a few dresses and boots, which had caught her eye. In the space of five minutes this effervescent customer had arrived, made a quick purchase and left, leaving Junko looking very content, knowing she’d just increased her till by ¥4,500. I smiled as I closed the curtain and did up the lace dress, hoping all my sales were going to be as easy as that.
After silently complimenting myself on how cute I looked, I stepped out of the dressing room and Junko, who was putting out another jacket with bear ears to replace the one she’d just sold, turned and gave me a satisfied nod of approval.
‘We just received a big batch of hooded jackets with cat and bear ears. They’re very popular at the moment so I’d like you to set up a window display with these when you arrive tomorrow morning at ten. I really think this Sweet Lolita style suits you. Do a twirl for me.’
I was usually quite confident for my age and I loved the way I looked all dressed up in layers of white, pink and cream lace and frills. I didn’t need any more encouragement to do a 360-degree turn, which made the layers on the skirt bounce up and down like a princess twirling in a music box. I finished the pose with my hands on my tiny waist and one toe pointed.
Image by Yoshimi OHTANI
‘Perfect!’ said Junko. ‘I know the shop you worked at in Yokohama probably didn’t ask you to do this but we have a different way of doing promotions here in Harajuku. My daughter will be with me in the shop tomorrow morning at eleven and she loves the Sweet Lolita style as well. Her name is Mei-chan and I’d like you to walk around with her through Harajuku, mainly on Takeshita Street and present yourselves as sweet and friendly kawaii ambassadors for the shop. Could you hand out flyers to potential customers and recommend the My Cute Kawaii Boutique for an hour tomorrow afternoon after you’ve had a lunch break? That should be a lot of fun for you.’
‘That sounds great, I can’t wait,’ I replied. I couldn’t believe my luck. This job was better than anything I’d expected.
‘We are also having a Lolita tea party here at the shop on Friday afternoon. Would you be able to help me set this up in the morning and serve tea and cakes while I show the girls our new clothing range? Twenty of my best customers will be attending. They all love the Lolita fashion style and it would be a wonderful opportunity for you to meet them. They’re lovely girls and I’m sure you’ll get along well with all of them.
‘I’d love to meet them,’ I replied. ‘The Lolita tea party sounds like a great idea.’
‘Terrific but before you leave today, I’d like you to familiarise yourself with everything in My Cute Kawaii Boutique. Go ahead and take a look around.’
‘Thank you,’ I replied. ‘I’d love to look at everything.’
I started at the front of the shop with the racks of clothes where Junko had pulled out the dress I was now wearing. I slowly went through each of the gorgeous and whimsical garments that were for sale. As I paused to admire an outfit on one of the two wire mannequin busts near the dressing room, I could imagine myself wearing nearly all of the clothes and the fact that I could wear them for free while I was working was an added bonus.
Next, I checked out the accessories on the right-hand side of the shop. There were all types of key chains, cell phone charms and notepads with transparent pandas and kittens printed on them, as well as stickers and hair accessories in a wide array of soft pastels and brighter bold colours.
‘A lot of the tourists buy that stock,’ said my new boss as she watched me from the counter, pleased I was showing a genuine interest in all the items for sale. ‘That’s why they’re at the front of the shop. You can make lots of very quick, small sales with those and at the end of the day that adds up to quite a lot.’
Further along the aisle were purses and bags. Most of them were patched with bear, cat and panda faces or fairy tale themes. I thought that they were all incredibly sweet and I couldn’t see myself having any trouble selling them. Lastly, at the back of the shop, there were craft supplies for the customers to make their own kawaii clothes and accessories at home.
Junko called me over to the counter. ‘Would you like to wear that outfit on your way home and wear it again when you come back in the morning?’
‘Really! Oh yes, thank you. That would be fun.’
‘Good, I can show you how to do your make-up as well to complete the look if you like.’
‘Yes please,’ I said, clapping my hands.
Junko pulled out her make-up kit from her handbag and applied lots of thick, black eyeliner and white eye shadow to make my eyes look a lot bigger. She also rubbed some plum coloured rouge in a circular motion onto my cheeks and finally she curled my ponytail with a pair of hot tongs. I watched how she applied the makeup, giggling at how quickly she could make over my face. I now looked like a pretty china doll and I was delighted with my transformation.
I bowed twice at the door of the shop and thanked Junko profusely before I left that evening carrying my grey suit and white blouse in a plastic My Cute Kawaii Boutique shopping bag, marvelling at how well I’d managed to get though such a perfect interview.
‘Make sure you walk up Takeshita Street on your way to the train station so everyone can get a good look at you . . . and enjoy the attention,’ Junko cried out to me as I turned and bowed one more time before shutting the door to the shop and puffing up my skirt, ready to wow the crowds as I made my way to the train station.
My new role model was right. As I weaved my way through the crowds on Takeshita Street, holding onto my My Cute Kawaii Boutique shopping bag and beaming with happiness, many people stopped and stared at me and one foreigner even took my photo. I received the same attention after I boarded the train at Harajuku Station and travelled back towards my home in Yokohama. I was sure a lot of the young girls dressed in their business suits and returning home from their offices were eyeing me with jealousy, wishing they too could look as cute and as interesting as me.
It was seven thirty p.m. when I arrived home and I could smell the inviting aroma of my mother’s cooking as I made my way from the entrance of our house and into the kitchen. My mum was standing stirring a pot of curry and chatting with my father who was still in his suit. He’d obviously just returned home from work. It was my dad who saw me first when I walked into the kitchen and I laughed watching the startled expression on his face. I was pleased he didn’t recognise me for a moment.
‘What are you wearing Kimiko-chan?’ he roared at me in disbelief. ‘You look silly.’
My father shook his head from side to side as he watched me perform a playful curtsey. I felt like such an actress in these clothes. I also enjoyed watching my mother as she laughed at my father’s reaction and this encouraged me to curtsey again.
‘Kimiko-chan, you look gorgeous!’ said my mother. ‘I suppose the interview at the shop in Harajuku went well.’ She stopped stirring the curry and looked me up and down with big eyes that were full of surprise but also approval.
I knew my mother would appreciate my new look. ‘Yes, it went very well,’ I replied as I dropped the My Cute Kawaii Boutique shopping bag on the dining room table. ‘I’m wearing the clothes I’ll be selling at my new job. I get to wear a different outfit every time I go to work.’
‘Well done on finding a job Kimiko-chan! I suppose it’s fine for you to wear those clothes if you’re going to be making more money,’ said my father with a deep sigh as he removed his plain navy tie from around his neck before carefully folded it into a neat ball and setting it down on the table in front of him.
I turned to my mother as my dad picked up the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper and went into the living room, rolling his eyes and shaking his head, not wanting to look my way as I pranced and posed for them.
‘Do you really like this Sweet Lolita style?’ I asked my mother.
‘Oh, I love it,’ she replied before returning her gaze to the boiling saucepan full of thick brown curry bubbling on the stove. ‘You look like all the young girls in the trendy magazines. I wish I was young enough to wear this fashion style.’
‘Please don’t,’ I said with a laugh, knowing very well my mother would never change from wearing the plain and simple clothes she’d always preferred. Mum was in her late thirties and very attractive for her age. She could have easily highlighted her pretty face and slim figure by wearing brighter lipsticks or more fashionable clothes but I’d always known her to be a woman with simple tastes who never wore garish outfits or eye-catching jewellery.
‘A foreigner even took my photo on Takeshita Street in Harajuku!’ I said to her.
‘Wonderful!’ she replied, looking up with a maternal pride which was clearly expressed in her smile. ‘My daughter could end up in a French or British magazine with this new look – how exciting!’
‘Our daughter should go back to school and get herself an education so she can get a normal full-time job,’ my father cried out from the living room. I realised he was only pretending to read his newspaper and acting as if he was not showing any interest in our conversation but my father would often comment on my day when I returned home in the evenings and although he was offering me advice in a tone which some people would have misinterpreted as harsh, I knew he was always guiding me with love and affection. This made me think about how lucky I was to have parents who were always genuinely interested in my life.
My mother burst into a fit of giggles. ‘Your father is so old-fashioned!’ she exclaimed.
My father was quite a few years older than my mother and nearly fifty years old. He was a quiet and very prim and proper man but he’d always been a caring father and it was clear to everyone he adored his wife.
‘I’m going to really enjoy this job,’ I cried out to him. ‘The full-time work will mean I’ll be able to give you some money every month but if you don’t like seeing me in these clothes then I could move into my own apartment.’
My mother put her hand to her mouth to smother another chuckle, knowing very well how much my father loved having me at home. She’d always liked the way I stood up to him or how I sometimes liked to tease him with idle threats of leaving the nest.
‘You will not move out until you find yourself a decent husband,’ said my father in a high-pitched voice he only adopted when he was annoyed.
He’d occasionally lecture me on this subject, telling me a suitable mate would be a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant or a businessman who worked for a trading company. I had no idea how I was going to find a man to marry who met these criteria. All the boys I usually met had part-time jobs and they didn’t have the most serious outlook on life but as soon as I did meet someone suitable I planned to make him love me and if I could manage to do this I knew I’d be gaining the approval of my dear father.
My mother told me dinner was nearly ready and I went upstairs, changed my clothes and removed all the makeup that had given me such a cute round face and childish features. Fifteen minutes later, I returned to the dining room for dinner with my parents in a pair of plain blue jeans, a navy striped T-shirt and my face freshly scrubbed. My father looked at me with approval as I sat down at the table, pleased I was now looking more conservative, but I already missed wearing the adorable costume I’d borrowed from the My Cute Kawaii Boutique and I couldn’t wait to get dressed up and go to work in the morning.
‘Good, you’re back to normal,’ my father said, holding up a spoonful of curry.
‘Only until tomorrow morning,’ I replied, laughing.
‘Kimiko-chan, you’re going to have lots of fun working for that shop in Harajuku,’ said my mother.
‘I know,’ I replied. ‘My new manager is very nice and all the clothes and the accessories at the shop are adorable!’
I continued eating my meal in silence until I’d finished my dinner, daydreaming about all the clothes I planned to wear in the future and sell at My Cute Kawaii Boutique. I now felt like I was becoming someone and not just anyone. I’d always been a wallflower, someone everyone overlooked and never noticed. Now I was about to make an impact and the world was going to love me for my individualism and style.