Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Charisma Catching in Japan

TOKYO -- The hair is big f blow-dried and dyed light brown. The makeup thick, or better yet, thicker. The dresses bright and tight f as short as the platform soles are high.

Such is the look of today's fashionable Japanese teen.

Despite a reputation for understatedness, instilled in countless generations through the adage that "the nail that sticks out gets hammered back in," many Japanese are flirting with flashiness.

The trend toward flamboyance in both appearance and demeanor has become so important and is such a sharp break with the past, that the media have bestowed upon it the mark of a major movement in Japan: an English label.

The word of the day is charisma f pronounced "karisuma." It has the Japanese abuzz.

On the Tokyo streets, the trend is hard to miss. Next to office workers in gray or dark blue business suits are young women wearing boots with 15-centimeter platform soles and makeup so thick it is almost reminiscent of the kabuki theater.

The theory is simple.

"The gaudier the better," said Reiko Nakane, a saleswoman at a Tokyo department store selling clothes by Egoist, one of the country's hottest young brands.

Behind the clothes' popularity are "charisma clerks," boutique saleswomen who also model the fashions. A handful have developed cult followings and become media celebrities.

Unlike many trends in Japan, this one is not limited to the rebellious young, and goes well beyond mere fashion.

The Japanese-language edition of Forbes magazine ran a 20-page cover story on "charismatic managers." A major TV network recently aired a 90-minute special on "charismatic" elderly people who compete in sports. Shows featuring "charismatic" hairdressers have made prime time.

While Japan is notorious for the speed at which it adopts and drops fads, some experts see this one as indicative of something deeper than usual.

Hilobumi Sakaki, a social psychologist at Tokyo's prestigious Keio University, said the roots of the trend lie in a tougher social climate and a strong undercurrent of uncertainty and a desire for change.

Japan is just now emerging from its worst economic slump since World War II. Corporate restructuring has led to high unemployment, and bankruptcies are soaring.

The shift from conformity to innovation is also necessary if Japan is to compete in a rapidly changing global market, Sakaki said.

"Japan could once get by mimicking U.S. technology," he said. "But the country needs originality to survive. Being creative means standing out, and people accept that now."

Added to the economic insecurity is a deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the country's leadership, which seems distant and unresponsive.

So, with a paucity of charismatic leaders in government, many Japanese have begun seeking them closer to home.

"Everybody's looking for mini-gurus," said Vivien Fujii, a marketing director at Recruit Co., which compiles extensive data bases on Japanese social and consumer trends.

There appears to be no dearth of people willing to step in and fill that need.

For housewives, there is Harumi Kurihara, who has become a best-selling cookbook author and frequent guest on television shows largely because she seems to exude an irresistible charm and friendliness.

For sports fans, there is Hidetoshi Nakata, a talented and brash young soccer star whose sharp-tongue and orange hair have been almost as much of a trademark as his skills on the field.

For business types, Softbank founder Masayoshi Son has come to epitomize the potential bonanzas that await risk-taking entrepreneurs.

There is, perhaps, a darker side to this situation as well. Despite a crackdown on cults since the Aum Shinryko group released nerve gas on Tokyo's subways five years ago, killing 12 people, a variety of new cults with charismatic, publicity-loving leaders have flourished in recent years.

Of course, not everyone wants to dissect the trend for its deeper meanings.

Megumi Hiraki, an 18-year-old college student, said it is only natural to try to stand out from the crowd, and added that she couldn't imagine living under the old ethic.

"I want to do what I want to do," she said, her eyelids colored with eye shadow and her hair streaked in a rainbow of colors. "After World War II, girls were forced to wear rice-bowl haircuts and boys had crew cuts. What a miserable society."