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Urban Style: Tokyo/Paris/Berlin


"In the United States, people only know, like, three Japanese designers," Maiko Seki says, with a go-figure shrug.

Maiko Seki is a fashion publicist in Tokyo. To be a fashion publicist in Tokyo is to be in the midst of a scene so frenetic, so demanding, so chockablock with developments that arise by the day, the hour, the minute (have I mentioned the nanosecond?), one can risk death from overexertion, and that is not intended as a gag.

The Japanese have a term for this syndrome, karoshi, "death from overwork," and it's no rare occurrence here, even in fashion. Perhaps one should say, especially in fashion. When the New York Times Magazine recently announced that Tokyo has become the style capital of the world, it was noting a truth that the cognoscenti had known for some time, a reality that an evening with Ms. Seki makes abundantly clear.

The two of us are careering through a famous intersection in Shibuya, where giant billboards cast a sexy, poisonous sheen on what is, in some ways, the crossroads of 21st-century consumerism. On this, a typical Friday night, the crowds are nearly impassable, although not remotely in that purposeful ant-farm way Westerners usually picture the Japanese.

Nobody's going much of anywhere tonight in Shibuya. Nobody is doing much of anything purposeful to improve Japan's socioeconomic future. Every Friday at Shibuya station a certain segment of young Tokyo convenes near a statue commemorating a famous Akita that, devotedly or heroically or misguidedly, returned every day to this spot for years to await his master, who, as it happened, had died.

Maybe there's a metaphor in that, but if so, it's lost on the thousands of young people who are, at the moment, putting on a gorgeous display of what an American expatriate of my acquaintance once described as "a young creative vibe that's almost chaotic."

The visual evidence is all about. There are imitation B-Boys clustered in their Chuck Taylor sneakers and porkpie hats and Kazz Rock Original graffiti T-shirts, their hair the weak tea color common among Japanese youth seemingly engaged in a mass effort to become a nation of bleached blonds. There are teen girls arrayed in thick-soled monster boots and black dirndls and white knee socks in a style that is known as Lolita, but which probably owes less to Nabokov than to Mary Shelley.


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