Lost in Translation

By Stephanie Lynn

Imagine a gigantic city park where every Sunday afternoon teens and young adults can gather to express themselves, while thousands of others come to check it out. A place where people can sing, dance, do drama, or demonstrate their extreme rollerblading moves. A place where bands can set up and play to anyone who enjoys them long enough to linger. Where girls can put on extreme makeup and show off their edgy styles and wild costumes, posing for amateur photographers and onlookers. Where even though beer is sold to adults, everyone is responsible and polite, and no one drunk and disorderly. Imagine an orderly display of artistic freedom and self-expression.

Welcome to Yoyogi-koen in the Harajuku section of Tokyo. (koen means park in Japanese.) The party has been going on for many years, and the celebration of youthful expression has not degenerated into a seedy, crime-infested Needle Park. Americans (especially our parents' generation) romanticize about Woodstock, but that lasted just one week in 1969, and there were drugs and filth and ... well, you get the idea.

The Harajuku experience happens every Sunday, except when the weather is bad. Last October I got to experience it firsthand. I saw this Japanese girl dressed like a fairy princess in pink. I admit, I really didn't understand her act. It involved waving a magic wand, singing in Japanglish, dancing a little to some recorded music, and riding a unicycle. I don't think she'll be on "America's Got Talent" anytime soon ... at least not as a finalist. But she was having fun, and watching her have fun was entertainment enough.

Positioned between the peculiar pink princess and a two girl, one guy slightly punkish rock band was a real treat - maybe the highest energy dance group I could ever imagine seeing. These five guys were in good shape - they had to be. Their "dance floor" was concrete - not exactly the most cushiony surface for their countless tumbles, pratfalls, spins, and rolls. I wondered how something this good could be free. (I also wondered if these guys were made of skin and bones - I got bruises and broken ribs just watching them.)

The fact was many of the acts didn't even have a hat in place to collect tips. Perhaps it isn't legal there, but I have the feeling many of them were performing for the sheer joy of it - self-expression at its purest.

My only regret is that I got to the park so late in the day that I missed much of the fun. My traveling companion had been to Harajuku a number of times on Sunday afternoons in previous years, and had seen all kinds of crazy acts.

I suppose you could argue that YouTube and to an extent MySpace comprise the American Harajuku: strange and random acts, make-up and outfits you love, but would never wear to school, the free flow of ideas and artistic expression, and youthful self-expression not for financial gain, but for its own sake. As in Yoyogi-koen, a lot of it really isn't all that good or all that original, but it's self-expression nevertheless. Even so, I hope YouTube-Japan, or whatever they have over there, doesn't keep young people from coming out to the park. Two things YouTube and Myspace don't exactly feature are real sunshine and a real live audience.

See my Harajuku photos posted (along with some others) here and here.

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