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Expat Chat: Chelsea the Western Lolita

Western Lolita Chelsea Bell checks out Hondoji temple and talks about feminism, kawaii, and her life in Japan.

By 3 min read 4

You can’t stop staring at Chelsea Bell. She’s part of the slim demographic that is the North American Female in Japan, but what’s more, she’s a Western Lolita. I met Chelsea at Kashiwa Station before strolling through the insanely pretty gardens at the Hondoji Temple in Kita Kogane.

Waiting for the train, I got a text from her: “I’m in full regalia today.”

Sure enough with her petal-pink and mint-cupcake ensemble, ivory net stockings, platform-bow wedges, cornflower blue eyes and dark curls almost to her waist, Chelsea stands out in the stream of dark suited commuters.

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After lunch, we take the train two stops to Kita Kogane Station, the temple is a thirteen minute walk away. The path from the station opens up to lush trees and local vegetable stands, and as shop owners see Chelsea they yell from their counters “kawaiiiiii!!.” She is unquestionably, almost insufferably cute. I-want-to-put-her-on-my-keychain cute.

Since I know nothing about the lolita culture in Japan, I see the girls in Harajuku and that’s pretty much all I know. I asked Chelsea, what’s up with Lolita?

She speaks softly, but is very matter-of-fact. “It’s an expression, like any fashion subculture. It’s about being female in a positive, feminine way. It’s definitely not about the male gaze.”

I had always assumed the term Lolita referred to the pedophiliac work of genius by Vladmir Nabokov—the connection is unmistakable: adorably dressed porcelain dolls + the Japanese sensibility of youth = attract guys who are obsessed with little girls. But a quick search explained how Lolita’s excess of femininity—being super girly, is actually is often a bit scary to men, and the movement was founded as a reaction to the fashion industry pushing exposed skin and sexy curves to attract the opposite sex. Unlike pin-up girls or rockabilly culture, Lolita flies in the face of the sexy girl convention. But make no mistake, Chelsea does get attention here in Japan.

I get stared at a lot more when I’m dressed, but even when I’m not dressed up I get stared at. There aren’t many Western women here.

Chelsea’s been into Lolita for over seven years, dating back to her days at University of California at Santa Cruz, a surf town not known for kawaii. She was a feminist studies major, which led her to wanting to push back against the traditional flannel-shirt-no-makeup template of orthodox feminists.

“It’s about being pretty, being maidenly, and having fun. I’ve met Lolitas from all over- we’re everywhere. My friends are pretty much all Lolitas. We have tea and talk fashion. It’s something that makes me feel good about myself, and the girls I know who are into it are really cool girls.”

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We walk through the endless paths of blooming violet irises. I watch the local reaction to her, which appears to be a mixture of fascination, bewilderment, and contagious smiles. She pulls a pro-grade camera out of her bag and takes a close-up of a hydrangea bush. “I wonder if we can get someone to take our picture?” A simple, inquiring look from her gets an elderly gentleman with two Canons strapped around his neck to promptly oblige. He takes one with Chelsea’s rig, then whips out his own and asks to shoot us for his own collection. He thanks her profusely in Japanese and English and darts off, looking back at her more than once. She looks at me and grins.

“It’s okay. I’m used to it.”

Access:

The Hondoji Temple

Hours: 8:00am-4:30pm
Adult Admission: ¥500
Open year-round
Address:  Hiraga 63, Kita Kogane Station
www.hondoji.com

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  • allie says:

    Good for her! I’m not into the Lolita style, but she pulls it off.

  • Cynthia Popper says:

    So fun, right? Thanks for the thoughtful comment E…I love our supportive expat community.

  • Temperance Raziel says:

    Sorry, but definitely not adorable >_<

  • Elizabeth says:

    That was very interesting. I’ve never thought before about the concept behind that style of dress. I just assumed it was a form of cosplay or girls who were just super into makeup.

    …. basically, I’m saying I JUDGE EVERYBODY.

    And you over there. AND YOU TOO. Yes.

    The idea of the style being one more focussed on self-power and anti- skin exposing indecency is very positive. Plus, it looks very fun.

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