Photo of Alisa by Shimpei Mito.
From modeling to music to fashion design, there’s literally nothing Alisa Ueno can’t do.
The Japanese DJ and resident cool girl has amassed a massive online following, and a quick scroll through her Instagram is all you need to be convinced she deserves the hype. When she’s not keeping us dancing, Alisa serves as creative director of clothing label Fig & Viper. I had the pleasure of meeting the 28-year-old influencer last summer, where gave me a local’s tour of Tokyo.
I chatted with the trans-Pacific “It Girl” about the differences in American and Japanese cultural attitudes towards sex and dating, the highlights are below.
For those who don’t know you, how do you describe what you do?
Alisa: I’m a fashion designer, and also a DJ, and also a producer. I’m doing Instagram, as well.
A woman of many trades. Where are you from?
I’m from Tokyo, Japan.
What influence do you think growing up in Tokyo has had on you as a person?
We are so different. I think it’s because [Japan is] an island. We respect each other and other countries as well. If you grew up in Japan you’re going to be really humble, without reason, because it’s a noble thing to respect people and be humble. So I think it’s a good thing to be raised in Japan.
Can you talk a little bit more about that difference? I’m sure if you took the subway in New York, you’d be like ‘Ew, this is disgusting.’
Tokyo is so clean and everything is so organized. If you’re going to take a train, and it’s like two minutes late, they will apologize to us. Also there are no trash cans on the street, so if you have some trash, then you’re going to put in your bag and bring it home [to throw away].
Where do you think that aspect of respect starts?
I never wondered that. I think from family, also TV—everyone does it, so I do it. Japanese people don’t like [being] original, they want to hide with everyone. It’s our culture, they don’t want to stand out. I think American people love standing out, so it’s really opposite.
Can you talk a little bit about maybe the influence of anime? The obsession with looking cute or young?
Yes. So we don’t have sexy culture.
Why do you think that is?
Girls on TV [ are more] cute than beautiful. More like, they don’t want them to look older, they want to be young forever. Also we have idol culture with anime. Idol means like, boy band. Girls version of is boy band. So, those idols are really like teenagers and look really young, like younger than American teenagers of course. They have to be pure. We have the idol band, called AKB48. Do you know them? They are 48 girls, and the rule is they cannot be in relationships.
That’s crazy. Do you think they’re ever in relationships but they hide it?
I think so. One girl did that, then she apologized in public, and then she shaved her head.
Her hair? Stop it. They made her shave her head?
I think she decided to, like “I’m sorry”, to show [it].
Why can’t she have a boyfriend, like what’s their reasoning?
So, [in] our culture, for boys in junior high school—it’s like a baseball club [thing] or something—if you messed up, you have to shave your hair. It’s kind of boy culture.
Is it like a shaming thing?
Yes, it’s like a “I’m sorry.” So the girl [in AKB58] did that, and she was really famous.
Are you currently in a relationship?
And how long have you been dating?
Three and a half years.
Have you find it harder to meet people in the digital age?
Do you feel like you’ve been able to build out substantial relationships from meeting people online?
I think so. In Japan, we’ve had Tinder [for the past] one or two years. So these [past] one or two years, there’s really [been an] open mind for that, but before that, they were so like, ‘No online.’ We are changing.
Are the Kardashians big in Japan?
Why do you think that is?
So, they are sexy right? They are like a sex symbol. Japanese people like Miranda Kerr or Taylor Hue more like the—not conservative, but kind of conservative and cuter looks. Japanese girls like the skinny girl, and also Kawaii type of faces. That’s why the Kardashians are not that big in Japan. One of my best friends doesn’t even know who Kim Kardashian is, so.
Do you think that sometimes the Kawaii look gets sexualized in Japan?
Yeah. We have so many kinds of Kawaii styles, so it’s really divided in many ways. Japanese girls, it’s not [that] they don’t want to be sexual—that’s not true. They want to be, but they’re kind of shy to show off. They’re thinking, what should I wear to look Kawaii or sexy? So if you see the girl who is thinking she is sexy and Kawaii, you [as an American] don’t think it’s sexy. But in Japan, Japanese boys think it’s sexy.
So is Hentai [porn that is animated in anime style] really big in Japan?
So Hentai means, not anime porn in Japan. World wide, they use Hentai for anime porn, but Hentai means ‘pervert.’
Really? I did not know that.
Yes. So if the boys say something like, ‘Your boobs are big’ or something, then [we say] ‘Hentai!’ That’s the way we use that.
I’m screaming. But is that [style of porn] really big in Japan, do people watch it?
I think so. Only for nerdy people, like my brother. We use the mosaic, the blur stuff, for porn in general. So we cannot show [it].
So things are blurred it out?
Boobs are fine.
Even in Hentai they blur parts out?
Maybe not for Hentai cause it’s not real.
Wait so I can go buy a porn DVD and [certain body parts are] always going to be blurred out?
Yes. So without Mosaic it would be illegal. But they can buy online [without the blurring]. I don’t know [if that’s] technically legal or not, but in general they use Mosaic for porn videos. Because Japanese people want to use imagination, as well. They think it’s more sexy. They can use imagination underneath the Mosaic.
I noticed when I was in Japan and you and I went to the sex shop together that men would be looking at a porn magazine and then they would see me walking by and turn away and be embarrassed. But it’s funny, because it’s like, ‘I know why you’re in this shop.’ Do you think there’s a lot of shame associated with sex still in Japan?
I think so, yes.
And why do you think that is?
Because our culture, we don’t say anything directly. So, it’s our culture. We don’t say ‘no’ whenever. We say ‘yes, but’… we don’t say anything directly. That culture is kind of related to sex life, as well.
So because people, like your saying, culturally don’t tend to say no, and instead ‘yes, but’— are there any issues of consent?
A lot. That’s why [photographer Nobuyoshi] Araki, one his biggest muse did the #Metoo stuff. So it’s a huge movement for us. But still, they don’t speak out.
Do the women get shamed if they speak out?
I think so, that’s why that muse [is a] really strong woman, everyone complimented her [because] she did that. We have that kind of issue as well but I think they don’t even say [it] to their friends.
So what do you hope will change in Japan? And also, what do you think your culture does really well?
People would be more open, I hope. But [a] good thing of Japanese culture is that in the daylight, the girl doesn’t look sexy at all—more like Kawaii culture or anime culture. But if you have sex with her, she’s amazing. So I think it’s a fun thing for the Asian people and Japanese girls. That’s why I like to hear about stories from my friends, the boys. I don’t say, ‘How was she?’ But like, I’m kind of curious… because in front of us, she is really quiet and conservative, but she’s different at night. This is our culture actually.
I read that the red light district in Tokyo is the largest red light district in the world. I wanted to know if there are a lot of underground sex establishments?
Yeah, so we have so much funny stuff. Have you ever heard of a boobs bar?
No, what is a boobs bar?
It’s this place where a girl comes next to you, then you can allow to grab the boobs. They pay to chat with girls [and to get a] blowjob. Soap, we call it soap.
So you can just go in and pay to get a blowjob?
Yes. And sex as well—delivery health. We say ‘health.’ Delivery health is when she comes [to your house.] It’s ‘delivery health’ like Uber Eats.
Interesting. Who is your biggest inspiration?
It sounds fake, but people around me.
I don’t think that sounds fake. Do you have any words of advice for how you got to where you are today?
Meet people. Just meet as many people as you can. And you should open your heart, open your mind—first, before they do. Then you show yourself to them. Then, I believe they will accept you.
I love that, that’s great advice. Lastly, you do a lot! You DJ, you have a brand, you produce… how do you relax?
Netflix. I love staying at home with my boyfriend.
You can follow Alisa on Instagram here.