The Cult of Cuteness

How the Japanese concept of kawaii exalts female vulnerability
by Gordon Campbell

To outsiders, the Japanese concept of “kawaii” – which roughly translates in English as “cute” – is central to a bundle of Western impressions of Japanese popular culture. Kawaii is a state in which pure and pretty forms of innocence are exalted. Being adorably vulnerable is very much the essence of kawaii. Hello Kitty, J-Pop, the schoolgirl Lolitas of Harajuku fashion etc all tend to be bunched together as dimensions of kawaii that are narrowly – and a bit mistakenly – construed as a sexualized cuteness, in which innocence is viewed mainly as a come-on. That’s true, but is not the entire truth. I may be wrong, but it doesn’t seem to be how ‘kawaii’ is understood by many Japanese.

Does it matter much? Well, Japan is a fertile contributor to global popular culture – from anime to manga to J- Pop to clothing fashion – so it seems worth trying to get the basic signals right. Yet before looking at the origins of kawaii, it may be useful to consider one of the more notorious examples of what we’re talking about. Namely, the maid cafes of Akihibara, Tokyo’s geektown suburb and the seedbed of its otaku (fanboy) culture.

Interestingly, most of the maid cafes of Akihibara have a very similar format. An amusing account of a typical Kiwi experience of a maid café can be found here.

Briefly, young women dressed as French maids escort the customers – and their wives/girlfriends – to their tables, where the maids generally fawn and giggle over their male “masters.” So far, so demeaning. Yet the format then goes somewhere else. Deliberately, what seems to be being evoked is a pre-sexual state of being, in which the maids work hard to encourage the customers to revert to all kinds of child-like behaviours. Via the maids’ high octane example, customers are cajoled to (a) make heart shapes with their hands to express grateful love for their food (b) ball their fists into paws and rotating them round their cheeks like little kitty cats, and (c) generally dance around on stage as if they were carefree ten year olds.

Now… why would so many overworked and totally stressed middle-aged guys want to publicly indulge the silliest aspects of their childhood selves ? Maybe…its because they’re being invited to revisit a time in their lives before the weight of responsibility (to their work and to their family) kicked in, and began to crush them. Which is depressing, and it makes all the fluttery stuff beforehand about being the “ master” seem quite sad and ironic.

To repeat : the sexual dimension here – young girls in French maid outfits !- can’t be ignored, yet the more interesting point is that what goes on thereafter seems to be so resolutely asexual. I’d argue that it is this re-enactment of a highly idealised vision of childhood – supposedly an idyllic state of freedom from care – that is the dimension of ’kawaii’ that often gets lost in translation. The maid cafes do offer a form of escapism. And while Western outsiders tend to focus on what the customers are escaping to, it may be more scary to think about what these men are escaping from.

The definitive essay on the origins of kawaii is still this essay by the British academic Sharon Kinsella.

As she explains, the word ‘kawaii’ is of surprisingly recent origin, reportedly being derived in the 1970s from the likes of ‘ kawayushi’ and ‘kawayui’ – which, she says, mean ‘shy or “ embarrassed’ but also carry intimations of ‘pathetic’ ‘weak’ ‘vulnerable’ ‘small’ and ‘loveable.’ What’s being conveyed here is the pathos of innocence, where weakness pleads for mercy with big, funny eyes.

In particular, Kinsella traces the modern sense of kawaii to a teenage craze for a form of childish handwriting that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. One researcher called it “ Anomalous Female Teenage Handwriting.” Typically, cute handwriting consisted of rounded lettering bedecked with hearts, stars, and English words like “ love” and “ friend. ” Essentially :

Through cute handwriting, young people made the written Japanese language – considered to be the lynch-pin of Japanese culture – their own.

As Kinsella argues, the spread of cute-style handwriting was one element in a broader shift that was occurring in Japanese culture as fashion, retailing, mass media and advertising began to eclipse the traditional arts, crafts and literary traditions. Cute culture may not have been created by big business but – as also happened with the anti-materialist 1960s hippie youth culture in the West – it didn’t take very long for Japanese corporates to discover the commercial potential of cute culture, and to exploit it. From greeting cards to toys to clothing to adorable vacuum cleaners and daffy kitchen appliances, femininity became marketed as a fusion of the cute and the pathetic. Female inexperience– celebrated in endearingly bubbly and naïve ways – was depicted as highly desirable. The backlash against women whose real life behaviour differs from this image of endearing girlish virginity can still be extreme. And besides :

Cute style gave goods a warm, cheer-me-up atmosphere. What capitalist production depersonalises, the good cute design re-personalises. Consumption of lots of cute styled goods with powerful emotion-inducing properties could ironically disguise and compensate for the very alienation of individuals in contemporary society. Cuteness loaned personality and a subjective presence to otherwise meaningless – and often literally useless – consumer goods…Modern consumers might not be able to meet and develop relationships enough with people, but the implication of cute goods design was that they could always attempt to develop them through cute objects.

While visiting Tokyo in December, I’d been curious to find out whether – and how – cute culture may have evolved since Kinsella had written about it in the mid 1990s. Anecdotally, creative flamboyance was no longer quite as evident in the street culture of Harajuku. Had black now become the new black? On a brief visit, it proved impossible to generalize. Yet as one former local told me, the Lolitas on Harajuku bridge are now there mainly to pose for the tourists, and are no longer the trendsetters of street culture they once were.

One direction in which kawaii HAS evolved is in the so called “creepy cute” trend. In the main, this has been played out publicly among the mascots that various Japanese prefectures ( ie, local regions) have used to market themselves as tourism and business destinations. Funassyi – the pear shaped mascot of the city of Funabashi ( in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo) has been a highly successful trail-blazer since it was invented in 2011. Supposedly, Funassyi is the shrieking, head-banging fourth child of the 274 offspring of two ordinary pear trees.

Funassyi has its own anime show, released its own CD, starred at festivals and on TV, has its own merchandise store and has been mooted as the face of Japan for the 2020 Olympics. Significantly, Funassyi seems to inspire creepily diverse responses, from delight to what looks like sheer sadism. As this video clip shows, much fun can be had in terrorising the little blighter:

The cute/adorable aspects of kawaii are personal. The weird/loveable dimension of kawaii is external, and seems to be limited to the state and regional mascots. The success of Funassyi has ushered in a whole array of other, even odder mascots… Kumamon, a chunky black bear with blank, staring eyes surfaced in 2010 in a bid to publicise Kumamoto prefecture. The Bank of Japan has reportedly estimated that Kumamon earned 123 billion yen in the two years prior to 2014. That’s him (left) with Keanu Reeves.

Not every mascot story ends as happily. The Okaezemon mascot of Aichi prefecture seems to have been more successful at scaring local children than at scaring up tourism business. Last year, angry residents of the coastal city of Shima successfully campaigned for the removal of an anime-inspired mascot (meant to celebrate the local diving industry) that had been endowed with large breasts, a tight top and a skirt riding up over her thighs. Even worse….

Manbekun, the mascot of Oshamanbe town on Hokkaido, stirred a public backlash after tweeting its praise of Japan’s military role in instigating World War II. Manbekun is also a good example of the symbolic dimensions to some of these mascots. Outlandish cuteness is not the entire story. Allegedly, the erectness (or otherwise) of Manbekun’s topknot is supposed to reflect his physical health and wellbeing, the scissors are meant to deter evil spirits, and the drawn-on abs visible on its front are meant to convey its dedication to physical fitness etc etc…

The mascots have proliferated to the point where they now face a mass cull, if not outright extermination.

As the Japan Times has pointed out, a small city of 53,000 on the island of Hokkaido reportedly has one mascot for every 6,500 residents. Undaunted, the city officials have recently assembled a new, gigantic robot mascot – Ororon Robo Mebius – made up out of the spare parts of the town’s eight previous mascots. Elsewhere, things are no better:

In the major metropolis of Osaka, officials have stamped down on the wild proliferation of mascots, whose number had skyrocketed to 92, including special creations for everything from child care support services to tax payment campaigns. “We have decided to select Mozuyan, our oldest mascot, following doubts about the public relations impact of having too many of them,” an Osaka prefectural official explained. “The number has now fallen to 69 and there is no plan to create any new ones,” she assured, in a move that local media described as “virtual restructuring.”

Finally – and fittingly– the creepy mascot genre has also thrown up its own self-satirising figure in the shape of Gloomy Bear, a big pink creature with blood perpetually dripping from its paws and snout, a by-product of it constantly beating the crap out of its human owner, Pitty.

Amusing as the mascots may be, they are only a diversion. The deeper psycho-social anxieties reflected by kawaii imagery lie elsewhere. Not accidentally, those cute, adorably pathetic images of femininity became a media staple in the 1980s just as female participation in the work force began in earnest. Since then, a commercialised culture of feminine cuteness and a backlash of male resentment have become entwined. As Kinsella points out, an entire generation of overworked salarymen have been encouraged “to regard the source of their misery as the new generation of stroppy, decadent young women, who selfishly do what they wish, and make unreasonable demands of men….[The] greater involvement of young unmarried women in the labour force has been interpreted as another act of wilful selfishness on the part of women, who were accused of deliberately vying with men for good jobs, and simultaneously denying them marriage partners.”

How does kawaii imagery fit into this framework of blaming and shaming? By way of an answer, Kinsella makes an interesting comparison with US black culture. Just as a strand of US hip hop culture responded to the dominant culture’s stereotyping of blacks as being vain, immature, emotionally unstable and criminal by embracing the ‘nigger’ stereotype as a positive one that they could utilise…so have Japanese women done much the same with kawaii imagery, by embracing and exaggerating an infantilised view of themselves, and then exploiting it to their advantage :

Women debased as infantile and irresponsible began to fetishise and flaunt their shojo [girly] personality still more, almost as a means of taunting and ridiculing male condemnation and making clear their stubborn refusal to stop playing, go home and accept less from life. Popular examples true and false, of young women’s triumphal manipulation of men using their cute appearances as a bait, abounded in late 1980s Japan. Apparently, the cutest and most innocent –looking of young women were keeping several dates on the boil at once, in order to service their materialistic needs…

The brilliant horror film Audition (from the late 1990s) is a classic example of this anxiety-ridden perception. In Audition, a deceptively cute and demure young Japanese woman turns out to be a randomly murderous tormenter of a needy middle-aged male. Men, beware : perhaps cuteness is merely the cloak for a ravenous feminine appetite lurking within….

The cultural unease about changing gender roles in the workplace (and bedroom) is currently being played out within today’s ‘Abenomics’ era in Japan. One of the ‘arrows’ of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic reforms is supposed to be the increased participation by women in the paid workforce, along with a pay and promotion culture that fairly rewards their talents. Needless to say, the gap between the Abe rhetoric and the workplace reality is still enormous. As yet, the Abe government has shown no inclination to lead or support any campaign to relax the occupational pressures on men, to enable a fairer sharing of domestic chores and childcare that will be essential if female participation in the workplace is ever going to be anything more than token.

Am I overthinking this? On a less serious note, kawaii and its commercial expressions – from maid cafes to soft toys to J Pop stars like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and AKB48 – plainly do meet a popular need. They’re fun forms of escapism and emotional release, right? Yet even so….it is hard to applaud a cult of pre-pubescent innocence as healthy, for either men or women. In a country where the demands of work and the obligations to family are felt by so many to be so depressingly burdensome, adult life has sought a means of escape. In Japan, this involves a regression to a romanticised stage of life that’s seen as being innocent and virginal and above all, as blessedly carefree.

Obviously, that’s a mixed message. Exalting the infantile is not a desirable response in any adult. At best – and as mentioned – kawaii images function as a sexualised currency for young women in a society that still severely restricts their adult opportunities. There’s no easy path to national maturity. New Zealanders drink and shop for solace; Japan drinks, shops and regresses. Is one response any better or worse than the other ? Hello Kitty meanwhile, is never going to look quite the same to me.

5 Comments on The Cult of Cuteness

  1. Completely fascinating discussion of what I had until now been extremely confused by – all that simpering Stepford-girl stuff. Not good for anyone except the marketeers.

  2. Nah. You can’t try to analyse one aspect of a foreign culture without considering the rest. The gaps and things left out in this story to make a good story here are slightly disappointing, and it would take me more effort than I care to give on a Friday to correct you.

    You can’t look at this aspect of Japanese culture without looking at all the rest, including food (which is where you will here most calls of kawaii amongst modern Japanese). For example, the rise in mascots was driven by economics rather than anything else, as internal tourism is a huge driver in Japan.

    Still, good to see NZ media doing something other than staring at it’s bellybutton, and I mean that in a good way.

  3. @Chris
    Too bad you decided not to explain how the story fails. Especially since your sole example: ” the rise in mascots was driven by economics rather than anything else” was covered extensively, with Bank of Japan figures to boot. Maybe you were too busy on Friday to actually read the article ?

  4. I enjoyed the article, and the links provided. Well written and researched!
    Having been to Japan 3 times, it’s easy to see the commercial value of kawaii, and almost impossible to resist!

    Last visit, the cutesy black bear, Kumamon was the biggest money-spinner to date! ..”the most dangerous small animal in Japan – you could easily lose an arm and a leg in a marketplace..”.

    (FYI: I’m 60 yrs. old, married to a Kyoto woman).

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