A while back I posted an entertaining interview Adam Savage did with science writer Mary Roach.
Among the things that was talked about was Japanese Kawaii culture. Since I have an interest in most things Japanese it piqued my interest and I followed up on the discussion. I did a quick google search and came up with this article from Wired.
To anyone who knows Japan, the assumption seems apt. There, the pull of the cute is a powerful and omnipresent force. The Japanese are born into cute and raised with cute. They grow up to save money with cute (Miffy the bunny on Asahi Bank ATM cards), to pray with cute (Hello Kitty charm bags at Shinto shrines), to have sex with cute (prophylactics decorated with Monkichi the monkey, a condom stretched over his body, entreating, “Would you protect me?”).
They see backhoes painted to look like giraffes and police kiosks fixed up like gingerbread houses. Each of Japan’s 47 prefectures has its own adorable mascot, as do the Tokyo police and the government television station. Home-run-swatting ball players are handed a plush stuffed animal when they cross the plate. Well-heeled city women are dropping yen by the millions on a Kansai Yamamoto couture line called Super Hello Kitty. Teenage boys tattoo themselves with Badtz-Maru, the Sanrio company’s mischievous, lumpy-headed penguin. Salarymen otherwise indistinguishable with their gray suits and cigarettes buy novelty cell phone straps adorned with plastic charms of their favorite cute characters: Thunder Bunny, Cookie Monster, Doraemon the robot cat. Cute is everywhere. They’re soaking in it.
Acually what is now Kawaii culture isn’t really that old and dates back to the boom years of the 1970’s and 80’s. Which makes sense if you think about it. It’s sort of the same thing that happened as a result of the baby boom here where lots of kids had a big impact on how marketing and culture happened in the 1950’s and 60’s. A lot more young people meant that they would have an impact on how consumer products are marketed and who they are marketed too. As to why the emphasis on girl rather than boys may have been cultural.
Now I can’t be sure about what went on in Japan in the 1980’s during the boom years. But from some experience I can make some guesses. One thing is that teenage girls in Japan have a bit more freedom culturally than teenage boys do. Teenage boys in Japan are expected to be working toward careers, facing exam hell and pushing hard to find their place. For the most part girls don’t have those pressures. The pressures are to set up to become wives for the salarimen.
In the boom years of the 1980’s there was a lot of money flying around. and a lot of young ladies with money. So there were distinct advantages to marketing to that age group. There’s also the fact that Japan has a vibrant small knickknack, toy, injection molding and soft vinyl industry that make it easy to bring out diverse product when a trend starts. So it’s easy to load up the market with, well cute little things and fashions that are inexpensive. So the girls can buy a lot of it.
There’s also the religious habit in Japan of selling little good luck charms and such. You can’t visit a shrine or temple of any significance without running into a booth selling charms for things like the prevention of auto accidents, healthy children or good luck at work, all done in the latest styles. This is apparently a very old Japanese tradition. So right off the bat, Japanese kids are used to having little bits and charms around. The path to buying little cute things is very short, especially when it’s so very easy. More here.
History of kawaii
The modern term kawaii emerged in the 1970s when Japanese teenagers, mainly female, began using an informal and “cute” style of writing. This new style was more westernized than traditional Japanese, using a left-to-right format as well as many English terms. The writing was decorated with things such as hearts, happy faces and multiple exclamation marks. There were also many slang words created during this time by using childish pronunciations of regular words. This new “cute writing” and speaking was not well received by most adults and was even banned in some schools, being seen as a rebellion against traditional Japanese culture (Kinsella).
In the 1980s kawaii gained enormous popularity, dominating Japanese pop culture throughout the decade. Many young people felt that adulthood was too harsh and strict, requiring too much responsibility; they viewed it as a loss of freedom. Instead of rebelling by aggression or being sexually provocative as in the West, they rebelled by being cute and childlike, cherishing immaturity and fun.
Companies such as Sanrio (creators of Hello Kitty) and a few others decided to capitalize on this, and began experimentally by creating products that would appeal to this younger population. These kawaii products ended up being a huge success and were the beginning of a very large new industry in Japan. Cute goods were developed to add fun and happiness to ordinary household items, cute clothing was created to make adults look more childlike and foods such as ice cream, candies and cakes gained popularity, since they were associated with children (Kinsella). The use of kawaii characters was also to dress up otherwise non-enjoyable things such as dentist’s offices or medicine packages (Roach).
The 80s also saw the emergence of cute idols, such as pop singer/actress Seiko Matsuda, who is credited for greatly contributing to the popularity of kawaii culture. Matsuda made effective use of the burriko girl look to win the affection of males and the admiration of females. Burriko is defined as a “woman who acts like a child”, and Matsuda was excellent at this. She wore clothing that made her resemble a child in a woman’s body, was bow-legged and talked in the accent of a “Kyushu country bumpkin”. She used these aspects to her advantage, charming her audiences with her childish cuteness (Schilling). Matsuda paved the way for what would be a very female-driven kawaii culture in Japan;
other young women admired her independence and nonconformity and millions began to emulate her.
Japanese Women and kawaii
The major force behind the popularity of kawaii culture is that of Japanese women. As was mentioned earlier, the burriko style created by pop idol Seiko Matsuda was widely adopted by young women across the country. These women, who went through great lengths to mold their speech, dress and mannerisms to fit this style, embraced the idea of the helpless, submissive and cute look of a young girl. The burriko style also appealed to men in Japan as it could be related to the idea of lolicom, or Lolita complex. There is a phenomenon in the country of the little girl being seen as a sex object, as can be observed by the sale of schoolgirls’ panties in vending machines as well as pornographic magazines illustrating junior high school girls (Roach). Given this observation, it is possible to assume that the “childishness” of kawaii girls was not entirely innocent and it has been noted that many of these young women used this to their advantage, dating multiple boys who took them out to dinner and bought them fancy gifts.
The young women taking part in kawaii culture effectively evolved it into a form of power and independence for Japanese females. Many of them were unmarried and used it as a means to express their freedom from married life, which could be very oppressive and boring for Japanese women. These women, many of whom were O.L.s (office ladies) and had their own means of support, would spend a great deal of their income on the latest kawaii fashions. They became a subculture that valued consumerism and materialism, and were seen as rebels against the more conservative traditional Japanese society. Critics of kawaii accused many of its followers of being self-centered and avoiding growing up and becoming real adults. They felt that this younger culture did not have the betterment of society in their best interests due to their refusal to conform (Kinsella). This criticism did not affect the views of kawaii by young people, though, as seen in a poll administered by Sharon Kinsella in 1992. This poll showed that 71 percent of young adults in Japan between ages 18 and 30 liked or loved kawaii-looking people, while kawaii attitudes and behavior were enjoyed by 51 percent.
Though kawaii had most of its representation in Japanese females, the males in the country were also beginning to become involved. The “Peter Pan” syndrome began to afflict many Japanese men who wanted to be included in this return to youth. The presence of kawaii in today’s Japan shows a very large number of men participating in the phenomenon (Roach).
Kawaii Products In Present Japan
kawaii has gone from a smaller subculture in Japan to being an integral part of Japanese culture as a whole. There is an overwhelming amount of modern items featuring kawaii themes, ranging from anime and manga to actual municipal buildings. Mary Roach’s article on Japanese cuteness mentions All Nippon Airways’ decorating of three Boeing 747’s with Pokemon characters, inside and out, as well as “backhoes painted to look like giraffes and police kiosks fixed up like gingerbread houses.” Cuteness has also found its way onto items such as ATM cards, cellular phones and even prophylactics. It is believed that much of this increase of popularity in kawaii items is due to the Japanese tradition of gift giving. Many Japanese feel that kawaii gifts are best in business or guest situations where the items can make the atmosphere more fun. Formal gifts do not seem to be as effective at lightening the mood of an otherwise more serious atmosphere (Roach).
In many ways the Kawaii phenom
apan is heaven if you are into all things cute. It is the Mecca of kawaii culture! I am one of those typical Japanese girls who has a cute iPhone case, cute handbag, Hello Kitty accessories etc. Since I hardly see cute stuff in America, I get overly excited whenever I go to a local Japanese supermarket.
Cuteness is everywhere in Japan. When I visited my friends and sisters apartments, they decorated their rooms with all sorts of cute items. Their toothbrush holder had a cute mascot attached to it, my sister had different kinds of cute stuffed animal displayed on her piano. I love it but I must admit that it was a bit overwhelming after living in America for over ten years.
Cuteness doesn’t stop with just teenage girls in Japan. Almost all major companies in Japan have a cute mascot that represents the company. Even the Japanese police force has a mascot. One of the most successful global Japanese mascot character is one and only HELLO KITTY! It’s known as Kitty-Chan among Japanese people and is the symbol of modern Japanese popular culture.
Before moving to America, I didn’t even realize this aspect of Japan and it was definitely a culture shock for me, there are not many stores that sell cute products in America. But why are Japanese people so obsessed with everything cute?
Reason 1: Kawaii usually refers to small children, babies and small animals. They are helpless and need to be cared for. In a culture that values youth, both men and woman are attracted to anything youthful. Women want to appear youthful and Japanese men are attracted to young girls, just look at the popularity of bands like AKB48.
Reason 2: Japanese people work very long hours and they are under enormous social pressure. Cuteness is the total opposite of Japan’s harsh reality. My sister who works in IT says she enjoys going to stores full of cute products especially after working long overtime hours. Cuteness is cool and soothing for Japanese people and allows them an escape from the realities of their life.
Reason 3: Japan is collectively a society with a 12 year old’s mentality and for many there is a strong resistance to grow out of this prepubescent stage. As adults Japanese people are expected to conform to strict social norms and expectations. However as I mentioned above, children are always taken care of in Japanese society. Therefore to cope with the harsh realities of adulthood, many Japanese people seek the comfort of cuteness.
This article in the Wall Street Journal has some interesting insights into kawaii
1. Kawaii isn’t about perfection
Though kawaii design is usually associated with a roundness of composition, pastel colors and childlike facial proportions, aesthetic perfection is actually undesirable. Kazuhiko Hachiya, the designer of character goods PostPet, points out that if characters are too perfect, consumers greet them suspicion and unease. That explains why his hit kawaii characters, Momo and friends, have asymmetrical poses and aren’t immaculately cute.
Perhaps the drive for excellence and perfection is something that almost too overwhelming in Japanese culture. It not much of a surprise that a relief from being too perfect is needed.
2. Kawaii isn’t anything new
Kawaii culture developed largely as a result of the convergence of traditions adapting to modern times, and the appropriation and influence of Western culture, particularly after World War II. But its roots go even deeper: Many people consider its birth to be the beginning of the Taisho era (1912-1926), when designer Takehisa Yumeji made feminine items specifically marketed toward girls.
. Kawaii isn’t supposed to be sexy
In the 1990s, with the rise of Harajuku youth fashion and the influence of shojo (girls) manga and illustrators, kawaii became an ideal, something girls wanted to be. Rather than be pretty, sexy or glamorous, Japanese girls prefer to be called kawaii. As an adjective, the word commonly implies that something or someone is cute, sweet, endearing and innocent, but it can be used in a mind-boggling array of ways. In fact, girls in Japan will exclaim “kawaii!” so many times a day, and apply it in so many different contexts – often ironic – that to a foreigner it may seem like their repertoire in vocabulary is somewhat limited!
In a way this may be a response to the fact that Japanese girls can’t meet the Western beauty standards that are marketed at them. Here’s some examples.
I’m not sure that a super model sitting on classic Buick in front of Grand Central Terminal in NYC is something that Japanese women can aspire to.
4. Kawaii isn’t static
While kawaii culture has been around in Japan for roughly a hundred years, it is constantly mutating into new directions, thus retaining its appeal to a fickle consumer demographic. Increasingly, kawaii is teamed with words that might seem like its antithesis: take ero-kawaii (erotic cute), kimo-kawaii (creepy cute) and guro-kawaii (grotesque cute). In the past five years or so, hit products such as Gloomy, a pink homicidal bear often depicted attacking his owner, are the opposite of what we might
Each new generation of girls wants there own stamp on kawaii. That forces the constant drive for new trends. And the process goes on.
. Kawaii isn’t confined to Japan
These days it isn’t just Japanese people that have an all-encompassing love of kawaii: fans of the culture are popping up globally, from the Japan Expo in Paris, HARAJUKU KAWAii!! at London’s HYPER JAPAN event, and San Francisco’s J-Pop Summit Festival. As for whether it will become more than a subculture overseas, we’ll have to wait and see.
No fashion trend is. Designers are always looking for new ideas. Going to Japan and doing a walkthrough in Harajuku can’t help but give a designer a ton of new things to think about. There’s also the fact that most women are not supermodels and can’t dress like them. They want alternative fantasies.
The culture of cute has taken over Japan and has escaped it’s traditional boundaries. ANA had three aircraft in Pokémon paint schemes and has had other aircraft painted in various amine and other schemes. Eva air has a “Hello Kitty” painted plane for maximum kawaii much to the chagrin of the ground crews at airports who have to service it.
British expat and son of shoe designer Jimmy Choo, Danny Choo has been blogging about kawaii culture and it’s opposite side, otaku culture on his blog, culture Japan for some time now.
He’s even started a doll company. Which is just one more contribution to the culture of kawaii.
Here’s a stack of links for Kawaii related stuff.
Kawaii can have a dark side. It’s not just weird characters and strange things.
Sometimes things go too far.
Like anything involving young girls and their insecurities kawaii is ripe for exploitation. When something involves real people rather than cute toys, like the idol that populate Jpop, cute can become something rather ugly.
Kawaii, regardless of it’s dark or light sides, doesn’t appear to be going away. Driven by the constant need for something new that modern societies demand, It looks like the culture will only grow. But that’s the way things have been in Japan for a very long time. To finish this up, here’s a flikr album of stuff that in one way or another is sort of Kawaii. Enjoy.