Sunday, June 18, 2006


Cute in Japan

Longtime readers know that we've speculated on the spread of Japanese kawaii as a global sensibility. If you need a reminder, just take a look at the discussion that followed last year's post on Gwen Stefani, who even attempted to use the word kawaii in her Harajuku song.

An AP article from Tokyo by reporter Yuri Kageya goes over much of the same territory. Some of the points are interesting to note given what we've all discussed in the past. The article opens with the claim that many Japanese are doing some soul searching, fully aware the cuteness is starting to represent the primary way in which global eyes view Japan.

But the prevalent obsession with things cute has the world's second biggest economy engaging in some serious soul-searching lately, wondering what exactly is making its people gravitate so frantically toward cuteness. A big reason for the emerging debate: Cute-worship is gaining such overseas acceptance it's rapidly becoming Japan's global image.

"Cute is a boom. This style has suddenly become a fashion element among youths around the world," said Shuri Fukunaga, managing director at Burson-Marsteller in Japan, who advises global companies about communication and marketing. "Marketers in Japan are seeing this and are adept at churning out products that incorporate this style for overseas."

I thought this was rather interesting, and it reminded me of a blog post I read a while back from a Japanese girl who had gone to see the Gwen Stefani concert and wondered if kawaii (and in her mind wimpy) girls were going to be the main impression people had of Japan.

The article also touches on the whole is-manga-an-accurate-representation-of-Japan debate.

Skeptics here say Japan's pursuit of cute is a sign of an infantile mentality and worry that Japanese culture -- historically praised for exquisite understatement as sparse rock gardens and ukiyoe woodblock prints -- may be headed toward doom.

I rather liked the response that one expert gave to the above argument.

On the other side of the argument stands Tomoyuki Sugiyama, author of "Cool Japan," who believes cute is rooted in Japan's harmony-loving culture.

Collecting miniatures such as mementos for cell phones can be traced back 400 years to the Edo Period, when tiny carved "netsuke" charms were wildly popular, said Sugiyama, president of Digital Hollywood, a Tokyo school for computer-graphics designers, video artists and game creators.

"Japanese are seeking a spiritual peace and an escape from brutal reality through cute things," he said.

So how about it, Japundits? What do you think is the reason behind the kawaii aesthetic? Yes, I'm sure some of you think this is a moot question, but for anyone who finds the debate interesting, I'd be curious to hear from you.

I have my own opinions, of course. I don't, for example, think that kawaii is such a new thing in Japan, though I do think the global awareness of it has heightened. I also think that while in contemporary American culture having "attitude" is seen as a highly desireable, this, along with sarcasm, cynicism and irony, just aren't as important in Japan. Every now and then, someone in the States will say to me, "But, do they really think that all that stuff is cute? Do they really mean it?" And I saw that they really do. This is often hard for people to accept, for woe betide the American who operates through an urban environment without a touch of cynicism. To do so is to be oh so very unsophisticated.

It's common for Americans -- indeed for any country -- to focus on the most contrasting parts of another culture. Numerous people I've met who have never been to Japan, or have only been on a sheltered trip involving translators and expensive hotels, know about the brief (and I might add not terribly popular) semi-trend in which girls' underwear was sold in vending machines to pervy men. Few people seem to know anything about the beauty and depth of long-standing traditions like Obon, which, in my mind, really define what the culture is all about. But this isn't surprising. I've been dealing with anti-American sentiment overseas for years (which is usually punctuated by an eye-rolling "But you're different, of course, Marie.")

Despite all the stereotypes of Asians as being devoid of emotion, Japan has had a long tradition of valuing mono no aware (cue Tale of Genji) and appreciating those with deep sensitivity and emotional openness. Cynicism, irony and sarcasm do exist in Japan. But in general, these kinds of attitudes get in the way of being emotinally open and playful which, to my mind, is the heart of what it means to be kawaii. Yes, the latter has a dark side. But what doesn't?

A version of the above was originally posted at Japundit, where you can read the comments.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


Pink Eye and the Center of the World

Fun title for a book, eh?

I've been home sick for the better part of a week and woke up a few mornings ago with an eye glued shut. I'll spare you the details, but will just say that it is awful to be sick and to not be able to see. Most of the time when I have a cold, I pass the time by reading or knitting. Not so in this case. As it is, only one eye is really working this morning.

On to more pleasant matters.

A couple of days ago I woke up from a feverish sleep to hear cars honking with an urgency that is unusual even by New York standards. I looked out the window and managed to make out a fleet of cars draped in red and white checkered flags. Then it dawned on me. The World Cup had started.

I do not live in what could be considered the most physically beautiful neighborhood in the world, but it certainly has to be one of the most interesting. For starters, Queens is the world's most diverse city, and during World Cup time, I'm reminded of just how many countries are represented in my little area. The red and white checkered flag belonged to the Croatians, who were playing the Brazilians that day. The latter team won, and so all day long groups of people (and cars) dressed in green, yellow and blue ran around shouting and screaming at each other. The Croatians, not to be outdone, hung around the Croatian bar and sang.

Yesterday cars bearing the Spanish flag drove around the neighborhood honking for, as I'm sure you know, Spain won against Poland (I think).

I don't know who will play and win today, but am sure I'll see yet another flood of colors beneath my window (assuming this eye doesn't fog up again). I don't really remind this. It sort of cheers me up in my Cyclops state. And it is certainly better than the last World Cup which took place in Asia; all the games (and the victories) took place deep in the night or early in the morning, so that, like clockwork, we were regularly woken up around 3, 5 and 7 AM.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


The Well Dressed Dog

wafu doggie

I was excited to find an upscale dog shop in Osaka, complete with doggie yukatas and wa-fu beds. This "model" is showing off his (her?) seasonal garb and a nicely covered dog bed.
wafu dog
An interior view of this dog bed reveals a nice little floor of tatami, so dogs will not feel left out of the whole experience of tatami beneath their feet. This is especially important as summer approaches.
dog yukatas
I was admiring this nice stack of dog yukatas when a saleswoman came by to "help" me. She asked me what size my dog is. When I said I wasn't sure, she began to produce different models and asked me to try to figure out which one most closely represented my dog's size (I have cats). With the help of a friend, we finally agreed on one particular dog, and she began to dress this model in different designs. Nearby, a real live dog was being kitted out with a pink terry cloth robe from which protruded a pair of angelic wings.
winning dog
I finally settled on this yukata for my "model" dog. We all agreed that the embroidered goldfish made all the difference, and that the color would do well on any dog coloring. I had been thinking of a blue happi coat, but decided against this as it might not show up so well against the dark coat of my (imaginary) dog. I expressed some concern that the embroidered gold-fish you see here might be outdated -- after all, goldfish were a big deal last summer and who's to say they will be popular again? But the saleswoman assured me that gold-fish are expected to be hot this year and that with this yukata, I would be purchasing the newest design.

What can I say? I broke down and bought the little yukata. I couldn't help it. No, I don't need it and it added to my luggage, but there must be someone out there who dresses their dogs and who needs a little kimono to add to their collection.

Originally posted at Japundit where you can see the comments.

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