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.

From an American point of view, when I think of Japanese culture, I think about technology products or innovative cars. I guess I also have imagery of business men in the three-piece-suit going to work on overcrowded mass-transit systems.

Never thought of cute when I think of Japan.

I have noticed that the media only provides us a small snapshot view of any given culture or country and fails to take in everything at once.
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