Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Japan's Kawaii Culture Into Question

What does the overflow of cuteness say about contemporary Japanese society?

Before coming to Japan, my impression on things kawaii (in Japanese かわいい, or more rarely 可愛い, a word that means “cute, kind, adorable”) was relatively neutral. I would just look at it with amusement, as another one of those unique cultural quirks that Japan seems to often come up with. Upon my arrival there, though, I discovered that the omnipresence of kawaisa (可愛さ, which would translate as something like “cuteness”) within Japanese society was far more prominent than what I had ever imagined: to put it simply, let's say that there's no single aspect of daily life in Japan that is not affected by the implacable wind of cuteness that has been blowing for almost thirty years now. 

Hello Kitty is perhaps the most famous kawaii figure in the West.

For in Japan, the kawaii wave is far from being limited to an audience of kids who eventually get tired of it when growing old. One of high school girls' favorite activities is to take pictures of themselves in “purikura” photobooths that make their eyes bigger and sparkly, University of Tokyo students and salarymen in suits alike proudly sport cellphone straps in the shape of such famous cuties as the robot-cat Doraemon, Hello Kitty or Rilakkuma (the new kawaii idol), whereas toy dogs forced to wear pink clothes, sometimes carried and pushed in baby-cars by their owners, can be seen everywhere around Tokyo. Whether you're buying food, medicine or condoms (no kidding), there has to be something cute on the packaging. My UFG credit card has Winnie the Pooh on it. In a famous example of kawaii madness, one can also think about the All Nippon Airlines airplanes flocked with Pokémon characters and offering a truly kawaii Pokémon experience on board (http://www.ana.co.jp/eng/flights/pokemonjet/main.html). Even symbols of officialdom and solemnity have a cute mascot character these days: every city, monument, museum or organization of any sort must go the kawaii way, and this goes as far as including the Tokyo Police or religious, sacred sites such as Mount Kouya, Wakayama Prefecture, the heart of Japanese spirituality. Can you imagine the Smithsonian Museum, the Notre-Dame cathedral or the LAPD with such mascot characters? Probably not. 

Pipo-kun is Tokyo Police's mascot.  Connoisseurs would find a likeness with the Russian Cheburashka...

Kouyakun is the mascot of Japan's most sacred site. This looks wrong... (picture from persimmonous.jp)
This is indeed a very Japanese phenomenon. True, the kawaii culture has started to expand within other East-asian nations and even to a lesser extent in the West, but not on the same scale and not in such an extreme way. As I said it earlier, in Japan all aspects of the society are affected, even the way people behave, as kawaii translates into fashion or language. The word “kawaii” itself has become so common an utterance as to be applied to almost anything – actually, even something ugly can be considered “kawaii” through such nice words as “busukawaii” (ugly/cute) or “kimokawaii” (weird/cute). A little baby is kawaii, a grandma is kawaii, a cat is kawaii, a strawberry is kawaii... This leads to a natural question: Why is cuteness so big in Japan?

Causes of the kawaii culture's overwhelming prominence in Japan

Let's get back to the meaning of the word « cute ». Why do we find something cute in the first place? The definition seems to be loose, though there are some patterns, some cues that help to understand why people fall for cute things. An article by the New York Times in January 2006 states:

« Cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, scientists say, and attending to them closely makes good Darwinian sense. As a species whose youngest members are so pathetically helpless they can't lift their heads to suckle without adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire. »

In other words, we – as human beings - feel an attraction to anything that evokes fragility, weakness, childhood: thus the big eyes, big heads and childlike features of all the popular kawaii characters. But this alone would not explain why the phenomenon is bigger in Japan than elsewhere in the world. There must be particular causes, inherent to the Japanese society, something deep-rooted that causes Japanese people in general to like cute things more. 

Momochan was the star of Kichijouji's cat café... I'll definitely write an article about that.
My first intuition, when I started to think about this issue after some time in Japan, was that the taste for kawaii arose in the 1980s as something totally opposite and alien to the stressful, mundane and overwhelming responsibilities of adult life. In a country where economic growth was an obsession and where workers were expected to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the society as a whole, the economic bubble burst of the late 1980s that led Japan into the "Lost Decade" depression gave rise to a feeling of dislike and fear toward the adult working life. Therefore, the kawaii culture, a reminder of childhood and eternal youth, appeared as one of innocence, the symbol of a life without obligations, a life of purity, of hope and possibility. Unstained, contrary to the dreadful existence of, say, a typical salaryman. The unprecedented economic depression and the particularly hard working conditions in Japan (with overwork being the norm), the pressure put on the shoulders of people at a very young age, all those reasons would explain why a naive world like the kawaii one appears as a loveable refuge from the past-paced and merciless real life.

Also, there is in the Japanese language a somewhat unique concept known as amae (甘え). There is hardly any satisfying translation for this word coined by the Japanese psychanalyst Doi Takeo, but Wikipedia gives the following definition: « the behavior of a person attempting to induce an authority figure, such as a parent, spouse, teacher or boss, to take care of him ». The article adds: « Doi explains that amae is the noun form of amaeru, an intransitive verb which he defines as "to depend and presume upon another's benevolence." It indicates, for Doi, "helplessness and the desire to be loved." » Amae is thus at work when a child cries and begs for something from his parents, for example. It's a desire to be at the center of attention, an instinct to reveal one's own fragility and willingness to depend on someone else. The underlying idea is also that, contrary to what happens in the West where parents consider such behaviour to be childish and try to refrain it, this type of behaviour lasts into adulthood in Japan and is a pervasive element of social relations. The link between this and the success of kawaii culture could be that as childish attitudes are tolerated and commonplace to some extent, and as a double-edged dependency/'parental attitude' relationship pattern is deemed normal, the attraction for cute things is a direct consequence. The empathy toward a fragile and dependent cute character, and the need to care for such a weakling, are thus combined to make kawaii irresistible. And desirable.

Other theories, arguably more sensitive, are also worth of interest and insist on the structural, even cultural causes behind the emergence of the kawaii culture. Alex Kerr, in his fascinating 2001 essay Dogs and Demons, after describing how the Japanese society infantilizes its own people because of an old obsession with control over everything (think about bonsai as the extreme control of nature, for example), quotes the writer Fukuda Kiichiro:

« One could say that social control in Japan has come to invade the private realm to an extreme degree. Of course "control" does not take place if we have only people who want to control. It's a necessary condition to also have a majority of people who wish to be controlled. It's the same mechanism that sociologists call "voluntary subjugation." That is, people who wish to be controlled struggle to bring about control over themselves. It's related to the fact that children in high schools and students in universities never tire of having their teachers advise them what to do. Japanese college students are not adults who bear rights and responsibilities - they should all be called "children." »
A typical Japanese adult according to Fukuda's view

I think the idea here is quite clear, though a bit extreme: if you teach people to be like children, then do not be surprised to see them acting as such. According to this view, the problem thus resides in the post-war educational system, a really strict, discipline-based system which does not encourage students to stand up or think ouside the box. The emergence of the kawaii culture, when also adding the other reasons talked about above, would then be a collateral consequence of it.

An interesting and insightful contribution to this issue is made by contemporary artist Murakami Takashi, known for his « superflat » aesthetics and widely known abroad as the pinnacle of contemporary Japanese culture. The emerging recognition of kawaii culture worldwide is greatly due to his fame, but his opinion on it, though he embraces it, seems ambiguous. His idea is that since World War II, Japan has been « emasculated »; Japan has become a little boy compared to the United States of America. The fact that the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 was codenamed « Little Boy » would then be the symbol of a self-realizing prophecy (in 2005, Murakami curated in New York an exhibit called “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture”). The idea of Japan's infantilization appears again here, with at the core of it the trauma of World War II. 

Murakami exhibited some of his works in the Versailles castle at the end of last year
Another artist, Japanese-born New York-based Torimitsu Momoyo, rejects the kawaii aesthetics, and yet she brings a simple but meaningful comment to the debate. When asked by The Japan Times in 2007 what her opinion on Japanese art scene was, she had this answer:

« In Japan, there seems to be a certain movement or school, in the tradition of nihonga [Japanese-style painting] schools. I'd call it a school of anime-like works or kawaii-type [cute] works. Or we might call it the "[Takashi] Murakami School." He trained in nihonga, so it makes sense. »

I like this comment because it replaces kawaii at the core of what is above all an art movement, a « school », just like, say, impressionism was, without the whole ideological and sociological whiff that other commentators would express. Every art movement is born from a particular social and historical context, but sometimes it is good to distinguish art for what it is and the overall context in which it was born. In other words, any attempt at understanding the kawaii culture is not necessarily a crusade againt cuteness and the various forms it takes.

However, I do think that this modern obsession with cuteness and the idealization of childhood in general has its dark sides – in other words, the kawaii wave does not only have causes, it also has consequences, some of them a bit suprising or disturbing.

Valuing innocence too much may not be that innocent...

The idealization of childhood creates a context in which its eroticization can take place. The term erokawaii describes something which is at the same time cute and sexy, but this usually applies to grown-up women or girls in their late teens and therefore can be interpreted as a Japanese version of Western «sexyness» (there is a common idea among Japanese girls that their beauty is of a different kind than the Western one, that they are 'cute' rather than 'beautiful'). However, another term refers to the eroticization of children: lolita complex (commonly lolicon) and its variant with little boys shotacon. Lolicon is a sexual deviance but also a subculture that flourishes legally, mainly through underground comic books with explicit sexual depictions involving characters who are visibly underage. This tendency is marginal but such products are nevertheless easily accessible as many Akihabara shops, for example, sell them in their adult sections (and by adult sections, I mean 5-story shops). It's a real market, and even in mainstream cultural products (video games, animés), including children in the cast (for example in dating simulation games) has become usual. 

Card Captor Sakura builds on an eroticized vision of childood, even if everything remains underlying. It has inspired countless amateur doujinshi with sexual content...
Concurrently, another trend which has a limited but existing audience is the production of magazines, photobooks or DVDs involving children under 15 in relatively erotic situations, but without explicit acts shown and in which their intimacy is not revealed. Still, in the adult section of some shops, it is quite common to find DVDs featuring 12-year old little girls in bikini chewing slowly on a banana or similar things. Though not illegal, this kind of material clearly aims at arousing the viewer in a sexual way (they are sold near standard porn DVDs, after all), and it is arguable that those children are exploited in a mercantile fashion by their parents without being able to say no.

As seen in Akihabara by myself.

I'm not saying that Hello Kitty is a child molester, but I'm just wondering whether an idealization of childhood and child-like attitudes or features, when taken to an extreme, is not, somehow, a legitimate subject of concern.
Yet, as Metropolis Magazine reports, relayed by Japan Today's website : «there were 754 reported cases of sexual abuse [in Japan] in 2000, compared to 89,500 in the United States. This could, however, be due to underreporting, or the fact that the official age of consent can be 13 in some places.» It is true that underreporting might explain the surprisingly low figures for Japan, but the difference is so significant that in the end, it seems undeniable that Japan is much less concerned by sexual abuse than the US, despite an apparent laxity towards the regulation of kid-related erotic material.

The main problem of this whole kawaii trend may actually be that if we're to believe the arguments about 'infantilization' (and there is, to some extent, probably some truth to them), this would mean that the other important issues that face the country (an aging and declining population, an astronomical public debt, heavily artificial financial rules, an obsession with industry over services that prevents growth and innovation) won't be addressed in a straight-forward way by the new generation as long as it finds a way to escape adult reality instead of changing it. The bureaucracy can then keep on prospering and deepening the gravity of the nation's urgent ills, diverting people's attention by giving them panem et circenses, or more accurately discipline and cuteness... 

The most kawaii window ever...

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