In other words, the obsession for all things kawaii.
But why? Why this kawaiso (pathetic) love for all things adorable?
Cuteness is probably the first thing most young people in the West associate with Japan. After all, if you’re about my age, we all grew up in Japan’s emergence as a cultural exporter. Japan is no longer primarily seen as the country of traditional Asian values or corporate drones (salarymen); we think of pikachu or Hello Kitty when we think of Japan. We think of Japanese schoolgirls (kogyaru) in their sailor uniforms with teasingly short (but not too short) skirts and loose socks.
But where did cuteness or kawaii come from? And why is it so appealing, even to those outside of Japan?
As usual, a quick history lesson! Kawaii didn’t really begin to emerge until the 1970s. It’s interesting to note that Japanese dictionaries did not even have the word kawaii as you see it:
The term kawaii appears in dictionaries printed in the Taisho to 1945 period as kawayushi. In dictionaries printed after the war until around 1970 kawayushi changed into kawayui, but the meaning of the word remained the same. — Sharon Kinsella, “Cuties in Japan”
So as you can see, kawaii was really only derived from older terms that primarily meant ‘shy’ or ‘embarassed.’ Their secondary meanings, however, included familiar kawaii traits such as ‘darling,’ ‘small’ and ‘lovable.’
To accompany the emergence of the word kawaii in everyday usage, Japanese schoolgirls started a craze known as “kitten writing” around 1974. It became “nationwide” in 1978, and by 1985, Kinsella believes “that upwards of five million young people were using the new script.” The new writing style was no longer vertical; horizontal, full of rounded characters and English words sprinkled here and about, it’s amazing to realize that an entire industry of cuteness, worth millions (perhaps billions) of dollars, sprung up around schoolgirls passing notes to one another.
‘It’s got a kind of cute feel.’
‘I think it’s cute and it’s my style.’
‘I think these letters are the cutest.’
‘Cute! They are hard to read but they are so cute I use them.’ — Yamane
Japanese language didn’t just get a cosmetic makeover. Japanese schoolgirls also started to use slang to denote cuteness. Some used katchoii instead of kakkoii, “mimicking the speech of a toddler incapable of adult pronunciation.” Slang also became euphemistic as sex was popularly referred to as nyan nyan suru. It’s obvious that the trend sprouted from a desire for all things immature and infantile and thus a rejection of adulthood and the responsibilities associated with it.
And as expected of all youth counterculture, a huge industry sprung up overnight to capitalize on the young market. Hello Kitty started out as a marketing device for Sanrio’s silk trade. Hoping to appeal to girls and their newfound purchasing power (thanks to Japan quicky rising through the ranks as a first world nation), Sanrio had hoped to personalize their products with the simple drawing of a cat we all recognize and love (or hate).
Unexpected but perhaps unsurprising, Hello Kitty became far more popular than the silk products it was designed to help sell. Ever since then, Hello Kitty’s visage can be found on practically everything, from pencils to kitchen appliances to–yes, you heard right–even sex toys.
Cuteness was lending a personality to otherwise lifeless objects. Perhaps most disturbing of all is that kawaii became a devious tool for capitalism, particularly Japanese capitalism. Consider one of the most powerful symbols of the capitalist production process: the assembly line. For obvious reasons, we can’t just produce most stuff by hand anymore: demand and production costs are too high with profit margins too low. Hand-crafted items by skilled artisans tend to be higher in quality because most craftsmen are proud and in love with their work. Unfortunately, this reality is easily sacrificed for bigger production yields and thus more money. The assembly line can churn out duplicate items at speeds that human hands can never hope to accomplish. At the same time, however, the assembly line is cold and robotic. Its process is perhaps beautiful in its logic and perfection, but the produced item itself becomes sterile and lifeless. Now, it becomes apparent why cuteness or kawaii was so easily embraced by corporations. Cuteness obviously appeals to young people, particularly schoolgirls, but it also re-personalizes what the capitalist machine depersonalizes.
Pointless shit we use everyday without thought, i.e. pencils and erasers, suddenly now have a personality. They’re kawaii! But at the end of the day, it’s just a goddamn pencil, right?
Items became small, round, cuddly and usually pink. There’s nothing particularly wrong about using stuff that is cute, but one should be aware of how big powerful entities are using cuteness to manipulate our feelings and desires. These big entities include corporations but also yakuza groups and government agencies.
Take the yakuza-runned pachinko parlors, the Japanese equivalent to slot machines. Slot machines of Las Vegas, however, evoke a cold, mechanical image: slip a few coins in, pull the lever, and watch as the casino sucks away your money slowly over the next few hours. Accompany that exciting sequence of events with a cacophony of ringing bells and garish lights. The pachinko parlor experience is really no different, but it at least pretties up the outside with cute animals and whatnot with the intention of appealing to women. What was previously cold and lifeless now has a personality!
See also this ad for the Japanese post office. We think of the post office as just another government building full of disgruntled, rude employees (despite a lot of pension benefits), but again, cuteness is employed in a way to disguise and deceive. The above example might not seem so bad to most of us, but consider Pipo-kun, the mascot for the police.
Using “authority cuteness,” the Japanese police softens its image with some… kinda bear thing? I dunno what Pipo-kun is, but it’s quite evident what Pipo-kun does. Fin referenced a few civil rights violations in her article on rape games; the police in Japan is hardly an innocent bunch of crime-fighting, justice-upkeeping men (and some women). Cuteness, however, disguises some of those ugly warts and imperfections and this is exactly why Pipo-kun or other uses of “authority cuteness” should be a worry.
Authority cuteness attempts to make power relations invisible by infantilizing the image of a company, government agency, and similar institutions. — Fruhstuck
We love our “army of one” schtick in recruitment ads in America. For Japan, we are asked to join a warmongering organization to save a puppy. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with cuteness, but we must nevertheless be wary of its uses in the grand scheme of things. Advertising is all about shaping public perceptions and the military has obvious agendas.
The critique of cuteness doesn’t end at its insidious usage by the powers of authority, however. Cuteness is destructive in a way.
Although the gaze we turn on the cute thing seems maternal and solicitious, it is in actuality a transformative gaze that will stop at nothing to appease its hunger for expressing pity and big heartedness, even at the expense of mutilating the object of its affections. — D. Harris, “Cuteness”
What is particularly characteristic of Pokemon are their huge eyes, stubby little limbs, inability to utter anything but their own name, and lack of genitals. They are made into babies, mutilated for our own satisfaction, devoid of any sort of maturity or complexity. But you probably will protest at this point: “They’re for kids! It’s innocent!” Recall, from one of the “This World Is Corrupt” entries, how anime fans feel about Mio from K-on!:
What is especially funny about the otaku and moe in general is how anime evokes the “big brother” in people by stripping female anime characters down to an infantile state, inducing moe. Diminutive (Taiga), shy and easily frightened (Mio), hopelessly awkward (Rei), etc.–these are mega character flaws that mutiliate the female characters into something that requires protection, your protection, the big flabby arms of the otaku.
The final critque of cuteness is its status as a subculture that promotes the inability to function in society and the rejection of adult responsibilities. In a way, it reflects Japan’s current status as the younger sibling of the United States. Constant US military occupation of Japan represents the country’s infantile and immature inability to protect itself. Aggressive US corporate culture has turned Japan away from its own roots, becoming instead a slave to desires and urges fueled by the capitalist market. For example, the youth subculture for cuteness dares to oppose adulthood, particularly Japanese adulthood, but in order to do so, it simply becomes another consumer for the corporations to exploit. People are turning away from adult responsibilities to be satiated by “cuteness” instead, turning into babies governed by impulses and urges.
What did I hope to accomplish with this article? No doubt that male fans will continue to revel in the abject helplessness of the next moe sensation. And neither will girls stop adoring dumb and clumsy puppies. Human nature is difficult to change. At the same time, however, we should always be aware of the implications of our actions. We should always make an informed decision, even if it ends up being the wrong decision. After all, ignorance is a shame.
Don’t let cuteness deceive you.