The Cult of Cuteness

In other words, the obsession for all things kawaii.

Cool beans, dude.

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.

Loose socks.

But where did cuteness or kawaii come from? And why is it so appealing, even to those outside of Japan?

Hello Kitty contacts? Are you serious?

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.

Passing notes started it all.

‘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.

From the movie Kamikaze Girls. I recommend it.

From the movie Kamikaze Girls. I recommend 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).

Disturbing.

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.

Pussy for the pussy?

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.

Rawr.

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?

Cute stuff.

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.

Cute pachinko designs.

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!

Post office ad.

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.

A weeaboo and his friend.

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

Japanese military recruitment poster.

Japanese military recruitment poster.

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.

Essentially babies.

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!:

There’s just something about these girls that makes you want to hug and protect them, and in the end isn’t that what moe is all about?

Uguu~

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.

Utterly pathetic.

Utterly pathetic.

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.

Hello Kitty skull owns.

Don’t let cuteness deceive you.

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17 thoughts on “The Cult of Cuteness

  1. NinjaYali

    See there’s one thing I don’t get if otakus are so attracted to Mio if they want to ‘protect her’. In the anime she’s been shown as perfectly capable of protecting herself with her fists of fury if worse comes to worse. It’s one of the reasons why she’s able to handle Ritsu (even if it’s played for the laughs)

    And seriously, am I the only anime fan immune to cuteness?

    Even when I was watching pokemon I always preferred the stronger 3rd level pokemon like Tyrannitar or a legendary like Zapdos over the over rated Pikachu.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      Protecting herself from Ritsu is one thing. She also suffers from crippling fears and panic attacks for honestly no reason other than to make her cute. But why isn’t being a talented songwriter, singer and guitar player cute enough?

      Even when I was watching pokemon I always preferred the stronger 3rd level pokemon like Tyrannitar or a legendary like Zapdos over the over rated Pikachu.

      That’s the point though. In general, cute can’t be strong (I know some anime subverts this trope). Of course you wouldn’t pick Pikachu to fight real battles. Cute is childish, a baby, etc. If cute was capable, it wouldn’t be (as) cute. By itself, there’s nothing wrong with cuteness, but people tend to take it too far. Cute can become a destructive gaze. It’s one thing to give a female character a strange quirk to make her cute like maybe biting her nails when she’s nervous. As a character flaw, it’s pretty harmless unless she’s literally tearing into her fingers. It’s another thing, however, to make a girl cute by having her cower at the sight of barnacles.

      Reply
      1. LinGaiVa

        Actually come to think of it, I did get beaten by a pikachu but that was a well trained one and at lv 100.

        Though to me cuteness is just an artstyle and it seems to sell hence why there’s mascots.

        But back to Mio’s fear. At least from my interpretation when I was watching the show it’s less to do with pandering but more part of the recurring jokes between her and Ritsu. Ritsu scares her over something, Mio gets back at her through violence. I can’t see how her reaction to barnacles, blood etc and sudden artstyle change is cute, I just see it as hilarious slapstick stuff.

        So otakus get turned on by shy girls with phobias? I thought they always only focused on appearance. I’ll never understand them.

        Or maybe it’s cause I only got into moe shows last year because they made me laugh and not cause I found the characters attractive.

        Reply
        1. E Minor Post author

          I can’t see how her reaction to barnacles, blood etc and sudden artstyle change is cute, I just see it as hilarious slapstick stuff.

          I don’t remember where I found this quote but:

          Perhaps the best trait about Mio is her fragile nature, which is an obvious contrast to her usually mellow image. Never have I found cowering and curling up in fear to be so adorable to watch.

        2. LinGaiVa

          *scratches head*

          *looks at youtube*

          *looks south*

          Nope, I don’t get what’s so attractive about girls cowering in fear.

          *thinks it over*

          Guess I don’t understand these otakus as well as I thought. Well back to downloading music.

      2. Flat

        “It’s another thing, however, to make a girl cute by having her cower at the sight of barnacles.” To be honest I absolutely hate barnacles. I think having small phobias are normal, but to evoke the effect of wanting to protect that person seems kinda wrong. I think helplessness is made a dominant trait of many characters because they need easy ways for the protagonist to save them. Anime is a really different type of media because of the subculture it tends to. It would be absolutely amazing if they could get over the fan service and use it to tell stories that are actually worth my time. Most of these animes seem to be pure fantasy to satisfy Otaku’s sexual and romatic satisfaction because they are more than likely sexually and socially frustrated.

        Reply
        1. LinGaiVa

          Protecting?

          To be honest if I saw a girl cowering at the sight of barnacles I’d feel like Ritsu as well and pranking her for the laughs. Maybe put a barnacle or two on her eyes when she’s asleep, take a photo and show it to her later. Actually, helplessness seems to evoke in me as well as everyone else I know a need to bully rather then protect. Value dissonance with Japanese males?

          Also, if you want stories 100% free of fanservice watch anything by Hayao Miyazaki. There’s a reason why Disney dubs them as they really are family entertainment. Although keep in mind there’s a quite a bit of author polemic in most of them.

          And finally how hard can it be for them to find a date. Just blind date the lot of the KyoAni otakus with the numerous KyoAni yuri fangirls (and there’s a lot of them on the sites I go to) who also enjoy cosplaying in their spare time as well as obsessing over cute, moe anime if mainly for the subtext. Problem fixed!

          Hmm, a 40 year old guy who likes perverted models and a 16 year old yuri fangirl. I think I just invented the world’s worst rom-com.

        2. Flat

          Perhaps, I’m conceptualizing the target audience of K-ON wrong. Generally I think people over the age of 20 would poke a little bit of fun, but would want to protect her in a “onii-chan” type of way. I’m just basing this from all the Harem I usually come across.

          I absolutely love Miyazaki’s works, but there’s only so much. I really enjoy different types of anime, and I can usually bare a bit of ecchi, but it’s so annoying to see panty flashes all the time. It’s just boring, as well as those filler episodes where they go to a beach.

          Also, You may end up saving Japan’s falling growth rate haha.

        3. LinGaiVa

          Hahaha. Or maybe I’m just a jerk at the other end of the net satisfying my desires to laugh at other people’s expense so I don’t have to be cruel to my juniors.

          Although, I suppose some guys who would want to protect a girl if they’re feeling down like that. But it’s really hard when Mio’s eyes turn alien like this o o. And as I mention above, when I look at the audience of K-On there tends to be a overall group including grown men and teenage girls who are quite susceptible to cuteness. (although for me, it grows old after a while and by episode 4, I was like ‘yeah yeah, they got humongous eyes) This overall group then branches out into of course the otakus and the yuri fangirls enjoying the subtext that KyoAni decided to add in (think Konami) by taking advantage of the fact that it’s all girls.

          For example, if you look at the manga the friendship aspect to the relationship was much more greatly emphasised and quite mundane. Compare chapter 18 and 19 and episode 11 for example.

          Well, I’m wondering about those panty flashes. Does this mean Japan is morally indecent to have underage fictional girls doing that or is it because they are becoming more accepting of other people’s fetishes and hence it’s becoming mainstream? I certainly don’t think you can convince anyone in US to have a pee fetish scenes on tv like Juuden Chan. Then again, panty fetish is a very very mainstream fetish or maybe because it’s consider the most normal one?

          Although personally, I like many others am sick of the panty flashes. For one thing, it’s not my thing and of course there are shows which nowadays decide to turn this into a entire show (Ikki Tousen, Chu-Bra) I suppose for me, it’s a case of ‘too much and you get sick of it’ because I am usually the type to tolerate one or two fanservice scenes and hope they move back onto the plot. But now, we have shows with plots revolving around this!

          And finally is that last sentence in reference to my crazy idea? I’ll let you know if someone actually decides to pick this up as a movie. And if this does happen I’ll say I came up with this while commenting on this blog called ‘Moe Sucks.’ Now I just need a title.

  2. appropriant

    Oh, that’s interesting. One of your references on authority cuteness, namely Fruhstuck, is actually one of my professors. She also goes into how a whole bunch of military recruitment posters have women in them, whether sexually exploited or not, even though less than 10% of the JSDF is female. Additionally, a fair share of the posters use gratuitous English because that’s the kind of thing that automatically makes you cool. In fact, there are so many more aspects of these kinds of imagery to lure people into military service, but that’s all irrelevant because we’re talking about that thing called kawaii~ and not the Japanese military. I couldn’t help but comment on the recruitment poster you use as an example because I saw it on one of the professor’s slides. Yay, me. /o/

    But really, cuteness is but a single factor in how the Japanese government can control its population. It’s true that they take advantage of the more defining elements of their popular culture in order to steer public opinion, but that doesn’t really make Japan exclusive in that regard. This isn’t to say that using cuteness to sway people isn’t wrong or disturbing, it’s just that us ‘Muricans are also vulnerable to whatever images the government can sell us (namely images of the flag, superiority, and freedom).

    Reply
      1. appropriant

        Yep, took Japan 25 some time ago and plan to take more courses under her instruction. Fascinating stuff, if I might add.

        Reply
        1. E Minor Post author

          Yo, I wrote up Sakamichi no Apollon. If you still check up on this blog for whatever reason, would like to hear your thoughts on the anime now that it has finished airing (well, it finished airing a while ago).

  3. Pingback: Kill la Kill Ep. 17: Rebellion | Moe Sucks

  4. Eli

    >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.

    Uuuuhhh… isn’t Japan the country that imported US corporate culture and became more corporatist than the original corporatists? I still associate “Japan” first with “salarymen” and second with “suicide”.

    Which does and should tie into the “cuteness culture”. Yeah, they’re running away from adulthood. Their notion of adulthood, however, is FUCKING TERRIBLE, but they have very few outlets for socially legitimated rebellion against that lifestyle. So what do they do? They “underdo” things, they act childish to an advanced age.

    None of this should be that surprising when you put the kawaii schoolgirl and the office lady next to each other, nor when you juxtapose the shounen hero and the salaryman.

    Reply

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