Thursday, 10 June 2010


Japan's cute fixation or cuteness craze is particularly acute, it goes by the name "kawaii" and has infiltrated the most masculine of redoubts. Truck drivers display Hello Kitty-style figurines on their dashboards. The police enliven safety billboards and wanted posters with antennae wearing mouse-like mascot named Pipo Pipo. The sound they say is like a cute version of police sirens. We believe that any country that has created cute police has gone too far. Many people say that the thing behind this phenomenon is the strongly hierarchical nature of Japanese culture. Cuteness is used to soften up the vertical society, to soften power relations and present authority without being threatening.

Japan has a perennial obsession with youth and cartoons. You will more often than not catch old men reading comic books in the trains instead of novels. Not only girls but also women, business men, teenage boys and the elderly will have pokemon characters dangling from their phones. This obsession goes to the point where children often judge things like animals or drawings not as interesting or cool but simply in the dichotomy of cute or scary. Cute is everything here and all companies know to push their products with cute lining. All this is actually quite scary to us.

Look anywhere and everywhere: Cartoon figures dangle from cell phones, waitresses bow in frilly maid outfits, bows adorn bags, even police are involved in the cult of cute.

These days, Japan, known in the past for more serious products like Toyota cars and the Sony Walkman, is busy exporting the epitome of cute — bubble-headed Hello Kitty, Pokemon video games, the singing duo Puffy and the Tamagotchi virtual pet, just to name a few. But the obsession with things cute — or "kawaii" — has the world's second-biggest economy doing some soul-searching, 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. "Spirited Away," an adventure story of a doe-eyed girl by Hayao Miyazaki, won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film. Japan's entertainment content business totals some 13 trillion yen, or about two-thirds of Toyota Motor Corp.'s sales, according to the Digital Content Association of Japan.

Skeptics say Japan's pursuit of cute is a sign of an infantile mentality and worry that Japanese culture — historically praised for exquisite understatement seen in such works as sparse rock gardens and woodblock prints — may be headed toward doom. Hiroto Murasawa, an expert on the culture of beauty at Osaka Shoin Women's University, believes that cute proves the Japanese simply don't want to grow up. "It's a mentality that breeds nonassertion," he said.

On the other hand, Tomoyuki Sugiyama, author of "Cool Japan," believes cute is rooted in Japan's consensus-loving culture. "Japanese are seeking a spiritual peace and an escape from brutal reality through cute things," he said. Model and actress Yuri Ebihara, 26, widely viewed as the personification of cute, commands such influence that when she sports lacy pastel skirts in a fashion magazine, they become instant sellouts. "I make it a point never to forget to smile," said Ebihara, often seen on TV ads and billboards. "If someone doesn't find me cute, I want to know why because then I'll work on it to get better at being cute."

Many artists are trying to raise questions on how lines get drawn between what's cute and what's not. Many shrug off much of pop culture as empty fluff and seek to delve deeper into meaning and life. Athough, such naysayers are a minority.

A survey on beauty standards by cosmetics company Kanebo found that women in their 20s and early 30s favor the cute look, accentuated by a childish round face, rather than the elegant face. Japanese women see value in youth and want to combine childishness and cuteness with sexiness and glamour. Cute has now grown so widespread that various types of cute coexist. Japanese have come up with nuances of cute and use phrases such as "erotic-cute" and "grotesque-cute" in conversation.

There are shops and districts in some cities devoted to selling cute fashion and the kids eat this fluff up. In a bid to raise its international profile, Japan has appointed three young women as cultural envoys because they represent Japan's long-running craze for all things cute and people here are eager to follow their creepy over-the-top cuteness. One of the new ambassadors dresses as a school girl, another as a Victorian doll in frilly skirts and big lollipops. The third of the women was a singer dressed in a polka dot shirt with a bunny print, offset by bouffant back-combed hair, a look that has made her a fashion leader in Tokyo teens' favourite haunt, Harajuku.

Japan wants to exploit the popularity of the 'kawaii' (cute) culture, which has influenced young people in Asia and Europe but which is thankfully ridiculed in North America. "We want people abroad to know these kind of people exist in Japan and to feel close to them. You get people to love your culture and use that as a way of gaining power around the world," said Phil Deans, professor of international relations at Temple University's Tokyo campus about these three ambassadors. But these ambassadors, whose role will be to speak at cultural events such as a Japan Expo to be held in Paris in July are certainly no Hollywood movie stars.

Actress Shizuka Fujioka, 19, wears a school uniform even though she has graduated because she felt she missed out by going to a school with an ugly uniform. The appointment of the three envoys comes a year after Doraemon, a rotund blue cartoon cat with no ears, was named a special ambassador for Japan. That is right, cartoons are being named as ambassadors and icons of this country. That would be like appointing Bullwinkle as Canada's public image I think it would raise the ire of more than just a few people. Meanwhile, the Japanese remain blissfully in tune with this infantile trend as I say this a professional, middle-aged woman behind me picks up the phone and says "hello" in a high-pitched, cutesy voice, sounding more girlish than her usual tone, the machine beats on.

Japan is overrun with cute mascots. They represent everything from chain stores to police departments, and for the past decade or so there has been a marked increase in the popularity of one species of mascot called "yuru-kyara." They are designed for local governments; sometimes by professionals, sometimes by amateurs, sometimes by the local governments themselves. The point is that they aren't skillfully executed. In fact, the amateurish nature of their concept and design is their main appeal.

The yuru-kyara boom has as it's leading example Hikonyan, a catlike mascot that wears a samurai helmet and brandishes a sword. Hikonyan was made for Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture as a way of celebrating the castle's 400th anniversary. However, the popularity of the character outlasted the yearlong celebration, and people still flock to the castle — not to learn about the infamous Ii clan but to watch some person in a Hikonyan costume prance around. Since its creation, the Hikonyan character has generated about ¥1.7 billion in souvenir sales.

It is reported that there are "several hundred" such mascots throughout Japan, and most were designed and chosen by local residents. A seaside town in Hokkaido came up with Unimaru, a round creature with floppy spikes meant to resemble a sea urchin (uni), while a city in Okinawa created Imotchi, an oblong fellow that represents a sweet potato (imo). Some are quite bizarre. Kushiro City has Marimokkori, a round-headed humanoid critter named after the algae balls (marimo) found in local lakes but with a prominent bulge (mokkori) in the vicinity of the crotch.

The main purpose of yuru-kyara is to attract attention, and last year Nara city unveiled Sento-kun, the mascot the city would use to celebrate the 1,300th anniversary of Nara becoming the capital of Japan. The character is basically a baby-faced Buddha with the horns of a deer, thus incorporating two of the city's tourist attractions. A Buddhist group blasted the design as "insulting." Locals didn't like it either, but their resistance had nothing to do with notions of blasphemy. They just didn't think Sento-kun was cute! So the city came up with a new character, Manto-kun, which in the yuru-kyara style has less distinctive features. Sento-kun, created by a fine-arts professor, was too skillful. People want something cruder. Nevertheless, the controversy did the job. It brought the city about ¥1.5 billion worth of PR.

It shows that designers are purposely dumbing down their creations to make them look more like yuru-kyara. And often the cutest mascot could be promoting something that people just do not care about. Nobody cares about Hikone Castle, but they love Hikonyan.

In the country that invented Hello Kitty, that sounds about right, but what happens when you use yuru-kyara to draw attention to something of genuine social significance? The Justice Ministry, for instance, has encouraged local prosecutors to create yuru-kyara to promote the introduction of the lay-judge system that starts next year.

A woman in the Utsunomiya investigator's office came up with Beri-chan, a strawberry-featured creature that looks like a baby for a legal system. Is the system's immaturity something she wants to emphasize? "We want people to enjoy the characters so that they get used to the lay-judge system," one ministry representative said, sidestepping the point that maybe people need to understand the system first. Maybe if the new justice minister just wears a green bird costume the next time he announces signing an execution order for a death sentence, everybody will feel better.

Nobuyoshi Kurita, a sociology professor at Tokyo's Musashi University, said cute is a "magic term" that encompasses everything that's acceptable and desirable — this nation's answer to the West. The cute concept, he said, could determine Japan's cultural influence on the world.

"Where cute goes determines the future of Japan," he said, adding that Japan's cute offerings may one day command the respect of European luxury goods. I am highly doubtful about this and think that this phenomenon is rather embarrassing and does not convey anything worth picking up in other countries. Cuteness will be another part of Japan's growing global irrelevance. I believe that the economy here will fail and emblazoned on the debt ridden tombstone of Japan's once bright future will be a cute hello kitty. For such is the childish meaninglessness of all of this fluff, it is irrelevant and embarrassing.

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