Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Cute Capitalism in Japan

The concept of not only surrounding oneself with all things cute but also embodying cuteness itself has become a style unto itself in Japan – a kind of ‘cute capitalism’ if you will, which has been around for at least as long as the birth of Hello Kitty in 1974.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re milling around Harajuku station or walking down a street in rural Japan; you don’t have to be in the midst of the urban pop culture scene to notice all those jangly cellphone charms, cheerfully loud purikura stickers, and carefully styled hair fringes.

Street fashion is one of the most obvious ways that cuteness has made its mark on Japan.

For example, the kawaisa style of dressing, which has its roots in the 1980s pop scene, has become increasingly popular and is now a fashion statement in its own right.

The trend was originally seen as a kind of rebellion among the youth (hence it’s innate coolness), since it appeared to be the antithesis of traditional fashion which was geared towards an older generation of women, and which emphasised ‘womanliness and common sense.’

Although this kawaii style has undergone many evolutions and will no doubt continue to do so, it often still involves numerous oversized layers (the effect being to make the body appear smaller by comparison), and purposefully clashing colours and patterns. Shades of pink are used regularly, and the standard jeans and T-shirt look is added to by use of various accessories including fuzzy animal hats, chunky hand-made jewellery, and toys and bags with characters or mascots from various manga, anime and character franchises (including of course, but by no means limited to, Hello Kitty).

Arguably, the Lolita sub-culture is also a prime example of cuteness made manifest, since it primarily involves young women (and occasionally young men) dressing in clothing influenced by Victorian children’s clothing and eighteenth-century French Rococo-period costumes. Puffy knee-length dresses and skirts, full petticoats, knee length stockings and socks, and varying forms of headdresses help make up the look. Hand-held items such as dolls and plushies are sometimes carried in order to emphasise the childlike image, while make-up is generally kept minimal.

Although the term is in reference to Vladimir Nabokov's famous novel of the same name, the original followers of Lolita fashion, as well as the majority of Lolita fans across the world today, do not consider the style to be an explicitly sexual one. The concept is typically thought of as cute, but as has been explored in a previous article here on Otaku Lounge, most adherents of the Lolita sub-culture believe that neither the term nor the style has anything to do with sex. 

But to get back to the main point, cuteness in Japan seems to be not so much a fashion statement as it is a part of the national identity.

Japanese popular culture has been using aspects of cute in everyday life – food, toys, and the media and entertainment industries – for decades. This can in large part be linked to the general culture of Japan, which places a higher value upon youthful appearance and behaviour in comparison to many other countries. Whilst much of the population of the United States seems to put a large importance on emulating the overtly sexual rather than the childishly cute for instance, the Japanese do not consider cuteness as something marketed only to children.

Whereas in Western culture an obsession with cuteness might easily be viewed as frivolous or juvenile, cuteness in Japan tends to be accepted and embraced as an integral part of its innate sense of culture. It’s perfectly acceptable and in some cases even considered natural for women to talk several octaves higher than their natural voice or to walk pigeon-toed, just as it is for men to sometimes shave their legs or get regular facials and manicures.

Cute marketing is therefore used not only in terms of fashion but also everywhere from commercial airliners and office environments, to public service warnings, government publications, and military advertisements. The Tokyo police force has its own cute mascot, for example, as does the national public broadcasting organisation the NHK – not to mention every one of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Some authors on the subject have said that this obsession with cuteness is due to Japan’s deeply-rooted harmony-loving culture, while others have written that cuteness has become a ‘magic term’ that encompasses everything that is acceptable and desirable. Christine Locher in The Cult of Cuteness in Japanese Youth Culture has stated that this cute culture ‘thrives on the simple fact that Japanese women would rather be cute than sexy’, and that cute fashion, while female-dominated, is also becoming increasingly androgynous as gender roles start to blur.

I’d like to wrap this up by pointing out that while trends in Japan come and go seemingly at the speed of light, there are many which simply refuse to die. Hello Kitty shows no sign of slowing down despite being nearly 40 years old.

Pikachu, widely regarded as the official mascot of the Pok√©mon franchise, still decorates three of the nine specially painted jets operated by Japan’s second-largest international airline and largest domestic airline, All Nippon Airways. Female pop idol groups Morning Musume and AKB48 have been active since 1997 and 2005 respectively, and continue to slay all your favourites in the charts. And how could one even begin to explain the popularity of songs like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s ‘PonPonPon’ if not for Japan’s cute complex?

Technically, I’m pretty sure all this could be branded as a kink – although whether or not that has any sexual connotations is of course up to its audience.

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