If anything is emblematic of modern Japan, it is perhaps more of a she than an it. Adorned with a small bow and variety of adorable outfits, the impassive countenance of hello kitty decorates everything from toasters in Mexico to love hotels in Hong Kong, an incredible feat for a small kitten, but that’s nothing when you consider the power of cute culture in Japan.
n fact, cute in Japan is decidedly not just for kids and teenage girls. Although young women are decidedly the biggest buyers of adorable ephemera, cute icons are utilized everywhere from official street signs to regional mascots. Walk through a shopping mall, and you’ll hear a chorus of “Kawaii!” (the Japanese word for cute) coming everywhere from electronics stores to restaurants and boutiques.
In modern times, kawaii has also come to mean stylish, youthful, and delightful. Far from being a symptom of cultural malaise and a mass retreat into childishness, cute has become an export, and an important part of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) arsenal of ‘cool Japan’ motifs. In customizing a standard gadget with idiosyncratic kawaii flourishes, the object is at once reinvented and personalized. To some, kawaii culture represents the creative impulse to change and grow.
cute has become an export, and an important part of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) arsenal of ‘cool Japan’ motifs
One theory for the explosion of cute culture in Japan over the past few decades is the growing tendency to celebrate youth and virility over traditional age and wisdom- something that has been seen in corporations the world over. The recent furor over the Chinese Premier’s refusal to cover his graying thatch said a lot more about shifting cultural values in East Asia than any think tank could. Even middle aged CEOs in Japan will affix big eyed dangly mascots to their cellphones, tying up big money deals with novelty pens and character branded business cards.
in embracing kawaii and hyper-cute style, women are able to carve out their own identity and assert themselves
Many Western anthropologists are fond of denouncing cute culture as ‘poisoning’ Japanese society, with the view the Ms. Kitty and her big eyed brethren are infantilizing the nation and marginalizing women into submissive dolly girls. However, academics such as Laura Miller have worked extensively to show that, in embracing kawaii and hyper-cute style, women are able to carve out their own identity and assert themselves in a new way not possible within the strictures of traditional gender roles.
Moreover, in capitalizing on the ‘soft power’ offered by the global popularity of kawaii culture, even as it’s economic clout crumbles, Japan retains a stronghold on international cultural capital- one that continues to grow with each new licensing deal.