Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Kawaii – cute or overkill?

“Kawaii” culture is making it big. Not just big in Japan, but big as it exports abroad. "Kawaii" is usually translated as “cute”, but, despite that being its most useful translation, it’s a catch-all term when a whole range of other words might be used for differing circumstances. Other words might include, yes, cute, but also lovely, sweet, beautiful, pretty, adorable, fun – or, for certain occasions and if we want a critical eye on kawaii, twee, odd, puerile or even childish might fare better.

When the excellent designers behind Bloomberg Businessweek's celebrated covers naturally pick up on kawaii and associate it with Japanese government, has cute gone too far? Has some line been crossed, some emphasis subtly shifted?

Characters, manga, fashion and attitude in Japan have not always been so “kawaii”, and nor are they still. And there’s nothing wrong with a bit of cute, a bit of fun: I too have my collection of characters (along the window sill of the toilet, in fact) and a few other objects de kawaii. Character culture, just for example, can be entertaining, and light entertainment is a mainstay of any culture that doesn’t take everything too seriously.

Nevertheless, take Lolita fashions. Before (and especially in the "west") such ideas would have been looked at askance by the majority – partly perhaps because of a perceived childishness, but mostly because of its disturbing use of the name Lolita. There’s nothing wrong, in and of itself and ignoring the original associations with Nabokov’s titular character, with girls celebrating sweet or gothic fashions (and last year through work I met a perfectly charming "sweet Lolita" whose enjoyment of her subculture I wouldn't begrudge at all). But, now the Japan Lolita Association has been formed – to spread the culture of Lolita fashions abroad. And even the government has appointed a Lolita-fashionista as a kawaii ambassador. In the scramble for kawaii, the original connections of the name Lolita in this context have been so subsumed that nobody has thought to check what Lolita actually means: Japanese Lolitas probably genuinely don't realise that their name came from a book about a middle-aged child sex-abuser, who virtually kidnaps a 12-year-old and travels across America "plowing his Molly in every State" (as the book's final poem says about his motel sex – going on to say "and again my hairy fist I raise/and again I hear you crying"). As it spreads further afield, isn't it perhaps best that Japanese Lolitas should find out what association "Lolita" can actually have in their context?

Or take puri kura (print club) photos which the Bloomberg cover plays off: it has turned out not to be a passing phenomenon but a continued part of childhood and teenage lives. And now, as digital technology advances, faces can be automatically smoothed and eyes enlarged to resemble home-grown manga or Bambi-like characters. The cute has become not only still essential but self-distorting – sometimes to the point of weird.

Or is this all just an example of an effect of the interest in “what Japanese schoolgirls are thinking” – a culture once celebrated abroad in the likes of WIRED magazine, with their Lifestyle section, Japanese Schoolgirl Watch? As journalist Richard Lloyd Parry said of Japan in a profile in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan magazine: nobody’s concerned with what Chinese schoolgirls are thinking. Japan is still producing influential culture. And of course, there's entertainment and invention in many such fads

Also, of course, kawaii doesn’t affect most of Japanese culture – but it does affect a lot of pop culture. And when it comes to AKB48 and other innumerated girl-bands a case could be made for this emphasis on cute and on not being adult is actually damaging. (Only this week, the regular popularity vote for AKB members – a vote for kawaii – had its 2-hour TV special. Japan ranked 101st out of 135 countries in gender inequality in 2012: is there a connection?) Even if it is only a segment of Japan’s culture, perhaps its increasingly ingrained affect – and its governmental recognition – is leading to too large a swathe of the culture being under the influence of kawaii to be healthy. Isn’t a critical mind, focused on the celebration of the pre-teen, on teen fashions and on 20-something obsessions, more to be celebrated than a single-word, uncritical synopsis which, by its very definition, has little depth? 

Or perhaps I'm a curmudgeon who is out of the range of any target audience and out of any influence of a subculture, and we should just celebrate the kawaii promotion of Japan.

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