How cuteness dominates Japanese culture

Modern Japanese culture can best be described in one word: cute. Hello Kitty, the most important symbol of cuteness, can be found in all layers of society. Leiden Japanologists Ivo Smits and Kasia Cwiertka put together a volume of articles on this curious phenomenon.

Cute dolls

Hello Kitty, the cute little kitten from Japan

Hello Kitty, the cute little kitten from Japan

The Japanese word for cuteness, kawaii, has a long history, but the phenomenon dates from the 1980s. Originally, it appeared in design style and fashion, but it soon became an attitude among the youth. This attitude was pre-eminently embodied by the shōjo (‘adolescent girls’), who all began to dress like sweet little dolls and write in cute handwriting, with round letters and symbols such as stars and hearts.


Counterculture

Smits, Professor of Japanese Language and Culture, explains: ‘The kawaii was originally a counterculture. It was associated with childhood. Young people were reluctant to grow up, because they would have to pretend to be something they were not, and they felt they could no longer be authentic. The cuteness culture was a way of resisting this. Which did not, incidentally, mean that people stood still. They got jobs, had children, but they also created an opportunity for themselves to escape into a safe, cheerful fantasy world.’

Widespread

An image of Pipo (People's Police), the mascot of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police

An image of Pipo (People's Police), the mascot of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police

Cuteness has now become so widespread in Japan, that there is no escaping it. Even the police force in the entire country has acquired its own mascot so as to connect with the people. The commercial sector is playing a major role in this movement by flooding the country with cuteness. Even so, the element of protest against adulthood remains. Cwiertka, Professor of Modern Japan: ‘It is also important for older people to keep in touch with youth culture. A fifty-year-old woman with a Hello Kitty key ring is showing that she still belongs. And men have to sign up to it, too, if they want to appeal to women.’


Cuteness culture in the Netherlands

Two Japanese girls in Sweet Lolita outfits, a cute fashion trend that emphasises girlishness

Two Japanese girls in Sweet Lolita outfits, a cute fashion trend that emphasises girlishness

In the past decade, the Japanese cuteness culture has also reached the Netherlands. Programmes such as Pokémon are incredibly popular here, and the adorable image of Hello Kitty is appearing increasingly often on everyday objects such as lunchboxes, clothing and school items. Cwiertka: ‘Just the other day I saw an ad by Shell with dozens of little dolls with big eyes. They looked like they had come straight from Japan.’

Smits: ‘In general, you can say that over the past decade Japanese pop culture has become more of a reference framework for youth culture. In the Netherlands there is already an entire generation who grew up with all these cute characters. They’re here to stay.’

The volume of translated studies on the Japanese cuteness culture, Hello Kitty & Gothic Lolita’s, for which Smits and Cwiertka wrote an introduction together, is published by Leiden University Press. ISBN: 978-908-72-8143-4, €19.95.

(30 May 2012)


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Last Modified: 08-07-2014