Exploring the Japanese infatuation with cuteness
by Abby Cosinuke; images from Fruits Magazine
It was one of my first days in Tokyo, and I was examining my meal at a small ramen shop. “What is this?” I asked, cautiously pointing at the jiggly white and pink cloud shaped item floating atop my ramen.
“It’s fish,” responded my confused waitress.
“Fish?” I asked.
“Fish,” she repeated, nodding vigorously before disappearing into the steaming kitchen.
When I returned to my hostel I typed a few keywords into Google (pink, cute, fish, Japan) and quickly found what I was searching. The adornment to my ramen is called kamaboko and is made of fish paste and eggs, to name a couple ingredients. I began clicking through a few images and found many different, equally cute versions of this mysterious food: Hello Kitty kamaboko, monkey kamaboko, Snoopy and Pikachu kamaboko. So cute, so girly, so very confusing. However, thinking back on many ads and images I had seen during my first few days in Tokyo, this description could apply to more than just kamaboko.
Later that night, I made a friend named Johnny. Johnny grew up in a cult in England. Now he is not in a cult, but he is obsessed with Japan and Japanese culture, as well as trains. I asked him why kamaboko looks the way it does. “You mean why it’s so cute?” (Johnny is clearly sharp): “Maybe because Japanese girls love cute things. Cute clothes, cute bags, cute foods, cute everything.”
Johnny was right. Everything is unexpectedly cute in Japan, especially in Tokyo. One day, I took the subway to Harajuku, a district of Tokyo notorious for it’s eccentric fashion scene (if you are, as I am, a Gwen Stefani fan, you may remember “...Harajuku girls you got the wicked style...”). As I navigated my way through cappuccino vending machines and multileveled escalators while searching for an exit from the subway station, I began to feel very out of place. At first I attributed this to the fact that I was the only white, six-foot tall, blonde person in sight. Of course, that may have been part of the problem, but with Johnny’s words fresh in my mind, I realized something else: unlike all the women around me, I wasn’t cute. Some women wore pink fuzzy sweaters, others grasped their Hello Kitty cell phone cases, one woman had on a floor length pastel fur trench coat.
The more I looked for it, the more cuteness I saw. Some women went for a schoolgirl approach, with frilly knee socks and pigtails (the line between schoolgirl and Little Bo Peep was often blurred, at least to my outsider’s eye) and one girl, in a pastel steampunk get up, looked like she was headed to ComiCon. Surrounded by a sea of fluff and pink, I stood in my ripped black jeans and Blundstones, feeling a disconnect with this version of young adulthood.
As an American college student, I don’t strive to look “cute.” Sometimes I want to look beautiful, some- times sophisticated or sometimes even striking (though usually the most I can boast is “clean”). If “cute” were the primary word someone used to describe me I would roll my eyes and give a glare. I am not cute. I’m an apathetic individual striving for a cutting edge and inspired personal style that screams IDGAF.
In contrast to this cultivated dishevelment, many girls in Japan strive to be “kawaii,” which roughly translates to “cute.” Kawaii has become highly popularized throughout Japanese pop culture and everyday life. While standing on a busy city street you might see both a kawaii girl in a frilly dress, long pigtails and a band aid over her nose, walking into a grocery store with a kawaii logo of a little smiling cabbage eating a carrot with chopsticks (which demands that one question the line between “cute” and “cannibalism”). If you are lucky, you might be offered a menu featuring cute teddy bear shaped burgers or an omelet that looks like two cats asleep in a bed, while avoiding a pothole marked by bunny shaped barricades. While ogling the mini keychain dangling from a pedestrian’s backpack you may almost bump into a cute cartoon sign of a sad cigarette reminding you not to smoke. Just recently, a squealing sales girl offered me a donut decorated like a puppy with a monkey riding on its back, which I devoured without remorse. It’s not that I am a cold-hearted monster who hates bunnies and smiling rainbows and seals dressed as cats, it’s just that at first, the whole kawaii thing really freaked me out.
My discomfort with the Japanese phenomenon is partly because kawaii fashion is almost exclusively re- served for women. Women not only adorn themselves in cute, pink and fuzzy items, but also dress like schoolgirls, porcelain dolls and French maids. Some women have eyelid surgery to make their eyes bigger; others get dental surgery to give them a snaggletooth (in a trend called “yaeba,” snaggleteeth are considered cute and many Japanese men prefer women with snaggleteeth because they make them more approachable). Women embody much of the cuteness associated with kawaii culture, making them more accessible and less threatening. At first, the cuteness around me caused confused resentment. It felt like an abrasive way of showcasing femininity (“Look I’m a woman, I wear pink and fuzz, aren’t I tame and approachable?”). Rather than finding their personal style, many Japanese women are trying to fit into a predetermined mold of what a woman should be.
But wait. Here I am, a young Western woman, judging a culture that promotes surgical alteration in the name of beauty. Have I become blind to the advertisements for botox, boob jobs, fake tans and weightloss pills I am bombarded with every day when I aimlessly browse through the Internet in my own country? Did I forget about my friends who struggle with eating disorders? Or the hundreds of dollars I have spent on Brazilians? What difference is there between an American pursuit of beauty and a Japanese one? If our means are the same, it’s our ends that are different. American women seek sexiness, while Japanese women crave kawaii.
This realization made me reconsider what it was about “kawaii” that caused my initial discomfort. I am bothered by the element of approachability, the promotion of the ideal woman as docile, friendly and obedient. My aversion to kawaii involved the implied vulnerability and submissiveness present in its visual depictions. Kawaii can be marked by a few recurring visual themes; kawaii creatures have big heads, big eyes, chubby cheeks and small bodies. These features are similar to that of a baby. Infants are vulnerable to the world around them, they have very little control over their actions, and their cuteness ensures that adults protect them.
I returned from Harajuku and ran into Johnny, who had spent the day with some Japanese friends. After the thrilling adventure of getting hot chocolate out of a vending machine, he told me about a conversation he had over lunch in an elementary school themed restau- rant (“It was very kawaii” he informed me). “This Japa- nese girl I was eating with, she told me she thinks Ameri- can women are so beautiful, right, but she thinks they ruin their beauty because they’re too sexy.” We are too sexy and they are too cute.
“When in Rome,” I thought to myself the next day when I bought myself a pair of kawaii shorts (they are so fluffy! Lavender fur!). I wore the shorts around the hostel, and though my nether region has ever been so cozy, I felt ridiculous. My first attempt at kawaii did not make me feel cute, but rather like a sad and misshapen teddy bear. But I tried again. I wore a pink fuzzy bucket hat I had stolen from my friend (she got it at The Arc out and about one evening. At first I felt unstoppable). “I really think this hat is applicable here,” I said, “I’m so glad I brought it.” On the streets I felt confident and anonymous, a passing blur of pink (à la Elle Woods). But as soon as I stepped off of the street and into a shop, I felt uncertain. Rather than IDGAF this hat was phony. I was “that big girl in a little pink cap.” As my rosy-clad head bopped around a good foot above all the other heads in the store, I sheepishly took it off and stowed it in my pocket.
I realized another reason I had such a reaction to kawaii: I was excluded. My height, build, gait, posture and huge feet inhibit me from existing in the realm of kawaii. I am just too big to be so cute. Dressed as a French maid or Little Bo Peep would either come off as a scary doll (one that might kill you at night) or a very sad porn star. Unlike the sprightly bodies of many Japanese women, my Amazonian build rejects the adjective of cute. Do I reject kawaii because I cannot have it?
Johnny came home one afternoon with a bag full of kawaii treats to bring back to his Japanese girlfriend in the United Kingdom. While licking the remaining crumbs of the panda shaped cookie, he said, “They’re not bad you know, and it’s kind of nice to see something so cute for a change. The U.K. can be so dismal.” Maybe Johnny’s onto something. In some ways it’s a relief to see kittens selling makeup rather than a highly sexualized woman selling hamburgers. Growing up in a culture that adheres to the theory that “sex sells” is exhausting. Advertising, pop culture and media encourage young American women (and men) into highly sexualized, gendered and overly adult roles.
I find many elements of American sexualization and objectification of women problematic, and while I try not to subscribe to these cultural expectations, I’ve realized that I feel more comfortable taking on the role of “sexy” than I do of “kawaii.” Sexiness seems to have more agency than cuteness. Angelina Jolie is sexy, and she’s also an authoritative, badass dominatrix. I feel I can be sexy without falling into a submissive role or the con- fines of the male gaze. (Perhaps this is true with kawaii as well, perhaps I do not have a full enough understand- ing of Japanese culture to determine the “badassness” of kawaii women). I associate sexiness with assertivity and strength, while kawaii tones down these elements in a woman. It’s not the aesthetic of kawaii that unsettles me (though it kind of does) but the values it promotes.
But if you want to look like a cupcake, I won’t judge you. Cupcakes scream IDGAF.