In Japan, Cute Conquers All

What is it about the culture that young people -- men as well as women -- are so hooked on cuteness? The answer isn't simple

By Brian Bremner

There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who adore Hello Kitty, and those who just don't get why the little fluffy feline with no mouth has managed to attract a global cult following. I get the part about Hello Kitty being cute, innocent, and sentimental. She likes to have tea parties and make friends all over the world. How sweet and precious. I just can't understand why this would be of interest to anyone beyond the age of 10.

But Hello Kitty is a $1 billion-a-year franchise for Sanrio, Japan's biggest maker of cartoon characters. It licenses Kitty's image to product makers far and wide. My two daughters, aged 6 and 3, have Hello Kitty pens, cups, toothbrushes, stickers, and a toy vacuum cleaner that makes a lot of noise when dad is trying to watch the World Cup. Last month, the two nearly overdosed on cuteness at a Hello Kitty amusement park in suburban Tokyo.


  Don't get me wrong: I'm not interested in dissing Kitty here. It's just that I've long been fascinated by Japan's cult of cuteness -- it's rather like an obsession. The everyday visual landscape of Tokyo -- the ad banners on the subway, storefronts signs, digital display screens, and various forms of mass media like manga (Japanese comics) and fashion magazines -- are just oozing with cute stuff.

Cartoon characters are often used as pitchmen for Japanese products. All manner of companies and services, even banks, have licensed characters like Kitty or imports such as Snoopy, Pooh, and Miffy to jazz up their advertising. Spend five minutes in retail centers like Shibuya and Shinjuku, and you almost feel like you're in cartoon town. Cute sells big time in Nippon.

Japanese cute, which the Japanese call kawaii, isn't just a marketing gimmick. It's embedded in the culture and manifests itself in social and gender roles, particularly those of young Japanese women. Cute isn't just a fashion statement -- pink lipstick, butterfly hair bands, and pastel colors -- it's also a mode of behavior. Cute girls often act silly, affect squeaky voices, pout and stamp their feet when they're angry. It seems to be a cultural statement.


  This trend has been going on for two decades now and shows little sign of abating from what I can tell. With two girls of my own, I have more than a passing interest in this. So do a lot of Japanese intellectuals and Western sociologists, it turns out.

Japanese feminists charge that all this cute chic is really about the cultural domination and exploitation of women in the country. It encourages girls and young women well into their late 20s to act submissive, weak, and innocent rather than mature, assertive, and independent. There's no denying that ultracute girls are a steady staple in Japanese pornography. Even boys are getting into the cute -- or at least asexual -- look. The latest trend: Japanese boys are shaving their legs for the summer, short-pants season.

I'm not sure I agree with the feminists or the cultural conservatives who think Hello Kitty is all that pernicious. But it's interesting to me how cuteness in Japan is more than a fashion statement -- it's something closer to an aesthetic value, something that uniquely defines Japanese youth culture. In the U.S., it seems, we push kids to be grown up in a hurry.


  I went looking for some answers in the editorial office of Cawaii magazine (the name is a play on kawaii). It has a circulation of about 300,000 and a target audience of 15- to 19-year-olds or so. A sister publication called S Cawaii (as in Senior Cawaii) is aimed at older readers in their early 20s.

This is Japan's version of a cross between a Britney Spears concert and Tiger Beat. The art is loud and favors pastel covers. Usually, the cover story is a celebrity interview and inside, the magazine is chock full of service pieces on skin care and beauty tips -- and teens in bikinis striking painfully cute poses and expressions.

I met up with Kazuhiko Sato, the chief editor. He's in his late 40s and was a sociology major at Waseda University. I couldn't help but ask him how a middle-age guy like him stays current with trend-happy Japanese girls. He basically doesn't, he says, but hires a lot of young women who do.


  We talked about prevailing theories about cuteness and how it's always there, a motif, regardless of what fashion is the rage with Japanese teenagers. I have lived in Japan for a decade, have seen the rap look, the American denim look, the bleach-blonde dye and overly tanned look, the retro 1970s look with bell-bottoms, and on and on. But some cute element, modification, or accessory invariably makes it distinctively Japanese. "It always floats above several fashion trends," notes Sato.

What I really want to know is this: 10 years from now, will my two girls be hanging out in Shibuya with their friends looking like something right out of the pages of Cawaii? Are cute power and Hello Kitty going to turn them into submissive little bunnies? Sato, who has a daughter of his own, probably thought I was a bit over the top here.

He thinks cute power will be around in Japan for a very long time, and he doesn't think there's anything unhealthy or subversive about any of this. I keep trying to get him to give me a unifying theory about why this love of all things cute is so powerful among Japanese girls. He finally comes up with this: "I don't think they're acting in a submissive way at all. They're trying to be cute to get more attention from the boys."

Ah-hah, now I see. I feel much better now.

When he's not examining his daughter's Hello Kitty artifacts, Bremner is Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek. He offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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