Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Acceptance and Rebellion: The Two Faces of Cute in Japan
One of the central themes in my lecture "Kawaii Culture: Cuteness in Japan" is the polarity of cuteness in contemporary Japanese culture. On one end, cute mascots prance around the military, major corporations and the police force. On the other end, young people utilize cuteness as a way to stave off entry into the adult world.
Childish mascots give an endearing, welcoming face to the stressful, rule-filled, work-a-day nature of modern Japanese life. They adorn the logos of corporations where salarymen spend the majority of the day at their desks. These characters represent the ideal characteristics of the modern worker: loyalty, working hard, and deference to authority. They fit perfectly into the obsession with "saving face", always acting polite and courteous, and willing to do what's best for the group.
But young people in Japan are increasingly resisting this way of life. They see the stress on their fathers' faces coming home late after working all day at a job they hate (followed by drinks with the boss), and don't want that to be them in 20 years. Rather than be chained to their parents' expectations, and with the Japanese economy in a decade-long recession (meaning lifetime employment at a company is no longer the norm), they want to follow their own pursuits. With the age of marriage in Japan rising (as well as the number of people just not marrying at all), and the plummeting birthrate, this individualistic zeitgeist is taking hold- and their flag of rebellion is cuteness. Teens and young, unmarried women adopt signifiers of cuteness and childhood - reading children's manga, wearing "childish" fashion styles and carrying Hello Kitty-bedecked cellphones, indulging in cakes and creamy pastries - as a way to proclaim, "I am not mature enough for the adult world."
Childhood, rather than adolescence, is viewed as the time for freedom. As movies like Freaky Friday and 17 Again demonstrate, in Western culture adolescence is the desired time to return to in one's life: one begins to gain independence from their parents, can earn a drivers license, take on a part time job. In Japan, as a child enters secondary education, the responsibilities of homework, cram school, entrance exams and preparing for the future take hold and can be crushing.
In Western culture, to rebel during adolescence is to act more adult: drink, smoke, stay out late at night, become sexually active, watch movies with swear words in them. For many young people in Japan, to rebel is to revert back to childhood, purposely remove oneself from the adult world and the responsibilities and obligations that come with it.
Cuties in Japan by Sharon Kinsella
Cute Inc. by Mary Roach at Wired.com
Inside Look at Japanese Cute Culture by Diana Lee