The Cult of Cute - Cult Week


By Emma Nolan

Kawaii-inspired Japanese pop princess, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The term kawaii in English can be translated to mean essentially, “cute”, but it embodies other terms such as adorable, desirable, pure, vulnerable, weak, and childlike. Kawaii is so embedded in modern Japanese culture that its influence can be seen everywhere, from fashion and toys, to banks and airlines.

Large companies feature cute characters like Pikachu and Hello Kitty on their wares. ANA Airlines’ planes are adorned with these images, and Asahi Bank’s ATM cards feature images of the cartoon bunny rabbit Miffy.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department is represented to the public with a kawaii mascot called “Pipo-kun”, a Pokemon-esque, mouse-like character that prevents the police from seeming too serious and makes them seem more approachable to citizens.

Kawaii is the complete antithesis of seriousness and represents a rebellion from traditional Japanese ideals. Japan’s aesthetic model has moved from refined elegance to cute and adorable innocence. When once the Geisha aesthetic was the pinnacle of Japanese culture, it has been replaced by Harajuku fashion and its many subsets.

One of the most prominent kawaii figures, who is beginning to achieve commercial success in Europe and America, is Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, an incredibly cute J-Pop star who has been dubbed as both “J-Pop Princess” and “Harajuku Pop Princess” by the media. Kyary’s breakthrough hit, “PonPonPon”, epitomizes kawaii culture perfectly, and with over 52 million views on YouTube, it’s definitely a marketable commodity.

The video for “PonPonPon” by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.

“Kawaii is so big because of the amount of advertising surrounding it,” a representative from Kimono House in Soho, New York City states. “It’s not art, it’s nothing you would ever see in a museum; it is driven by the advertising industry.”

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is a prime example of the advertising behind kawaii: Her face and image dominates billboards, commercials and food packaging all over Japan and other Asian countries. Kyary’s infantile appearance is essential to her allure. Her big eyes and light hair represent more western standards of beauty, which are highly valued in Japan. Kawaii style itself has its roots in European and American pop culture, whereby pseudo-English phrases are a popular advertising accessory.

The school girl aesthetic is a common trope in Japanese fashion and culture and this is intertwined with kawaii ideals, as the draw of childlike femininity directly opposes the mature elegance of earlier Japanese styles like the Geisha image. Yet both schoolgirls and Geishas maintain an unobtainable image, they are viewed as sexualized yet chaste objects of lust and desire.

Childhood, as a time of freedom is a driving force behind the popularity of kawaii culture. “Japanese youths emphasizing vulnerability and immaturity signal their inability or refusal to accept social responsibilities.” Explains Mary-Anne Decatur in her essay, “Consuming Cuteness in Japan: Hello Kitty, Individualism and Identity”. This idea of forced childishness is called “burriko”.

Other interesting kawaii trends include Gyaru and the more dramatic Ganguro style which have since declined in popularity. (Gyaru is the Japanese word for “gal”.) Lightly-dyed hair and a fashion forward dress sense are typical of this trend, while Ganguro, a drastic take on this fair -haired approach, is recognizable by heavy orange facial foundation, white eye make-up, and bleached hair. Through contrasting light hair with darker skin tones, Ganguro is a deliberate rejection of traditional Japanese standards of beauty, which normally gravitates toward pale skin and dark hair.

Outside of physical appearance, many globally-influential Japanese fashion trends owe a great debt to Kawaii. Stemming from the famous Harajuku region of Tokyo, Sweet Lolita as a style of dressing is a manifestation of the kawaii obsession in fashion. Lolita style and its many subsets (sweet, gothic, punk, etc.) is characterized by Victorian era dress, while Sweet Lolita specifically incorporates Victorian, Rococo, and Edwardian. The latter is also recognizable by the light pastel colors, frills, petticoats, and cute accessories like vintage umbrellas and fruit and love heart-themed accessories.

Over the last few years, Harajuku street fashion has been attracting attention from Westerners with its unique maximalist approach to dressing. With artists like Gwen Stefani and Nicki Minaj endorsing the Harajuku style of dress, it has become more mainstream.

Kawaii’s American counterpart, “twee”, meaning excessively dainty, maintains the same sense of burriko and an “ironic” love for cute things. Zooey Deschanel is the “adorkable” poster girl for twee, honing in on a practiced awkwardness to appear cute. Twee has spread to music, movies and television shows of late. There’s New Girl of course, Wes Andersons’ sickeningly twee Moonrise Kingdom, and twee indie bands like Belle and Sebastian.

Though “twee” culture is an American construct, it resembles kawaii culture as they both contain a need to connect with symbols of childhood, youth and general childishness. Kawaii however, is a more extreme cultural force and the power of cute reigns supreme in Japan. All hail, Hello Kitty.