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Kawaii Culture: The Psychology of Sweetness

Kyle Zabawa takes on Kawaii Culture, discussing psychology, Gwen Stefani and feminism in the process

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Introductory Insights

Have you ever laid eyes upon something so cute, so heart-warmingly adorable, that you get the urge to squeeze whatever the trigger might be within an inch of its life? Close friends would likely describe me as a hard-nosed stoic with a chilly little heart, yet even I am prone to this occasional mystifying sensation when presented with images of the splendid Fennec Fox (Google Images is your friend, readers). Psychologists think that this could be a result of an evolutionary glitch, that our emotions can sometimes work in paradoxical ways, deducing that the joy experienced when witnessing whatever we deem to be toxically cute, can also prompt a frisson of mild aggression.

Cuteness has, even in recent years, become synonymous with Japanese fashion and culture. Growing up in England, where, for instance, our most celebrated fashion icons are often conservatively dressed and our advertisements are professional, glossy and airbrushed to the last detail, the idea of dressing and behaving in a childish manner above the age of sixteen is severely frowned upon and almost taboo. Drawing primarily from Sharon Kinsella’s fascinating essay on Kawaii culture, entitled ‘Cuties in Japan’, I’m going to take you on a journey to East Asia, exploring the psychology of cuteness, reviewing the origins of the kawaii lifestyle and wrangling with how this all ties in to current conversations regarding expressions of femininity, feminism, fashion and beyond.

Getting to the Root of Cute

“…You Harajuku Girls, Damn You’ve Got Some Wicked Style” (Gwen Stefani)

2004 was a simpler time. 12 years ago, pop culture icon, Gwen Stefani, introduced the world to the ‘Harajuku Girls’. This backup-dancing quartet of young Japanese women accompanied Gwen for all promotional appearances, be that in her music videos (for example the Alice In Wonderland themed ‘What You Waiting For?’ which this writer adores), red carpet events or chat show appearances.

This presence of the Harajuku Girls, however, has been criticized as a reinforcement of negative stereotypes of Asian women within the media. The women, critics feel, were employed to be ‘props’—rumours circulate online to this day that they were “contractually obliged” to speak only Japanese in public. A fine line does indeed exist between appreciation and appropriation. Was Gwen, a white American woman, using her entourage’s race for her own personal gain?

Gwen herself has always denied these claims, arguing in 2014 to TIME magazine that the girls were her friends in real life outside of the performance world and that she wished only to celebrate a culture different from her own, of which she had always been a fan. Gwen’s fans in Asia have also been complimentary of what they believe to be her inclusiveness, bringing kawaii culture to the mainstream western world through her highly successful Harajuku Lovers perfume range and fashion lines, for instance.

Photo: Gwen Stefani

Photo: Gwen Stefani

When Sweet Refuses to Take a Backseat

Nevertheless, potentially problematic pop stars aside, what exactly is it that constitutes a kawaii aesthetic? I wouldn’t be appropriately honouring my Linguistics degree without first conducting a little etymological research. Derived from a term with principle meanings along the lines of ‘shy’ and ’embarrassed’ alongside secondary meanings such as ‘pathetic’ and ‘vulnerable’, ‘kawaii’ has not always had the connotations with which it is associated today.

Heavily influenced by American and European style, kawaii in its noun and adjective forms refers to anything small, pastel and fluffy. Buildings, public transport and even construction equipment are personified and re-personalised through the use of quirky googly-eye stickers. Although a very wry humour seems to underlie the style, it is claimed that in Japan, there are no boundaries to the notion of camp (or even a concept of it), as the delightful sign pictured below demonstrates.

Photo: Roland Tanglao @ Flickr

Photo: Roland Tanglao @ Flickr

Kawaii, it is claimed, originates in a handwriting craze of 1970s Japan (please bear with me on this one). Rebellious teenage girls, desperate to express a young, feminine identity of their own in a society that represses such a demographic, took to using highly stylized, rounded, fine pencil strokes, adorning their characters with hearts, stars, fruits and faces. The distinctive and difficult-to-decipher nature of this so called ‘kitten writing’ caused major discipline problems in Japan; in some schools it was eventually banned and test papers submitted in this style were not marked. If anything, this disciplinary action in fact spurred the style on further—it later developed into an underground, anarchic literary trend, proving that, for young Japanese girls at least, the pen really is mightier than the sword.

Advertising agencies and businesses alike soon cottoned on to how lucrative kawaii style products could prove, especially for a demographic as identity- and fashion-conscious as young women. Almost overnight, starting with products as simple as crockery, notebooks and purses, the seemingly attractive and rebellious kawaii culture was embraced and celebrated throughout commercial Japan.

This new generation of rebellious women rejected the previous traditional values of condemnation of materialism or displays of wealth. Perfect childlikeness is an unattainable ideal that becomes even less attainable over time. This very concept generated a market that demanded an endless stream of ephemeral products, increasingly designed to meet the demands of looking and acting as childlike as is humanly possible. It would seem that this underlying drive is also what contributes further to the highly consumerist, Instagram culture within which we live today.

Furthermore, lifestyle magazines praised childlike fashion. An emphasis was placed on demure, youthful styles that incorporated pastel colours, fluffy frills and puffed sleeves. Influences from French, punk and preppy styles to this day remain highly prevalent. Most importantly, clothing was to be slim-fitted.

Plastic accessories were lauded, as were colourful socks, small sandals and novelty hairpins. The photography featured in these magazines juxtaposed sweetness with grown up settings, portraying young models clad in kawaii clothing in metropolitan nightclubs and streets.

Kawaii and Feminism: A Naïve Nightmare or a Perfect Pairing?

Is this saccharine styling conducive to the feminist movement, however? Embracing the kawaii lifestyle to the extreme essentially involves ‘becoming’ a cute object. From purchasing cute products to surrounding oneself with sweetness, these choices have the potential to transform someone’s identity. To be out of touch with reality, living in a pastel daydream, encourages hedonism and the pursuit of only the simplest of pleasures.

It could even be claimed that behaving as a child is even an act of self-mutilation, as is depicted by the pigeon-toed stances and postures portrayed in images of women promoting kawaii fashion. Glossy eyed expressions, aspiring to an infantile ideal and feigning stupidity and naivety are all a compromise. To display as a child an adult is, critics of the style argue, to deny the qualities of insight and introspection associated with maturity. In its extreme form, kawaii is a subservient behaviour rooted in becoming dependent on others as opposed to becoming empowered by one’s own identity (this latter being a core value of feminism). This lack of responsibility further reinforces the hegemonic status of masculinity. The physical frailty depicted through the fetishized imagery of a sweet, little girl contributes in a damaging way to perceptions of women and femininity.

Dedicated followers of the kawaii lifestyle argue to the contrary, however, claiming that a woman who embraces her cuteness is far more elusive than first sight would suggest. Opposition is taken in particular to the construction of the style as designed exclusively for the male gaze. Could it be that this birth of a whole new culture, so different from traditional Japanese values, was an indirect response to sexist stereotypes through ‘conscious taunting’ of societal expectations?

Women with a penchant for the saccharine are those who are no longer obligated to please a man. They embrace their freedom; they are young and successful, spend a large amount of money on their self and enjoy time with like-minded friends. They view their lives as privileged, with ‘maturity’ being perceived as a threat to this lifestyle. Some Japanese feminists argue that is, in reality, anarchic, to idolize a romanticised childhood. The kawaii lifestyle challenges values central to societal structure in Japanese culture. Women are happy to experiment with their femininity and are conscious of doing so in what they perceive to be a refusal to conform to traditional female roles through dressing and acting in a youthful manner.

In a similar way to the rise of raunch culture in the western world (which sees women acting in a sexually charged manner to emphasise independence and maturity), Japanese youth equally infuriated their elders with uncooperative handwriting, child-like behaviour and pastel clothing. Emphasising immaturity and inability to fulfil societal responsibilities can be envisaged as a counter mainstream movement, condemning the bleak severity of an impending and inevitable adulthood.

Sayōnara

Ultimately, the jury remains out for whether our human appreciation of cuteness is maternal and solicitous, or the result of a transformative, prying gaze. Are we appeasing a hunger for expressing pity, or honing in on an instinctive good-heartedness? Either way, kawaii offers an escape from the often-cold reality of the twenty-first century. Consumption of culture will always be a way for humans to fulfil our underlying needs and desires.

There is a salient simplicity and emotional warmth that comes with the innocence of nostalgia. Childhood is a time when (if fortunate) we can be free. With its cheap, pastel plastic heart, the kawaii lifestyle further reinforces how complex real life itself can be. Adulthood can be brutal and harsh, false and shallow: It almost seems somewhat natural to wish to revert to a simpler time in one’s life, even if that means embracing all things cute.

Photo: C_osett @ Flickr

Photo: C_osett @ Flickr