Kawaii Culture and recent sculptural work

Recent sculptural work I have been making includes objects that are mass-produced, kitsch, and have attributes that resonate with Kawaii culture.  Interesting to me, that beyond the surface likeness or echo of Kawaii, it has come to mind as I have researched Kawaii culture, that there is also a parallel story and irony in my current work. (more on this in another entry).

Kawaii is translated close to ‘cute’ or ‘child-like’ in english.  It is desirable to be thought of as Kawaii in Japan (similar to being thought of as ‘cool’ in America) as this means innocent and without negative traits.  Kawaii is also an effort to relive an idealized childhood (Kinsella, 1996).  Generations of cute icons, for example Pokemon and Hello Kitty, are part of the Japanese culture and have developed throughout history originating with Takehisa’s work. (Ono, 2006; Manami & Johnson, 2013).    Products considered cute, such as Hello Kitty, are the result of Japan’s long focus on asymmetry and simplicity (Kato, 2002).  Popular taste for these mascots is based, in many ways, on traditional aesthetic qualities associated with Japanese art and nature.  Manga is one of the best examples of Japanese visual culture, it’s origin can be traced back to the Bishop Toba’s Chojugiga (Animal Scrolls) in the twelfth century (Kato, 2002).  Japan has a large youth culture called Shojo (girl) culture (which includes boys and male and female adults) where the notion of Kawaii is key.


Hello Kitty

There is a darker side, (according to Kato and Kinsella) and a chimera, within this culture of cute.

Shojo live in a democratic society where the majority rules. Mass production, triggered by technological development and together with mass media, leads the people to mass consumption. Mass-produced popular culture dominates everybody, regardless of age, class and regional differences. In this society, it is difficult to have an individual, unique voice which could possibly be shared by some others. Technology has brought convenience to the masses, but has taken away face-to-face communication. In the chaos of today’s world, shojo feel like hollow creatures whose only act is to consume. Despite the constant alienation or fear of losing individuality, they still have to live in society. So what keeps shojo going?  (Kato, 2002).

Writer Miki Kato suggests self-deprecating humour, amae (act like a child), Japanese love of milder, softer and lighter things included in the design of mascots and Kawaii, help the Shojo both escape from the sense of isolation created by consumer culture and the pressurised lifestyle.

To escape from a sense of alienation, shojo culture encourages individuals to identify with a group. Wearing a cute mascot in public is a way to communicate with others like yourself. There is a consensus that a person who likes cute things is good. If you show a funny mascot, people assume that you are an easy-going and open-minded person. Your mascot makes people around you believe you are more approachable. The mascot also affects you: it gives you a sense of membership in the group that likes and identifies with the character.  (Kato, 2002)

The hollow and ironic promise of identity is most poignantly revealed here by Kato.

Find your identity!

Curiously, these cute mascots and print club help shojo to have individuality. There is a wide and constantly expanding selection of mascots to choose from. Print club issues a vast number of illustrative environments, with the option of adding a short message and a choice of printing modes to alter the mood. Because of this endless, seasonal variety, a shojo feels that she is choosing one specifically customised for her.

In this way Japanese mass culture is trying to attract people seeking individuality through the consumption of varied products. However, products remain simply a part of mass production and do not provide personal individuality; it is the company that provides an identity into which the consumer can buy. (Kato, 2002)


Pastel girls in Harajuku. Credit: rc! CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Japanese psychiatrist, Doi, on Kawaii culture, provides this viewpoint;

In Amaeno Kouzou (1974) the psychiatrist Doi, considering the present and future prospects of Japanese culture, wrote: ‘It could be a regression that everybody – adults and children, male and female, intellectuals and non intellectuals, and Westerners and Easterners – is acting like a child. However, this could be a necessary step to create a new culture for our future.’ Cute mascots serve Japanese culture by assuring the individual that there is a secure life and future – even in the smallest of things. (Kauzou as in Kato,2002)

While I agree with the insight and viewpoint of Kato and Kinsella on the darker side of Kawaii culture; it seems also important and relevant to acknowledge that individuals who live in Japanese culture will have their own unique apprehension of it, or to acknowledge Wittgenstein’s “seeing-as” or “aspect seeing” in relation to the subjects (or observers) perceptual schematism (way of understanding, apprehending or perceiving something by means of the senses or of the mind; cognition; understanding) (Wittgenstein, 1953)).  In this sense Kawaii imagery (like the golden calf) is a shape-shifting chimera.

Kato, M. (2002). Cute culture. Eye. http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature/article/cute-culture.

Kinsella, S. (1996). Cuties in Japan. Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan. University of Hawaii Press.

Manami, O. & Johnson, G (2013). Kawaii! Japan’s culture of cute. New York: Prestel Publishing.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe : Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

2 thoughts on “Kawaii Culture and recent sculptural work

  1. You also have to take into consideration the place the idea of ‘kawaii’ has in the infantilisation of women. Japanese culture venerates extreme youth and innocence (especially in women) even more than western culture, and that’s saying something. There is this sexual fascination in Japan for school girls in little sailor uniforms – and all the school girls really do wear them! I don’t know what the schools are thinking, but it is part and parcel of the whole concept of ‘kawaii’ and the way it is sexualised. Women are traditionally encouraged to be sweet, small, docile and cute which makes it difficult for your average Japanese woman to be strong, ambitious and self-motivated. Those that break the ‘kawaii’ trend are the ones that are really finding their own identity within Japanese society because dressing up as a lolita or wearing Hello Kitty is actually still staying within the acceptable bounds for femininity in Japan.

  2. Yes good point Mary, I agree absolutely. In what I have read so far this was discussed and so much more i.e. creepy Kawaii, pop culture….I have tried to keep the post (and for time constraints! shorter) there is so much I could write about Kawaii it’s hard to know where to start or stop. My initial thoughts before research were that it (Kawaii) was a reaction to the war where the Japanese were viewed as so cruel, horrible torture etc as kind of antidote or to soften the national image or as a kind of recovery from the trauma of the war (Hiroshima) etc but in everything I have read so far these ideas are not mentioned at all. I have tried to focus on what most closely relates to my work. Kawaii is such a massive topic and has become so endemic in Japanese society now. Amazing how something that started so small has grown to be so ubiquitous – the power of branding and consumerism?? – perhaps mixed together with the fertile ground of post WW2 society, the influence of the US postwar, the Japanese aesthetic and cultural norm’s for women?. It would make an interesting study I reckon! (if I study anthropology in another life!!!)

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