KAWAII COMPLEX – Part 3
Updated: Sep 5
Too Kawaii, or not too Kawaii? That is the question!
Cuteness Citizen Control
In the 70s the emergence of cute handwriting became an outlet for bottled up teenage emotions. Chris Kincaid (Japan Powered) argues that this new expression was the ultimate act of rebellion against Japanese culture, since Japanese language is such a central part of the Japanese identity. Cursive writing of Japanese characters signaled a change in teenage identities that was inspired from western culture and celebrated individuality.
Naturally the cute handwriting was opposed or even banned by some schools. But Kawaii could not be detained and quickly spread to most parts of Japanese society. On the one hand it kept enforcing individual freedom, on the other it created labels that enforced Japans lack of gender equality.
Some of the more usual terms are «kimo-Kawaii» (so cute its creepy), «busa-Kawaii» (so pitiful its kawaii), «ero-Kawaii» (sexy cute) and «shibu-Kawaii» (everyday cute, like wearing one cute item with an otherwise ordinary outfit).
No matter the type of Kawaii, they all became some sort of label. Certain critical voices claim that Kawaii has influenced the general view of women in Japanese society, especially in the workplace. There are countless examples of strong confident women playing the role of innocent and naïve coworkers, who are only getting half the salary of their male colleagues.
Japan is literally drenched in Kawaii. Its connotations have evolved over time, and its meaning changes according to context. This versatility is reflected in my own experience. At first I took Kawaii to mean cute, as in «Hello Kitty is cute». Then it evolved into a term of affection, before finally becoming a thank you for cleaning out the kitchen sink.
The biggest problem for me as an outsider is not only the many different uses of Kawaii, and the misunderstanding of Japanese language and tone of voice, but the overuse of the word in all aspects of life. It can be very useful if you know how to use it, but be beware of Kawaii numbness.
When everything is Kawaii, when Kawaii becomes more usual than the ordinary, the entire concept seems to loose its meaning. That being said, this is just a confused whimper from a slightly lost Husky in a stranger land.
Today is the 19th of May 2020. I have spent little over a year in Japan in my life, in total. Maybe I will revisit this blog post in a year to review what more I have learned. Perhaps I will achieve some Kawaii enlightenment. Maybe I will finally understand when Kawaii means «thank you for peeling the potatoes», and when it means «I like you».
Japan Powered: What is Kawaii?
Merriam-Webster: On «Kawaii» and the Power of Cute
Princeton University Press: The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature
Sage Journals: How the Term Kawaii is perceived Outside of Japan
Savvy Tokyo: Sexism and Culture: Japan's Obsession with Kawaii