Kawaii Issues of Escapism & Gender Equality
Updated: Oct 4, 2021
What is Kawaii? | Part 3: Kawaii Problems in Japanese Society
The Labels of Kawaii
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.
Freedom and Oppression of Kawaii
Ashley Clarke over at Dazed Digital helps us navigate the sea of Kawaii by explaining the two-sided nature of Kawaii as such: Kawaii seems like infantile expressions of femininity, which is easily interpreted as gender condescension. Clarke then passes the ball to Misha Janette at Tokyo Fashion Diaries.
Jeanette opposes the above mentioned interpretations, however, and argues that Kawaii is less about gender oppression and more about refusing to let go of childhood innocence. Furthermore she underlines that there is no stigma associated with men being fans of Kawaii, while Japanese ideas of femininity are very different from western views.
As such, as Clarke so aptly puts it, «when it’s filtered through a Western lens it’s easy to see how cultural differences are lost in translation». This rings especially true to the Kawaii-confused ears of yours truly. I might very well be loosing my way in the cutesy labyrinth.
Still, when Clarke ends her article by stating that Kawaii is about making everyday life more palatable, and «the real world less awful», I can’t help but think «unhealthy escapism». I find it hard to believe that Kawaii does not connect to Japanese gender equality on some level or other. But what do I know. I am still just an outsider who has just barely begun to understand the constructs that bind Japanese society together.
Final Reflections on Kawaii
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 lose its meaning. That being said, this is just a confused whimper from a stranger Husky in a strange land.
So far, I have only lived a year and a half in Japan. 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
Tokyo Fashion Diaries: Kawaii