The Japanese subculture has defined its appearance to the world, the word ‘Kawaii’ directly translates to ‘Cute” in English, which contradicts with Japanese culture and traditions. However, due to globalization, western influence has contributed to the rise of Japanese subculture like Lolita, Cosplay, Decora. These cultures helped to define what we see Japan is, a modern society with a rich historical background and its ever-changing social influence. The constant struggle between individuality and social standards has segregated its older generation and new generations. The word Kawaii not only means cute but also a hidden history behind its meaning.
So, what’s the secret?
What is Kawaii?
Although Kawaii becomes a familiar word, not many people precisely know the meaning of it. When someone calls you Kawaii, do they simply imply cuteness? Kinsella (2013) used to define Kawaii as being childlike. It also expresses the pureness, vulnerability, and weakness. The original term of Kawaii was developed from the phrase “Kawayushi” which referred to the blushing of the face (Billseigs, 2017). In this case, Kawaii can be understood as shyness and embarrassment. However, Kawaii itself also creates the term called Kawaiso, which evokes the poor, pathetic and pitiful feeling. (Billseigs, 2017). The Kawaii culture is made “by people, for people”. It was created by numerous young Japanese women who were not satisfied with the social obligations.
Kawaii before and after becoming a popular culture.
Before becoming a popular culture
Heian Era (794 – 1185)
In Heian era (794 -1185), the very first trace of Kawaii was discovered in the work named The Pillow Book of Sei-shonagon. Specifically, in the chapter Utukushiki-mono (The Pretty Things), the author described the objects as small, infantile and cute things (Sato, 2009) which could be seen as the evidence of Kawaii in the early ages.
The following image is the illustration by Junko Shibata in order to clarify the content of chapter Utukushiki-mono in The Pillow Book. Even though you might not understand the Japanese text in the bellow demonstration, it would be easy for you to find the cuteness in this chapter when looking at the image.
Edo era (1603 – 1868)
Other evidence of Kawaii was found in Edo era (1603 – 1868) throughout the Japanese first woodblock prints called Bijinga. According to Kincaid (2014) in his blog post, the genre of Bijinga was referred to the images of lovely Japanese women wearing kimonos. This genre was considered as a kind of artwork representing Japan’s ideal of beauty (Bijinga.com, n.d).
Although the term Kawaii did not exist in both the Heian and Edo eras, it would not be hard to recognize that cuteness used to be Japan’s aesthetic preference since a very long time ago.
Taisho era (1912 – 1926)
Although there were signs of Kawaii in Heian and Edo eras, not until the Taisho era (1912 – 1926) this term has evolved in a positive way. The greatest achievement of Kawaii was found in Yumeji Takehisa’s products (Okazaki and Johnson, 2013). To be specific, in his shop in Nihonbashi, Takehisa used to sell fancy goods such as cards, umbrellas, dolls, woodblock prints and kimono collars for schoolgirls which designs were a combination of both Eastern and Western styles.
His products attracted a lot of attention at that time since there was no internet and the society was strict with girls when restraining them to meet up with boys. Therefore, many Japanese girls chose to write love letters as well as seeking for something cute in order to distract themselves, according to Tokotours (2013).
After becoming a popular culture
Showa era (1926 – 1989)
In Showa era (1926 – 1989), Kawaii was no longer Japanese aesthetic preference but became a popular culture. The reasons for this transformation were related to many historical events which directly promoted the trend of cuteness.
In the late 1960s, women were able to decide their career path and marriage, which never happened in the past. Moreover, education opportunities for women were improved in the postwar. The young generation was able to get the higher education. It was reported that 35% of high school students could go to the university in 1955 (Abbott, 2015). Along with the economic prosperity, many jobs in the White-collar positions were available. In addition to it, the women’s domestic workload became lighter thanks to the rise of technology advances (Madge, 1998). That is why many women were able to get a job instead of playing the role of wives only.
Although the women had more opportunities to express themselves, their freedom was still restricted. Japanese women realized that they could not achieve full employment opportunities the same as men did (Madge, 1998). Most companies preferred to offer leadership positions to men when women were only allowed to do simple jobs with the low salary (Kinsella, 2013). Despite there was more freedom in career path and education for women, the Japanese society in the postwar period still defined their role as wives and mothers (Madge, 1998). As the result, it is no surprise when many Japanese women refused to grow-up to escape from marriage, which can be seen as a way to follow their career and higher education (Sato, 2009). This was where Kawaii came in.
Starting from the 1970s, the development of the fashion culture and mass media was recognized. It was the result of Japan’s move from “political idealism to postindustrial consumerism”, from “men’s ambition to women’s fancy” (Sato, 2009). Created by young women to meet the demand of young women themselves, many trends of cuteness established at that time such as cute handwriting and fancy goods which remarkably contributed to the growth of Kawaii culture.
- Cute handwriting
In 1974, cute handwriting style became popular among young Japanese girls. It was called the kitten writing or fake child writing because of its childish letters. It also added some symbols such as stars, hearts as part of the writing (Kincaid, 2014). This style of writing was seen as a young people’s sign of rebellion against traditional Japanese culture when adopting Western writing styles, such as horizontal left to the right format and English words like “love” or “friend” (Abbott. 2015). With the creation of cute handwriting trend, many Japanese teenagers were able to communicate in their own way and expressed their emotion at ease (Kinsella, 2013). One of the most interesting facts about this trend is the cute handwriting craze created by young women without any interference of mass media.
- Fancy goods
In the same period of cute handwriting, in 1971, the trend of fancy goods started to boom. Due to the rise of the handwriting craze, many Japanese companies applied cute features to their products, including stationeries, umbrellas, air fresheners, kitchen appliances, and electronics (Kinsella, 2013). The design of fancy products needed to be small, pastel, soft, lovable and especially non-traditional (Kinsella, 2013). The significant example of fancy goods was created in 1974 when the Hello Kitty was given birth and soon became a symbol of Kawaii culture.
How do the Kawaii women look?
This section will present a phenomenon that created the ideal model of Kawaii style as well as making the Japanese teenage girls obsessed for many years – Lolita.
According to Monden 2013, the term Lolita was derived from Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, is characterized by the image of the pre-adolescent girl taking the role of a sexualized child. Though this phenomenon was widely misunderstood and has stirred the controversy in Western culture, it still becomes one of the most famous and sophisticated Kawaii trends for Japanese women.
One of the most iconic Lolita’s trends is the AKB48, which is known for portraying the Japanese style of Kawaii. The characteristic Kawai outfits of these girls are reminiscent of Japanese schoolgirl looks such as large eyes, smooth skin or cartoon-like doll outfits. Furthermore, AKB48 have created the liberating and fashionable statement for many girls in Japan. Therefore, Lolita is not only the most recognizable style for Japanese women also becoming their entire lifestyle.
For high school students, blazers and tailor style uniform style is their hottest fashion combination not only at school but also heading out on holidays. Besides, elementary school girls frequently choose to wear this uniform style outfits when hanging out with friends, families and even to graduation days (Sanghani 2018).
In addition, this subculture fashion style is also popular with three main substyles: ‘gothic’, ‘sweet’ and ‘classic’ which aim to create the aesthetic of cuteness (Artemis 2013).
Gothic Lolita: inspired mostly by Victorian dress, Gothic Lolita is visibly characterized a lot darker with crosses, spiders and other popular gothic icons. Black and white are the most typical color combination. In addition, makeup is also a bit heavier than any other styles such as smokey eyes and a deeper lip color.
Sweet Lolita: inspired heavily by Rococo clothing, truly aristocratic style of France and considered as the most childlike aspect of Lolita culture (Romano 2013). It is usually defined by the baby animal, fairy tale and childlike attire with a lot of pinks and over-the-top embellishment.
Classic Lolita: greatly inspired by the Renaissance and Elizabethan eras and known as one of the most traditional and matured Lolita styles. Simplicity and moderation are the keys to this style. Therefore, A-line skirts, high-neck collars, and empire waists are the standard, usually in soft decoration and focused on light colors such as blue, green and red (Artemis 2013).
The attitude of Japanese society on Kawaii women.
As I mentioned above, the gender discrimination was the main reason that made Japanese women worry about their adult lives. Therefore, they pretended to be childish as the way to avoid the adulthood (Sato, 2009).
This idea was generated from the vague meaning of Kawaii that promoted the immaturity, along with the trend of Shojo – manga for girls – in the Showa era (1926 -1989). The shojo’s stories mainly focused on friendship and romance instead of the adult world and family life. Moreover, the characters in comics seemed to be disobedient. They were looking for the space of freedom and all of them practiced the Kawaii style (Madge, 1998). That is why many Japanese women were inspired to act cutely. According to Kinsella (2013), young women tended to pursue the free, unmarried and young lives. When they lived in the Shojo world where being childlike was preferable, they would never face any distinct obligations or role to play (Kinsella, 2013). To the unmarried women, they could enjoy their lives by spending money on themselves as well as socialize in urban centres, even when being pushed to the margin of society (Kinsella, 2013).
While many opinions show that Kawaii can lead to the subversion of Japan feminist, there are also a lot of perspectives that supports Kawaii as a unique culture standing for women. Therefore, the controversy will be analyzed to present the challenge of social and gender norms that oppress Japanese women. After that, the statement from Christopher and other authors will give a strong support that Kawaii is the Third-wave feminism.
First, Asano (2014), a feminist linguist has argued that the fascination with cute and immature femininity will make Japanese women lose the social opportunities due to the image of being fragile, passive and not able to take initiative. Moreover, if a woman continues to behave Kawaii to the extent, they can be labeled as burikko which means a helpless, passive and lovely look of a young girl. Furthermore, if a woman’s voice or performance differs from ethical femininity, they are going to be called as ‘me-food women’ or ‘oremeshi onna’. Ore and Meshi orderly stands for ‘I’ and ‘food’, is the traditional language form of the Japanese man that describes an autocratic husband’s rule when his wife fed him. According to Miller, 2004, this language is used to name a group of women who tend to act so hyper-masculine.
Besides, Sophie (2014) also agrees with Asano’s argument (2014) that ‘cute’ is hard to respect. To support this argument, she expressed that to be Kawaii is to be vulnerable, weak and less independent. “Cute” is the opposite of capable. Additionally, according to the World Economic Forum (2014), Japan ranked 105 out of 136 countries for having the low proportion of women in the workforce, especially executive positions. This is because many Japanese would like to embrace Kawaii to be clumsy and clueless to gain approval rather than want to be empowered.
On the other hand, Snyder (2014) and Christopherson (2014) share the same perspective to support Kawaii women. First of all, Snyder indicated that Kawaii culture goes along with Third-wave feminism in that women are able to make self-determined choices based on their lifestyles. This means that Kawaii culture allows women to participate in any activities that are related to female activities such as makeup or wearing dresses without being antagonistic because of societal standards.
Christopherson continues this statement with the argument that Japanese women do not want to be regarded as the same term as men. They only want to create their own “women space” without separating themselves from feminine qualities. Therefore, Kawaii helps them gain social status through approaches that were not aggressive. It also helps to shorten the border of gender dichotomies and social norms of behavior and girlishness. Last but not least, Kawaii is also feminist in terms of empowering women so that they can have an opportunity to make their own decision without any pressure from society.
It can be seen clearly that Kawaii has two typical faces: one is the ideal construction imposed by man and the other is controlled by the girls themselves. However, nowadays Kawaii seems to become a motivational tool for Japanese women in every area of the modern Japanese culture such as behavior, a way of speech and a way of make-up ( Yabai 2017). Therefore, it can be assumed that the influence of this subculture will continue become the country’s dominant pop-cultural aesthetic as well as increasingly integrated into the society.
Many Japanese people still believed that Kawaii is a women-driven culture that allows them to freely present their self-expression and choices without being judged by the surrounding community. Therefore, the non-stop development of this subculture in Japanese society is indispensable and easy to understand.
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