Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cute Hits the Fan

If you live in Japan, especially if you’re a woman, you’ll quickly learn the word “Kawaiiii!” squealed in a rising intonation. It describes clothing, babies, puppies, kittens, cell phone baubles, erasers, fake food, small things, and you. It means cute, and it’s everywhere. It’s even in signs reminding you not to drive drunk, or to pick up your dog shit. Japan has mastered cuteness, there’s no denying that. But it also occupies such an exalted place linguistically. In America, “cute” is something you can safely call a chubby friend. Of course you use it for kids and fwuffy bunnies, but it can also be pretty demeaning (i.e. I think it’s cute you’re so concerned about global warming). I can’t recall ever being considered cute in America, not even as a kid. I’m too tall, too imposing. But here, I’m “kawaii”. It’s a very broad, yet valuable word. Women whose beauty might have been insulted by someone referring to them as “cute” in English can be perfectly satisfied with “kawaii”. In Japan, cuteness is a virtue, and it’s not just for kids. Instructional and warning signs are presented in cartoon form, and adorable characters are used as mascots for anything from cell phones to condoms. Depending on your bank, when you open your account your default bankcard will likely include illustrations of the Looney Toons. While young adults in America who are obsessed with Disney characters are considered a little strange, it’s perfectly normal here for a young woman to have a closet filled with clothing and accessories bearing the likeness of her favorite “character”, as well as matching “character” sheets and curtains, and a dashboard covered in fake flowers and stuffed animals.

Cuteness is held in such high esteem in Japan, but what is cuteness? Where does it come from, how do we identify it? James Kochalka might argue it comes from God, but the general scientific consensus is that cuteness is an abnormally large cranium with a high forehead, large, usually widely spaced eyes, small nose and mouth, and a narrow, often receding jaw. It’s infantile behaviors, such as playfulness, curiosity, or innocence.

In short, it’s appearance and behavior reminiscent of infants. If the looks and behavior of babies is so revered even among grown women, does that mean Japan is a society in a sort of arrested development? I couldn’t really answer that. But I will say that it’s hard to find clothing that doesn’t contain glitter, ruffles, or pink fuzz.

Cuteness usually falls into a few main categories: animals, babies, and cartoons featuring characters reminiscent of either animals or babies. An image of any of these things prompts a knee-jerk reaction, ranging from murmurs to emphatic exclamations of “kawaii!” It doesn’t matter how cute the animal or baby or in question is, you still have to say it’s cute. A while ago, I was watching this TV show where the theme of the day was hot women who were best friends with ugly women. Hilarious, right? Well, first they showed a slideshow of the hot girl in various stages of her life so the panel of talento (sort of celebrities who mainly just appear on TV shows) could ooh and ahh and “heeeeeee” about how gorgeous she was. Then they introduced the hot girl’s best friend, fat-ugly-funny girl, and went through a slideshow of her life. The entire purpose of that was so the talento could make jokes about how ugly she was. One guy said she looked like Asa Shouryuu, a famous sumo wrestler. But as soon as a baby picture came up, the entire panel melted into a gooey mush of “kawaiiiiiiiiii!” Never mind the general meanness of the show, there’s a baby on the screen! A baby who would before long turn into the hideous human being they were having so much fun ridiculing. Even little kids learn to recognize and respond to cuteness early. On Halloween last year, my school bused fifty kids to the American military base so they could go trick-or-treating. One of my students, a six-year-old girl who was one of about thirty Japanese girls dressed as a witch, caught sight of a blond boy about her age dressed as a clown. Along with the Japanese adults, she immediately marveled, “Chou kawaii!” The kid was her peer! I never called other kids cute when I was a kid. I kind of hated a lot of other kids, actually. I guess in this girl’s case, it is a bit different because she wasn’t used to seeing non-Japanese children. On the bus on the way home, Sayaka gave out awards for best costume. Obviously I wasn’t consulted, because every single winner was an adorable little girl dressed as a witch. I would have given an award to the kid who came as a cell phone.

During my first year planning the pre-school’s Christmas English program, I was frustrated by my co-workers’ fixation on what I thought were pointless details just for the sake of cuteness. The other teachers insisted on putting the youngest class in full costume—these hats with antennae and little underwear looking things with tails—that had nothing to do with singing “I’m a Little Teapot”. Honestly, that’s a pretty useless song for English language-learners, but it sure is precious to see babies doing that little dance. At the time, I thought these presentations for the parents were supposed to be demonstrations of actual learning. The other teachers just wanted the kids to parrot things they didn’t understand in a slick, professional-looking performance in order to impress the parents. We spent three months of the year preparing for this one performance, in my opinion wasting our one hour a week putting kids in ridiculous costumes and making them repeat the same thing over and over again when they could be learning English. My second year around, I’d wizened to the whole importance of presentation thing. It’s the same for Sports Days, or Culture Days, or anything that requires kids to work together and show the product. In all of these presentations, the parents probably understand that the kids can’t do the ultra-professional-looking things they perform in a normal situation, but here it’s the act of working together to create something that has value. I still don’t completely agree with it, but I understand. It’s the old honne and tatemae, projected appearance versus underlying reality dilemma. It’s a dilemma that I think relates closely to cuteness. Not only is a presentation a nice demonstration of everyone working together, it caters to the photo ops and good video as well.

In my emcee script, I was a little shocked that I was instructed to talk about how cute the kids were, at several different points in the program. In America, a teacher would never, in a school program, describe her students as cute. Children are sponges of knowledge and filled with endless potential, but a teacher would never reduce our future upstanding citizens to just cuteness. Sure, it’s not a crime to notice the cuteness, you can’t help it. But as an educator, to point it out and dwell on it as if it’s one of the merits you’re trying to present? It reminds me of my grandmother, who was a kindergarten teacher. Whenever she told people what she did and they responded, “Oh, that’s so cute,” she would cringe. She didn’t choose that level because they were cute, she chose it because she wanted to reach children at the beginning of their education and start them on the right path. She was intellectually interested in five-year-old brains.

All over Japanese TV, animals undergo similarly substance-free performance of cuteness. You watch for a while, but then you start to wonder, “But why are these baby pandas wearing colored bandanas and living in a special panda house with this guy?” Also, it seems like it’s impossible to show an animal on TV without adding an obnoxious animal voice-over for it, ala Bob Saget in America’s Funniest Home Videos. Everyone is quick to intone “kawaii”, but when it comes to the needs of real animals, as a society they seem kind of indifferent. At least in the country, the norm is dogs are kept outdoors on a short chain and ignored most of the time, while cats are kept half-feral and fed leftover rice. You can see them skulking around with crusty eyes and ribs showing. When Colin and I picked up four abandoned kittens last summer, we showed all our Japanese friends and acquaintances their pictures. No one could get over how devastatingly adorable they were, but despite the many places we posted ads, the only people who expressed any interest in caring for the kittens were foreigners.

Japan not only leads the world in cuteness technology, it has groundbreaking robot technology. Logically, what follows is cute robots. Meet Paro, the therapeutic robot seal.

It’s nice and soft with big round eyes that blink. It responds when you pet it, and makes little yelping noises. I remember the news reports extolling the amazing benefits of Paro for the elderly and the sick. They showed old women in wheelchairs kissing and petting the thing, while a little kid in a hospital bed cuddles it. You know what does the exact same thing and has the same benefits but often costs less than $3000? AN ANIMAL. Forgive me if I think that there are too many cats and dogs in this world that want and need love, and that empathy with a real, sentient being is more valuable than a fucking robot seal. But no, a real animal can piss and shit, and sometimes has health problems and loses its cuteness. This function of cuteness is in essence, superficial.

Suddenly the idea of kitsch feels relevant here. According to the discussion in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the word comes from German and literally means the absence of shit. Kundera discussed it largely in the context of the Communist restriction on the arts, which made social realism the only acceptable genre. Any art that had to do with rich people or imaginative scenarios was extravagant and bourgeois. Art needed a function to be patriotic, so it’s function was to laud Party interests and the State. Thus all the sculptures of happy workers struggling for the good of the people, and insipid poetry lavishing praise on the Communist way of life. In my opinion, social realism is responsible for the worst art in history. Not only was it one-note, it was fake. And ugly. Communist propaganda is delightful for connoisseurs of kitsch, who are almost always lovers of irony. However, kitsch, in itself, must lack all irony, mockery, snarkiness, and most importantly self-awareness. Kitsch is a relic of a beautiful and perfect world that doesn’t exist, thus it falls in the realm of absurdity.

Japan is certainly home to a lot of kitsch. But while kitsch was originally characterized by the absence of shit, Japan seems to have co-opted poop into its cuteness agenda. When it has eyes and a smile, shit certainly loses some of its foulness.

It’s pretty consistent with the features of kitsch that irony and sarcasm are nearly nonexistent here. Japan is so damn earnest, it makes me feel like a bad person that I’m so naturally inclined to scoff from the sidelines. I’ve talked before about the “Yareba dekiru” pep chant that my old school had. Well, the lead teacher would say variations of the chant that the students had to repeat in unison. Since the students were studying for tests on various subjects, sometimes they would repeat things like, “[I love English! I love math! I love everything!]” The first time I heard this, I made the mistake of giggling from my corner of the room. The teacher smiled politely at me, but what was I thinking? They took these chants very seriously, and I was supposed to play along with the image. Yes, they were making preposterous declarations of loving subjects so many of the students actually hated, and of course they don’t love everything. What about genocide? What about food shortages? See, the “[I love everything]” only holds in that nonexistent perfect and beautiful world, where Kitty-chan and all her friends at Sanrio live.

While on the surface Japan may project a lot of sunshine, rainbows, and robots, what about the rest? It goes without saying that no society is monolithic. Japan may be expert in cuteness, but it’s also responsible for some really nasty shit (link not safe for work and possibly not safe for your stomach). Japan’s expertise in horror and in cute things both have very visceral appeal (Get it? Viscera. Hahaha). Do they complement each other? And what’s the deal with this bear?

His name is Gloomy and he kills people. Maybe he’s the result of a cuteness hangover. I wonder if this qualifies as irony.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

My hometown, underwater 2

I found this photo on flickr. See how the water is moving? It shows how downtown has become part of the river. Damn you, nature!

My hometown, underwater

My sister sent me some pictures of the flood, and it's pretty amazing. Luckily, my family is safe and for the most part lived away from the floodplain. Unless you count Mandi's old house, which is submerged past the first floor. It's too bad, though, because it looks like a lot will be lost. Stay dry, everyone.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Japan broke my heart.

Something is tightening my chest now, squeezing the blood from the overworked muscle until it tingles in my fingertips. I wonder if it’s the feeling of a reopened wound, of leftover doubt and bitterness. It’s been seven months since my company let me go, and for the most part, I think I’m okay. There was a time, though, that every class I did reminded me of the classes I wasn’t doing, and I walked through my boss’ old apartment building (where I still have classes) in fear that I would accidentally run into someone from my old life. Even the elevator ride to the fourteenth floor where I still had students was painful and nostalgic, because I knew I would never stop at the seventh floor again. Back then I couldn’t imagine a time that I would be over it, but now, I’m mostly over it, as long as I try not to think about it.

My relationship with Japan has been a lot like, well, a relationship. Mostly it was my job it seemed like I was in a relationship with, but the fallout became not only between me and my company, but all the Japanese people I liked and thought I could trust who turned on me, and the cultural standards that deemed my treatment in the company acceptable. For a while, I couldn’t meet a Japanese person without wondering if they would have sided with Yoshiko against me. But let’s begin with the stormy love affair with my work.

At first I was reticent and confused, but when I allowed myself to be vulnerable, I fell in love. This was the brief period of time I felt like I belonged, in my company and in Japan. I overlooked the major flaws, and assumed my boss and co-workers had the best intentions. It was the honeymoon phase, the elated stupidness of new love. After a period of time, I began to really notice the flaws and quirks of my job and the people around me, and they became annoying as hell. It’s forgivable if it happens once or twice, but I started to wonder if it was too much to ask for them to actually tell me about important schedule changes, cancellations, or surprise classes. The list of really irritating things just kept getting longer and longer, but I worked through it, like you work through complaints and differences with someone you love. Eventually, I realized that I was never happy, but I’d become used to my crappy life, and thought maybe it was just easier to suffer through the problems. After the breakup, I was devastated and terrified, but at the same time liberated, and left wondering why I put up with all the shit that I did.

When I returned to Japan in January, I was seized with waves of bitterness every time I was reminded of my life before. And everything reminded me of my life before. Wednesday mornings. Lesson plans. Payment envelopes. I avoided certain restaurants and parts of town to reduce the chances of bumping into someone unexpectedly. Going to my boss’ apartment building every Tuesday hurt. To those who would listen, I was capable of scathing contempt toward my former company and employers, but if they joined in, I would sometimes be defensive of the situation. I was that messed up.

Sometime during this period, I was having lunch with a few of the foreign teachers in Kashima. One of them, Annick, had a few days previously given me the business card of a woman who had approached her looking for an English teacher. I held onto the card, thought about this Misako Katafuchi from somewhere that was only known as a swimming school, and couldn’t imagine anything good. At lunch that day, Annick asked me if I’d followed up, and was rightfully chagrined at my answer.

“I know I should call her,” I explained, “But I just don’t know if I can go through it again. Even if they did for some reason decide to sponsor my visa, they’re a small company, and it would probably be a situation just like my last workplace, if not worse. After what I’ve been through, I can’t trust people like that. I don’t even want to get involved with them.”

John, another ALT, piped in, “She’s been burned, and she’s not ready to love again.”

Back before I was “burned”, I was like one of those annoying friends who always bitched about her horrible, mistreating boyfriend but never did anything about it. After a few days I would report false improvement, but usually nothing changed. I either thought it did because I was in denial, or they had somehow convinced me that everything was my fault. They did that a lot. I remember telling a friend about the wrongdoing of the moment, and he said, “Just quit. Nothing’ s keeping you there.”

“Maybe I will this time,” I replied with defiance.

But Yoshiko had a way of talking her way out of things, of manipulating and flipping issues and making it seem like everything she does is in your best interest, that she is making sacrifices for you. She was impossible to speak to without a swirl of emotions, a mist of confusion, and a mindfuck. After six months in my job, I described it to someone as a love/hate thing, like I had an alcoholic co-dependent relationship with my work. It was quite perceptive of me at the time, because the ambivalence, co-dependency, and even alcoholism would get worse.

But there’s another dimension to it all. I spend at least as much time avoiding people as I do hoping that my former students will turn up unexpectedly. When I go out in Saga City I see so many people with kids, and hope that one of them will be from my preschool. I take the elevator in my boss’ old building, and try to will the doors opening to Saya and Haruko. The Kita family lives only a few blocks from me, and I used to run into them frequently at the grocery store, the post office, town events. Since the breakup, it hasn’t happened once. This kind of disappearing can only be willful, since Shi-town is so small and I’m so visible. That one tears me up. That family had been so good to me, and I hoped they would understand. Whenever I see a flock of kids in Shi-town elementary school uniforms, I always check to see if one has Haruna’s mischievous dimples or Yuka’s big eyes. I must look really creepy. But I miss the hell out of them, all of them. I wish we could have said goodbye on better terms.