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.


Blogger BilabialBoxing said...

That cell phone kid was awesome.

7:17 PM  
Blogger GLE said...

Did you hear about (not that it's shocking at all) Paris Hilton recently running into a pet store before some opening to buy a chihuahua puppy to make her outfit cuter and they wouldn't sell it to her. And she started screaming, "I Love my babies!!!" or something. The only good thing a puppy mill pet store has done. I think she has a feral heard of Chihuahuas on her compound.

11:51 PM  
Blogger This Ridiculous World said...

Wow, that toilet training video blew my mind. We're teaching English in China and though the people in our area have not quite caught on to the importance of cute, they do tend to obsess over image and appearance (no matter how absurd or phony). Similar to you, we were also subjected to weeks of wasteful English performance practice (with our high school students) and, being some of the only young foreigners in the city, our classes were interrupted repeatedly throughout the semester with news crews so the school could show how "fashion" learning English has become.
Is there something we, as Westerners have missed?

Thanks for the insightful, fun to read and enlightening post.

1:32 AM  
Blogger Carol said...

Cassie, you are such a trip!!! I love your observations about Japan. I think you should have your own column in something. You should be a writer that everyone reads all the time.

I'm totally wiped from mud scrubbing Mandi's place. there's a nice hardwood floor under all that stinky mud though! Love to see ya again. Mom

1:16 PM  
Blogger Claytonian said...

Your mom talks about your blog just like mine does about mine :)
I had something else but I forgot it

10:49 PM  

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