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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Culture of Cute

可愛い文化

Japan is the king of cool. Unlike Cool Britannia or Hip America, though, Japanese cool is nothing if not cute, intensely cute, maddeningly cute, even cloyingly cute. The Japanese for cute - kawaii - is uttered so often and so reflexively by so many that it has become a mantra. See baby: “Cute!” See little dog: “Cute!” See almost any girl/woman under 30: “Cute!”

Ciao Manga PictureLong-known to Japan-watchers, kawaii has now gone international. From New York art-scene superstar Takashi Murakami’s urban vinyl toys to Hello Kitty!, kawaii is now a serious life-style choice of adults throughout the civilized world.

The Asahi Shinbun newspaper, a serious center-left establishment paper read by 8.3 million people daily, recently ran a story on “Japanese soft power” and its spread around the world. The point of the article was that, a la Harvard professor Joseph Nye’s thesis, Japan’s influence is spreading less via the hard power of military and economy and diplomacy - but rather thanks to cuteness, or the power to attract.

According to the lead singer of a Norwegian pop duo called Kawaii, “kawaii is the image of peace-loving Japan. It expresses the kindness of non-aggression, of comforting others.”

The singer, thirty-two-year-old Mats, first learned music on a Kawai piano (Kawai being a surname that translates into the very English-sounding 'Riverwell', therefore not actually related to the adjective 'kawaii' at all). Later, thanks to 'Hello Kitty', he came to understand the meaning of the omnipresent word that almost shares the pronunciation of the piano maker's name.

The spread of manga and anime into a global phenomena are part and parcel of this. US journalist Douglas McGray, author in Foreign Policy of “Japan’s Gross National Cool,” pointed out the evidence of the Japan's "soft" power in 2002.

Ciao Manga PictureHowever, Japanese cool is no longer confined only to the cute; it has branched out to include capsule hotels in London, the popularity of futons, revolving sushi restaurants, and even pre-work stretching. In Japan itself all of these are, as the paper points out, decidedly B-class on the scale of cool. In the West, though, they are highly hip.

The last time I was in the US, this mismatch showed up when friends insisted they take me to the place to be seen in town: Nobu. After the price tag, perhaps the most shocking aspect of the evening was the hors d’oeuvres. With a straight face, an extremely tall and chic Korean-American waitress brought out a plate of eda mame beans laid out on an elegant dish. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my friends that this $19 plate of lightly salted blanched soybeans was what, in Japan, middle-aged men chow down at home while watching soccer or baseball on TV and slugging back cheap beers. Nothing any hipper than old guys picking their teeth and farting as they doze on the tatami mats in front of the tube came to mind as I stared at the exorbitantly-priced beans in front of me.

Viva Japanese soft power! Viva eda mame! Viva Kitty-chan! And viva kawaii!

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