Japan and Power: Kawaii is Power!

Scholars since the late 20th century have been much interested with the concept of kawaii. We have come to a point in which the term is not only attractive to scholars of Japanese Studies but most people around the world, who have inevitably been in contact with products that inhabit the concept. But what exactly is kawaii? In short, kawaii is power. Many researchers have formulated their own definitions according to their ethnographic findings. One of such definitions states: “Kawaii or ‘cute’ essentially means childlike; it celebrates sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine, gentle, vulnerable, weak, and inexperienced social behavior and physical appearances. (Kinsella, 220)”. Like Kinsella’s approach, many attempts in defining kawaii have centered around similar concepts regarding ‘cuteness’ or ‘childlike’. However, such attempts of defining kawaii in ‘suitable English concepts’ strays us away from understanding kawaii in its interhuman relations. In this paper, I will be arguing why kawaii is power by looking at how kawaii becomes the ‘weapon of the weak’ for youngsters and women, and how kawaii commodities carry such power relations in its mass consumption. 

Initially, I would like to expand the notion of ‘kawaii is power’ and what I mean by it. Kawaii is power, precisely because of its ability to deconstruct hierarchies. At times, such transformations of hierarchies become evident as kawaii becomes the weapon of the weak. In other occasions, in which the concept is reflected via inanimate objects (in mass consumption), kawaii becomes a disguised form of power relations that is induced in such objects. Firstly, I would like to start by touching on the former claim, which focuses on the concept of kawaii appearing as a form of power by becoming the ‘weapon of the weak’, specifically for women and children. Kinsella proposes that women are the main generators of and actors in kawaii culture “From the consumption of cute goods and services and the wearing of cute clothes, to be faking of childish behavior and innocent looks, young women were initially far more actively involved in cute culture than were men. (Kinsella, 243)”. On the other hand. the female role in traditional Confucian Japanese customs, is explained in terms such as ‘patriarchy’ by the modern language. To bring a better understanding, the characteristics of liberal western traits such as individual rights and freedom, self-identity, ‘true self’ etc. were spread around the globe by the process of modernization; and Japan was no exception. However, such ‘modern’ notions which developed under a very specific tradition inherit a Western history. And when such notions are extracted from a tradition of a very specific history and are applied to other traditions of different understandings and norms, such as the Japanese tradition, a conflict occurs between the ideals and traditional practices. Therefore, the Western liberal idea of egalitarianism in gender did not match the place and understanding of women in Japanese traditions which have adopted Confucian values. As a result of this conflict, discourses were formed regarding the place of women in the Japanese society and how women were judged and mistreated about many aspects such as their clothing or their role in working spaces. With the female kawaii practices, the women were able to exercise power that reconstructed the male-oriented customs of the society. To understand how this power is exercised, we need to understand Kinsella’s account of people’s reactions to kawaii being ‘childlike because of their apparent innocence’ (Kinsella 238). Many of the reactions that were recorded, included notions such as ‘loveable’, ‘girlish innocence’, ‘babies’, ‘children’, ‘innocent obedience’ which all circle around the idea that what is kawaii is something that carries the characteristics of the innocence of a baby or a child, which make that person seem vulnerable, yet lovable. And it is via reflecting innocence that a girl’s position in gender hierarchy is uplifted. Because, it is by innocence that a girl sells the leisure that she is involved in, in some cases. An example is Hiroko, a pop-idol who quickly became famous by embodying the cute aesthetic (Kinsella, 236). Therefore, in such scenarios, kawaii becomes a weapon of the weak which is used as a means of ‘receiving help’. In addition to women, as mentioned, it is also children who uses kawaii as their ‘weapon of the weak’. Kinsella mentions how kawaii emerged in schools when cute handwriting and slangs were produced which angered school authorities (Kinsella, 222). And according to her, it was a sign of rebellion against the teachers. I believe that we can extend this notion of rebellion into an idea of a construction of an alternative world that went against the norms of the state-education. And this could be perceived as a way of resisting power, as a form of counter-power, which formed new discourses, such as kanappi and ureshii, accessible to and understood by only Japanese youth themselves, as an opposition to the normalization and the standardization of expressions by their adults, and perhaps the state. And in Foucauldian sense, since discourse is power, such youngsters exercised power themselves when they formed unheard discourses.  

Secondly, as mentioned, kawaii is not only power exercised by ‘the weak’ but also power that is exercised via commodities, or inanimate objects, via mass consumption. Kinsella describes how, in 1971, Sanrio began producing cute-decorated stationaries and “fancy goods”. Eventually, in a very short period, the company reached astronomical values of profit in the global market (Kinsella, 226). In a way, as pioneers of commodifying kawaii, Sanrio constructed norms that formed ways in which kawaii could be induced to daily products.  And by doing so, blueprints of ‘kawaii commodities’ was formed for other companies to extract as much profit as possible from both the people that identified with kawaii, as it was their source of power (women and children), and from ‘the privileged’ that were willing to buy into the innocence card played by the ‘weak’ (in this case, buyers of this category mostly represent men and other adults). With this idea in mind, a simple Hello Kitty pencil carries with itself a great deal of power relations that makes it appealing to different genders and different ages for different reasons. Another example could be that of Pink House, which produced adorable outfits for budding cuties in Japan beginning from the first half of 1980s. Women outfit and underwear were designed in ways that reflected the kawaii culture (Kinsella, 229). At the same time, the target audience for these products, women, eagerly bought and identified with such products even though they were criticized by anti-cute ideas, mostly resulting from the thinking that such types of dressings were ‘immoral’ based on Japanese traditional moral values (Kinsella 246). In this case, the commodity itself became both a symbol of resisting women’s place in traditional moral values, and a symbol of converting that resistance to power as forming a ‘counter-culture’.  

In conclusion, investigating the notion of kawaii simply in terms of English alternatives, which many scholars do, does injustice to the concept itself by oversimplifying both the concept of kawaii and its function in modern Japanese society. It is an oversimplification because it disregards the place of power relations that are historically embedded in this recently constructed culture which emerged as a ‘weapon of the weak’ and as a symbol of resisting the norms. In addition, the embodiment of kawaii and its symbolization is not only done by individuals but also by commodities offered to mass consumption. And kawaii is power precisely because of its impact in societal hierarchies, when investigated in right contexts.

References 

Kinsella, Sharon. “Cuties in Japan: Women, Media and Consumption in Japan: Taylor & Francis Group.” Taylor & Francis, Routledge, 16 Dec. 2013, http://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/e/9781315026312/chapters/10.4324/9781315026312-13. 

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