I know I’ve been saying I was gonna start writing again properly for the last 4 months. So I’ll stop saying it. Instead I’ll do what every good blogger does, which is take inspiration from someone else’s work to knock up something of my own. Well kind of…
In this case I’ve actually been meaning to write about the cult of the cute in Japan for a while, but like most other things I haven’t gotten round to it. And considering I’m leaving the country in six weeks, I should really get my arse in gear and play catch up.
Back to the matter at hand. Japan’s love of cute, also known as かわいい (pronounced kawaii – emphasis on the last i sound please). I was browsing the Sushimatic blog about an hour ago, and came across this post, which speaks for itself in terms of how far the whole cute thing can sometimes be taken in this country.
Thing is Japan really has this weird thing going on with cute. How a foreigner picks up on it depends on the person by and large, but regardless of your degree of ‘immunity’, sooner or later it really starts to stick out like a sore thumb. It’s not entirely exagerated either, as Sushimatic pointed out. There is probably a certain degree of difference depending on who’s speaking on it, but by and large Japan very much seems to hold dear the belief that everything can be ‘cute-d up’ and that making something cute can make it easier to ‘process’.
The first point, of how everything is seemingly fair game for being made cute, or cuter and so on, is what most people, including tourists, see when they come to Japan for any period of time. At times it’s so in your face it’s impossible not to ‘see’ it, from logos, to shop signs, to posters, notices, people’s clothes etc… Then you’ve also got the whole manga thing (from its cute outside to its darker underbelly), with the big eyes and sparkles, the school girl uniforms (also bordering on a slightly darker version of cute), the clothed dogs (which is only cute for some people let’s face it)… Anyways you get the picture, google ‘cute japan’ and behold the treasure trove of pictures further hammering home the point. Oh shit I nearly forgot, special mention for making poo cute – from Arale-chan’s sidekick to the butt-biting bug (who has his own show on TV) all the way to poo shaped ice-cream. I fail to think of any other country in the world that can do with poo what Japan has.
But, as the chaps at Sushimatic pointed out in their post, the whole cute thing also has many side-effects not always seen unless you live here really. One is the whole mascot thing the guys detailed in their post, which in itself can lead to some interesting results. The other, which fascinates me since it was first pointed out to me, is that cute is employed to make certain things, which are generally not so cute, easier to process. Or maybe it’s to grab the attention, or divert it, I’m not sure, but it leads to some funny stuff.
For example, you get a flyer about firefighting in the local area. Somewhere among the text is a cute drawing of chibi people being rescued by smiling chibi firemen from a chibi fire in their chibi house (ちび or chibi refers to small, sometimes deformed, versions of bigger things, and from what I’ve gathered so far always implies a certain amount of cute). For all intent the drawing is there to get the serious message of fire protection across using cute little people in life-threatening, but cute looking, situations.
Another example is the use of cute drawings, sometimes mascots I guess too, to draw attentions to dangerous situations or potential disturbance in everyday life.
In the case of danger, you’ve got the cute cat with his tail trapped in the doors of the train warning you to be careful (and while tail-trapped and crying the cat still somehow manages to be cute). Another one you see on the trains involves another animal, I think a bear or something like that. There’s also one I keep seeing in elevators involving a cute crab getting his pincer caught in the doors. Even better is the warning of dogs on leashes in elevators, depicting the pretty horrible scene (you know leash, door, elevator but dog and owner not ‘together’) in a very calming and cute way.
As for disturbance, there’s a classic one on the JR lines. It’s a poster supposed to attract people’s attention to disturbing behaviour in carriages – you know, eating fast food, listening to loud music, etc… but instead of depicting people in the situations, it uses cute vegetables with human features (eyes, ears etc…) doing all sorts of disturbing things alongside humans in a train carriage. I’d like to meet the man who came up with that and shake his hand.
Warning signs are also a breeding ground for かわいい. As I learnt the funny way last year when I went on a bike ride and came across a whole series of hilarious warning signs, all done in cute fashion, and sometimes carrying very hard to decipher prevention messages, or tactics (like for example showing a cigarette butt about to hit a baby ant while the mother ant looks on in shock and horror). You can read all about that and see the signs in this post.
And I could go on, as I’m sure could most people who live here.
The thing is Japan is definitely a society of contradictions. And the whole cute thing, does fit into the society’s overall ‘contradictory’ feel. Another way to look at it, and most of Japan’s seeming contradictions, is that cute provides a counterbalance to not-so-cute elements of society, of which there can be a lot and which are definitely not so widely spoken about or heard or seen. This is in the same way that sex in Japan is repressed and not really talked about or heard or seen, though it does exist and in plenty of ways, but a more ‘friendly’ version of it is widely talked about, read and seen (a western vision of sex as ‘love’, increasingly popular in Japanese society). And it goes on again. Japan has one of the strongest tobacco lobbies in the world, one of the highest percentages of smoking adults, and yet most of these seem to perfectly accept the fact that they can smoke anywhere in this country, apart from the streets where they all (or for the most part anyway) abide by the rules and smoke in designated areas outdoors or even in boxes.
What I do like about the whole cute thing though is that it’s actually quite nice to have information like notices, warnings and other serious things given to you in a way that is a lot more eye-pleasing and entertaining than we’re used to in the west. And it seemingly works too. At the end of the day depicting everything with a cute brush won’t make any of the nasty shit go away, which in Japan does feel like a bit of a motivation for it at times, but it certainly does make the daily grind a lot more enjoyable. And fun too.