Kawaii has been prominent in Japan since the 1970s, (Hello Kitty herself was created in 1974), and the current insatiable desire for all things cute falls in stark contrast with both the nation’s militaristic history and its modern workplace mores. Kawaii could be interpreted as reaction to post-Hiroshima dread or an escape from the severe pressures of school and the workplace. Japan’s influence on Western pop-culture is one aspect of a larger process of globalization, says Kyle Cleveland, a sociologist at Temple University, Japan Campus’s Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies.
“There’s this notion of Japan being outside of history and a little bit apolitical,” says Cleveland. “When I look at American culture right now from a distance, having grown up in America and living in Japan for 15 years, what I see in American culture is a very partisan, very polarized, very shrill kind of politically pointed, argumentative discourse that dominates pop-culture. You can argue that there’s a bit of a respite, or a liberation — the freedom of pop-culture and youth culture being apolitical in Japan. For that reason there’s a fascination with it, and it comes across as being kind of exotic, kind of a playground.”
The context-specific levels of kawaii aren’t always easily understood outside of the Japanese culture. There’s no shortage of the pure, unadulterated love for kawaii character goods, which is heavily prevalent among Japanese children. Yet it isn’t in any way age-graded. There’s also a tongue-in-cheek, conscious, and thoughtful element to the fanaticism that’s comparable to how Americans behave in their ironic appreciation of cuteness — like emo-goth teenagers who might buy a Hello Kitty wallet at Hot Topic, for example. Kawaii is interchangeable. It can be ritualized and infantile just as easily as it can be explicit and mature.
In these terms, then, a young man participating in the “bonbon” phenomenon is practicing a form of asobi (play). He might shave off all his body hair because it’ll make him appear unthreatening, cute, and childlike — which is something that also projects a kind of sexiness in Japan, says Dr. Merry White, an anthropology professor at Boston University. A 21-year-old girl might, after sticking her foot in a dirty puddle, squeal and giggle like a toddler. But she’s just doing this to appear sexy, too: it’s a way of impressing the boys, and it’s called burikko (fake-innocence). “It’s all in play,” says White. “Nobody enters it full-frontal.”
While our sarcastic or kitschy appreciation of cuteness is manifested in different ways from asobi, it still has its roots in a form of amusement, a leisurely interruption. Cleveland points out that Japan is now seen as an international safe zone — there’s very little interpersonal crime, and no terrorism. “We look at Europe and see the Middle East on fire, all the problems in Iraq,” says Cleveland. “Then we look at Japan, and it’s a place free of these political consequences. That plays out in a level of popular culture, and I think there’s something fascinating about that to young people.” It isn’t as simple as calling US cute culture the equivalent of kawaii, and yet, there is a common thread that resonates: marketing youth, and not only to youth themselves.