Saturday, November 08, 2008
In Japan, cute is the lubricant that keeps the economic engine running. Cute is used to sell absolutely everything here.
Hello Kitty's image is stamped on everything from airplanes to electronics to toilet paper. You can buy Hello Kitty stationary, Hello Kitty candies, Hello Kitty clothing, Hello Kitty school supplies, Hello Kitty alarm clocks, Hello Kitty guitar picks, Hello Kitty golf caddies, and even Hello Kitty sex toys.
The only things banned from carrying Hello Kitty's image are hard alcohol, cigarettes, guns and "sharp objects."
In Japan, people of all ages and genders are obsessed with cuteness. You can see it in all aspects of Japanese life. From the businessman who has a Snoopy charm dangling from his cell phone to the cartoon characters painted on the sides of trains to the hordes of adults who bury their noses in comic books while riding the subway.
None of this is at all weird.
I spent Saturday afternoon in a shopping mall in Kyoto where I nearly overdosed on cute. It was like walking through a cartoon world. All that was missing were sparkling rainbows, dancing unicorns and baskets of fluffy kittens.
The vast majority of stores were shrines to cuteness. It was impossible to find non-cute things. Even the socks were cute. (These socks, by the way, are for adults.)
And in case those socks aren't cute enough for you, you can buy socks with happy doughnuts and bumble bees sewn onto them.
There are no plain bobby pins for sale here. If you want to tie your hair back, you have to do it with pink bows or farm animals.
The clothing stores are filled with sweaters adorned with ruffles, bows and lace. In Japan, cute is sexy. Flip through any women's magazine and you'll see what I mean. The models are doe-eyed, sweetly smiling girls. They are pretty and nonthreatening.
I don't know what it is that makes Japanese people gravitate so fiercely toward cuteness. I mean, I like cute things simply because they make me happy. Maybe it's not more profound than that.
Or maybe this love affair with cute is way to escape from the serious social problems plaguing modern Japan -- economic recession, increased unemployment, homelessness and crime, as well as the rapidly aging population and the sharply declining birthrate.
Of course, not everyone worships at the alter of cute. Cute culture has been sharply criticized for being juvenile and infantilizing. Others worry that cute culture will displace traditional Japanese culture. Garish, saccharine cartoon characters are the antithesis of the restraint, minimalism and discipline featured in traditional arts such as tea ceremony and karate.
Is cute culture harmless fun or the sinister harbinger of doom for traditional culture?
I'm not sure. I like Japanese tea ceremony but I am also powerless to resist the cute. Perhaps I will contemplate this question while washing dishes with my cute new soap dispenser.
Or maybe I'll write some of my thoughts down in my cute new memo pad.
If those ideas are no good, I can throw them out in my cute new garbage can.
Perhaps I'll save the deep thinking for the bath.
After a long hot bath, I can change into my Snoopy pajamas and wrap myself in my cute new fleece blanket.