Sharon Kinsella – Women Media and Consumption in Japan

Copyright 1995 – Lise Skov & Brian Moeran eds.
Kawaii style dominated Japanese popular culture in the 1980’s. Kawaii or ‘cute’ essentially means childlike; it celebrates sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine, gentle, vulnerable, weak, and inexperienced (1) social behaviour and physical appearances. It has been well described as a style which is ‘infantile and delicate at the same time as being pretty.’ (Yamane, 1990, my translation) Cute style saturated the multi-media and consumer goods and services whilst they were expanding rapidly between 1970 and 1990 and reached a peak of saccharine intensity in the early 1980s.
Cute people and cute accessories were extremely popular. So much so that original cute fashion became a basic style or aesthetic in to which many other more specific and transient fashions such as preppy, punk, skater, folk, black and French were mixed. Cute fashion gradually evolved from the serious, infantile, pink, romanticism of the early 1980s to a more humorous, kitsch, androgynous style which lingered on into the early 1990s. The results of a survey I conducted as late as 1992 showed that 71 percent of young people between 18 and 30 years of age either liked or loved kawaii looking people, and 55.8 percent either liked or loved kawaii attitudes and behaviour. (2) Although many respondents encountered difficulties deciding what social class they were in and what politics they supported, few had any problems explaining their relative fondness for the cute.
The word kawaii itself was by 1992 estimated to be ‘the most widely used, widely loved, habitual word in modern living Japanese.’ (CREA, 11.1992:58) Iwashita, president of the Kikan Fanshii (Fancy Goods Periodical) trade journal, recalls that, ‘Rather than being another post-war value, the present meaning of kawaii has not been in existence for any longer than fifteen years.’ (Shimamura, 1991a:225, my translation) The term kawaii appears in dictionaries printed in the Taisho to 1945 period as kawayushi. In dictionaries printed after the war until around 1970 kawayushi changed into kawayui but the meaning of the word remained the same. Kawaii is a derivation of a term whose principle meaning was ‘shy’ or ’embarrassed’ and secondary meanings were ‘pathetic’, ‘vulnerable’, ‘darling’, ‘loveable’ and ‘small’. In fact the modern sense of the word kawaii still has some nuances of pitiful whilst the term kawaisÙ derived directly from kawaii means pathetic, poor, and pitiable in a generally negative if not pleasing sense.
Cute Handwriting and Slang
The emergence of the modern term kawaii in the early 1970s coincides with the beginning of the cute handwriting craze and childish fashion. In 1974 large numbers of teenagers especially women began to write using a new style of childish characters. By 1978 the phenomenon had become nation-wide and in 1985 it was estimated that upwards of about 5 million young people were using the new script.
Previously Japanese writing had been written vertically using strokes that vary in thickness along their length. The new style was written laterally, preferably using a mechanical pencil to produce very fine even lines.(3) Using extremely stylised, rounded characters with English, katakana (4) and little cartoon pictures such as hearts, stars and faces inserted randomly into the text, the new style of handwriting was distinct and the characters difficult to read. In middle and high schools across the country the craze for writing in the new style caused discipline problems. In some schools the writing was banned entirely or tests which were completed using the new cute style would not be marked. The new style of handwriting was described by a variety of names such as marui ji (round writing), koneko ji (kitten writing), manga ji (comic writing) and burikko ji (fake-child writing). Through the 1980s magazines, comics, advertising, packaging and, word processor soft ware design (Macintosh) adapted the new style. Yamane Kazuma carried out two years of research into cute handwriting between 1984 and 1986 which he officially labelled, ‘Anomalous Female Teenage Handwriting’. Arguing against the common view that cute handwriting was something young people had mimicked from the lettering in comics, Yamane furnishes evidence that in fact the craze for rounded lettering pre- dates its use in comics which relied on the later invention of photo composition methods in order to be able to use the round characters. Instead, he concludes that teenagers ‘spontaneously’ invented the new style. Results of Yamane’s survey carried out in 1984-85 amongst middle and high school students showed that the older students were, the more likely it was that they would use the childish hand writing. 22.5 percent of 11 to 12 year old female pupils, 55.3 percent of 12 to 15 year old female middle school pupils, and 55.7 percent of 15 to 18 year old female high school pupils, used the cute writing style. Amongst young men 10 percent of 12 to 15 year old middle school, and 17.5 percent of 15 to 18 year old high school pupils used the cute style. The increasing incidence of cute handwriting amongst older students illustrates that cute handwriting was a style acquired with maturity and exposure to youth culture rather than the result of any adolescent writing disability. Yamane asked some of these young people why they used the round hand writing style and was unequivocally informed:
‘It’s got a kind of cute feel.’ ‘I think it’s cute and it’s my style.’ ‘I think these letters are the cutest.’ ‘Cute! They are hard to read but they are so cute I use them.’
(Yamane, 1986:132, my translation)
It is interesting that cute style did not start in the multi media which are frequently criticised for originating all the trends of youth culture if not exercising a virtual mind control over young people. Cute style began as an underground literary trend amongst young people who developed the habit of writing stylised childish letters to each other and to themselves.
Cute handwriting was arrived at partly through the romanization of Japanese text. The horizontal left to right format of cute handwriting and the liberal use of exclamation marks as well as English words such as ‘love’ and ‘friend’, suggest that these young people were rebelling against traditional Japanese culture and identifying with European culture which they obviously imagined to be more fun. By writing in the new cute style it was almost as though young people had invented a new language in which they were suddenly able to speak freely on their own terms for the first time. They were thus able to have an intimate relation with the text and express their feelings to their friends more easily. Through cute handwriting young people made the written Japanese language – considered to be the lynch pin of Japanese culture – their own.
The spread of cute style handwriting was one element of a broader shift in Japanese culture that took place between the mid 1960s and the mid 1970s in which vital popular culture sponsored and processed by the new fashion, retail, mass-media and advertising industries began to push traditional arts and crafts and strictly regulated literary and artistic culture to the margins of society.
At the same time that Japanese youth began to debase written Japanese infantile slang words began to spread across the nation typically coming into high-school vogue for only a few months before becoming obsolete again. In 1970 the Mainichi Shimbun carried an article describing how the common word kakkoii, meaning cool or good had sprouted a deformed infantile version of itself. The term kakkoii was deliberately mispronounced as katchoii, thus mimicking the speech of a toddler incapable of adult pronunciation. There are even a few examples of deliberately contrived childish speech such as Norippigo officially invented by pop-idol Sakai Noriko, alias Nori P, in 1985. Norippigo, now obsolete, consisted of changing the last syllable of common adjectives into a pi sound. Therefore kanashii (sad) could be changed into kanappi, and ureshii (happy) could be changed into ureppi. Meanwhile Nori P invented a few words of her own, such as mamosureppi (very happy). However infantile slang was not limited to the contrived over-use of puritanical kindergarten adjectives. ‘Sex’ became popularly referred to by the morbid term nyan nyan suru (to meow meow).
Cute handwriting is strongly associated with the fashion for using baby-talk, acting childish and wearing virginal childish clothes. Young people dressing themselves up as innocent babes in the woods in cute styles were known as burikko (fake-children) a term coined by teen starlet Yamada Kuniko in 1980. The noun spawned a verb, burikko suru (to fake-child-it), or more simply buri buri suru (to fake-it). Another 80s term invented to describe cute pop-idols and their fans is kawaiikochan which can be roughly translated as ‘cutie-pie-kid’.
The Fancy Goods Industry
Cute culture started as youth culture amongst teenagers, especially young women. Cute culture was not founded by business. But in the disillusioned calm known as the shirake (‘doldrums’) after the last of the student riots in 1971, the consumer boom was just beginning and it did not take companies and market research agencies very long to discover and capitalise on cute style which had manifested itself in manga and young peoples handwriting.
In 1971 Sanrio – the Japanese equivalent of Hallmark Cards – experimented by printing cute designs on previously plain writing paper and In In 1971 stationary. Sanrio began to produce cute decorated stationary and fancy diaries for the dreamy school students hooked onto the cute handwriting craze. The success of this early prototype of fanshi guzzu (fancy goods) inspired by cute style in manga animation and young peoples handwriting encouraged Sanrio to expand production and its range of fancy goods proliferated. Sanrio established a firm monopoly in the fancy goods market and during 1990 sold 200 billion yen worth of goods (Shimamura, 1991a:60-62), whilst the fancy goods business as a whole reached an estimated turnover of 10 trillion yen in 1990. (Japan Times 5.1.1991) Typical fancy goods sold in cute, little shops were stationary, cuddly toys and gimmicks, toiletries, lunch boxes and cutlery, bags, towels and other personal paraphernalia.
The crucial ingredients of a fancy good are that it is small, pastel, round, soft, loveable, not traditional Japanese style but a foreign in particular European or American style, dreamy, frilly and fluffy. Most fancy goods are also decorated with cartoon characters. The essential anatomy of a cute cartoon character is small, soft, infantile, mammalian, round, without bodily appendages (arms), without bodily orifices (mouths), non-sexual, mute, insecure, helpless or bewildered. Sanrio invented a large cast of cute proprietary characters to endorse and give life to its fancy goods: Button Nose, Tiny Poem, Duckydoo, Little Twin Stars, Cheery Chums, Vanilla Bean and, most famous of all, Hello Kitty and Tuxedo Sam. Not only do these cute characters inhabit cute- shops, but they have also worked hard selling under license the goods and services of over ninety Japanese companies. A large number of these are financial institutions such as twenty three banks, including Mitsui, Sumitomo, Sanwa, and Mitsubishi; fourteen stock companies, including Yamaichi, Daiwa and Nomura; and seven insurance companies, including Nihon Seimei, Sumitomo Seimei and Yasuda Kasai.
Cute design was not limited to banking cards and stationary, however. For the privileged, whose passion for cute was stronger than their sense of traditional good-taste, there was the option of purchasing a ‘short cake’ house resembling a little cottage or fairyland abode in Hiroo or SeijÙ or a cute rounded apartment in Roppongi or Akasaka- Mitsuke. As the 1930s has been remembered for the brutal police implementation of thought-crime (shisÙhan) laws, so the 1980s may be remembered as the decade which left behind police boxes designed as ‘gingerbread houses’ (okashi-no-ie).
Meanwhile Sanrio organised Sanrio festivals and athletics meetings, Hello Kitty Santa tours, a Strawberry Mate travelling caravan, Halloween and Valentine extravaganzas, and printed Ichigo Shimbun (The Strawberry News). Sanrio built cute shopping arcades such as the Sanrio Ginza Gallery, and Sanrio Fantagen -a cluster of 18 cute goods shops in Funabashi, Ichigo Hall in Den-en Chofu, Sanrio Theatre in Matsudo and Harmony Land in Kyushu and Puroland in Tama City, Tokyo.
Cartoon characters printed on to goods literally add character to their lifelessness and slogans etched on to the actual good or printed on the packaging put across more forcibly the same notion of light fun. Cute slogans were more often written in fractured English or pseudo-French than Japanese. A toilet bowl called petit etoile. A pink toaster in the shape of a cottage called My Sweet Bread Toaster. A can opener which tells its user this can-opener is not just a kitchen tool, treat it kindly and it will be our loyal friend. School note paper inscribed with the message, OK! You’re in my team. Let’s have fun together!. A set of plates saying Life is sweet like a poem when you are with kind friends.
The industrial, impure or masculine nature of some of the objects decorated in fancy style can produce incongruous images, such as the almost transvestite like character of baby pink road diggers or adult gambling machines called My Poochy and Fairies. But there has been no mischievous conspiracy of camp designers behind these articles. Despite appearances to the contrary there was no strong sense of kitsch attached to cute culture until the late 1990s. In some cases a mismatch between the goods function and its design had simply gone unnoticed, at other times it was a deliberate attempt to camouflage and mask the dirty image of the good or service in question. The typical household toilet, maybe unconnected to a sewage system and sometimes foul smelling often resembled a tiny grotto, festooned with puffy gingham curtains, quilted toilet brush covers and toilet roll dispensers, fluffy toilet seat covers, fancy cartoon slippers. Love hotels, which sell room space for sex are named after good, sweet girls like Anne of Green Gables and Laura of the Little House on the Prairie. Yakuza run pachinko gambling parlours are recognisable as the light buildings full of pink and blue neon with baskets of plastic flowers arranged on the pavement outside.
Cute style gives goods a warm and cheer- me-up atmosphere. After the production process had de-personalised the good cute design could re-personalise it. Consumption of lots of cute style goods with powerful emotion inducing properties could ironically disguise and compensate for the very alienation of individuals from other people in contemporary society. Cuteness loaned personality and a subjective presence to otherwise meaningless -and often literally useless- consumer goods and in this way made them much more attractive to potential buyers. The good could appear to have a character of its own because of its winsome UFO or mammalian shape, such as little round, weeping digitalized vacuum cleaners and rice cookers, or the 1980’s mini caasu (little cars) designed to feel playful and cuddly.(6) Modern consumers might not be able to meet and develop relationships enough with people but the implication of cute goods design was that they could always attempt to develop them with cute objects.
Cute Clothes
Adverts and articles printed in An-an and Non-no (7) two of the leading women’s fashion magazines suggest that the desire for a more than just youthful, but distinctly child-like, cutie-pie look began in the mid 1970s. In May 1975 An-an ran a special article introducing its readers to the novel new concept of cuteness:
‘PLAY! Cuteness! Go for the young theme! On dates we only want feeling, but our clothes are like old ladies! It is the time you have to express who you really are. Whatever you say co-ordinating a very young theme is cute. Wear something like a French slip…..for accessories try a cute little bracelet. BUT! It will look much cuter if you don’t use high quality exclusive materials. Cute looking plastic and veneer looks younger. For your feet try wearing colourful socks with summer sandals, it will exude a sporty cuteness! Hair is cutest styled straight with children’s plastic hair pins fixed in the sides.’
Cute clothes are deliberately designed to make the wearer appear childlike and demure. Original cute clothes were simple white, pink and pastel shades for women and more sort of bright and rainbow coloured for men. The clothes were often fluffy and frilly with puffed sleeves and lots of ribbons, – a style known as ‘fancy’, or alternatively were cut slightly small or tight and came decorated with cartoon characters and slogans. In the first half of the 1980s the most fashionable design house in Tokyo was ‘Pink House Ltd.’ which produced adorable outfits for budding cuties. Pink House was so sought after that the Hakuhodo research institute began to refer to young people aspiring to the Pink House image as the ‘Pink House movement.’ (Hakuhodo, 1984:227) Women’s underwear was also cute, the dominant taste being for puritanical white pants and vests, in addition to the infamous white tights, frilly ankle socks or knee length ‘school-girl’ socks. Then there was the understanding habit of manufacturers in placing great lengths of elastic in underwear so that women’s pants often looked like a little girl’s off but fortunately stretched to three or four times the size in service.
By the late eighties cute fashion had matured into a cheeky, androgynous, tomboy sweetness. Apart from the perennially popular tight, white, baby vest like T-shirts, nursery colours, cartoon characters and baby doll frills have mellowed out into woolly Noddy hats, dungarees and tight little sweaters. This change is well illustrated by the fashion magazine Cutie For Independent Girls (8), first published in spring 1986 and attracting a readership of 100,000 by October 1989. Obviously Cutie takes cuteness as its starting point but on top of the basic ingredient of childlikeness Cutie style is also chic, eccentric, androgynous and humorous. Cutie is published monthly by the odd ball media corporation Takarajimasha which was founded by a group of ex-revolutionary Waseda University students and is more well known for publishing the sub-culture oriented magazine Takarajima through the 1980s, and in Cutie the rebellious, individualistic, freedom seeking attitude embodied in acting childlike and pursuing cute fashion is very clear. The magazine and prints pages of photographs of readers which it calls ‘kids’ posing in clubs and streets trying to look bad and cute at the same time.
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