Summer 2002

Cute culture

The Japanese obsession with cute icons is rooted in cultural tradition

Learn the language of mascots
At the end of the twentieth century, Japan exported to the Western world a design language that seemed naïve and a long way from the graphic nature of Hiroshige and Sharaku. Generations of cute icons, such as Pokemon and Hello Kitty, have been adored by the Japanese and openly adopted by Westerners who grew up with anime [Japanese animation] and Nintendo. They even started to create their own – Julius the monkey appeared on everything belonging to Californian girls, while a slanted eyed, large-headed, girl mascot was adopted by Selfridges department store for its ‘Tokyo Life’ theme. Designers such as The Designers Republic and Futurefarmers started to incorporate their own characters into their design work. In the West, cute mascots have become a ‘trend’ but they may quickly disappear when their freshness becomes stale. In Japan, however, cute will continue to flourish because it is a part of the culture developed through history, rather than mere fashion. High-school girls carrying satchels with small Kyoro-chan attached and professionals talking on their mobile phones with Kogepan (‘burnt bun head’) characters hanging from the straps are not rejecting the traditional beauty of Zen gardens or woodblock prints in favour of wasting energy and money on useless objects. The popular taste for these mascots is based, in many ways, on traditional aesthetic qualities associated with Japanese art and nature, and plays an important role in the everyday lives of Japanese people today.

Say hello, wave goodbye
Japanese aesthetics can be roughly divided into three characteristics: simplicity, irregularity, and perishability. The flag of Japan is based on a simple form – a red circle on a white background. It is also based on a Japanese aesthetic, kirei, which means ‘beautiful’, and implies ‘simple’ and ‘refined’. Japanese see beauty in a minimalist room, distilling decorations to a single, small camellia in a bamboo vase. Cute mascots are a result of this kind of simplification. The faces are reduced to lines and dots and their bodies are simplified to child-like, basic shapes.

Tea bowls for tea ceremonies are often not regular in shape, as incompleteness suggests the possibility of future growth and allows the objects to become a part of nature with their imperfect and organic forms. Similarly, Japanese girls add an oddly colourful, cute and round character to a dark rectangular school bag. The funny mascot introduces an irregular, personal element to the restrained forms of everyday items, such as electronic devices and uniforms.

Cherry blossom is known for its short blooming period, and this fleeting quality makes it more special to the Japanese. But when I heard about a British man who tattooed his ankle with a miniature version of Hello Kitty, I suddenly felt very foreign. A Japanese person may apply a Hello Kitty tattoo sticker because Hello Kitty is a product to consume temporarily. Stickers are cheap, and new styles are introduced seasonally. They are valued because of their ephemeral quality.

Communicate with stylised pictures
The love for visual representation can be seen in Japan’s history and society. The Chinese characters, known as kanji, are highly stylised pictures. For example, the kanji for ‘river’ is patently developed from its actual form. Since the Japanese know these visual forms are an effective way of transmitting information, cute characters are used everywhere: on the street, utility bills, and cash cards.

Manga is one of the best examples of Japanese visual culture. Manga targets everyone – men, women and children – with a wide range of topics from comedy and romance to philosophy and history. The origin of Japanese narrative comic art could be traced back to the Bishop Toba’s Chojugiga (Animal Scrolls) in the twelfth century. In this visual society, mascots are just evolved examples of an endless variety of visually representative figures.

See afro Ken!
This taste for humour, exemplified by Afro Ken, the afro-hair dog, or the sushi-shaped seals, or small photo stickers (print club or prikura) displaying boys and girls surrounded by steaming poop, might be explained by the Japanese habit of self-deprecation. Japanese tend to enjoy funny topics for daily conversation, such as ‘what kind of dumb things they’ve done’ or descriptions of their own mistakes. This is an attempt to disarm the listener, and to develop more intimate relationships. Similarly, funny mascots tell you that the owner is friendly and unpretentious.

Amae: act like a child
If you invite a Japanese acquaintance to dinner, and ask them what kind of restaurant they would like to go to, they will probably answer, ‘anywhere you like.’ Not having an individual voice is considered a traditional virtue in Japan and this attitude is based on the idea of amae. This could mean ‘indulging oneself by depending on somebody else’, but the Japanese amae means that an individual prefers to have someone else make judgments, a consideration as important as respect. Amae is a trait often attributed to children. Young Japanese women do not hesitate to have child-like objects, because acting like a child is considered desirable in the amae society.

Love milder, softer things
There really are no hard edged, cold-looking or massive mascots. The shapes that attract Japanese people are made with curves and soft edges. This trait is due to Japan’s mild climate with abundant sunlight and rainfall. Enjoying beautiful nature with four distinct seasons, the Japanese have amaete-kita (a verb of amae) nature rather than tried to conquer it. Living on isolated islands surrounded by seas, the Japanese have had few invasions and developed gentle and non-aggressive traits. These meteorological and geographical aspects have helped to create people who love milder, softer, and lighter things, qualities that are embodied in the design of mascots.

Stay cool, be kawaii
Japan has a large youth culture, but more precisely, it is a shojo (girl) culture where the notion of kawaii is the key. Its meaning is very close to ‘cute’ and is casually used to judge things positively, similar to the word ‘cool’ in the United States. If a person thinks you are kawaii, the person believes you are innocent and without negative traits. Because they value mildness and softness, Japanese love kawaii-mono (cute things). This attitude leads the shojo culture (including boys and male and female adults who value kawaii) to embrace cute mascots.

Shojo live in a democratic society where the majority rules. Mass production, triggered by technological development and together with mass media, leads the people to mass consumption. Mass-produced popular culture dominates everybody, regardless of age, class and regional differences. In this society, it is difficult to have an individual, unique voice which could possibly be shared by some others. Technology has brought convenience to the masses, but has taken away face-to-face communication. In the chaos of today’s world, shojo feel like hollow creatures whose only act is to consume. Despite the constant alienation or fear of losing individuality, they still have to live in society. So what keeps shojo going?

Escape from alienation
To escape from a sense of alienation, shojo culture encourages individuals to identify with a group. Wearing a cute mascot in public is a way to communicate with others like yourself. There is a consensus that a person who likes cute things is good. If you show a funny mascot, people assume that you are an easy-going and open-minded person. Your mascot makes people around you believe you are more approachable. The mascot also affects you: it gives you a sense of membership in the group that likes and identifies with the character.

The recent popularity of Tamagotchi (virtual pets) shared the same goal – reducing the sense of alienation. These virtual pets will die if they don’t receive appropriate care: feeding, playing, and sleeping. Whenever they need something, they call their owners by beeping. This demands time and energy from their owners, but it also makes them feel needed. Tamagotchi conquers loneliness by creating virtual relationships for their owners, even if the companion is only a cute, virtual chicken.

Feel nurtured and secure
Hello Kitty’s simple face enables us to project ourselves into it. Whenever we want, we could escape from harsh realities into her world. With her emotionless face, she could share our emotions, whether depressed or happy. When you see the cute face, you feel nurtured and secure.

Find your identity!
Curiously, these cute mascots and print club help shojo to have individuality. There is a wide and constantly expanding selection of mascots to choose from. Print club issues a vast number of illustrative environments, with the option of adding a short message and a choice of printing modes to alter the mood. Because of this endless, seasonal variety, a shojo feels that she is choosing one specifically customised for her.

In this way Japanese mass culture is trying to attract people seeking individuality through the consumption of varied products. However, products remain simply a part of mass production and do not provide personal individuality; it is the company that provides an identity into which the consumer can buy.

An obvious contradiction in the trends that attempt to provide difference can be seen in the current popularity of chapatsu (brown hair). Though many Japanese men and women dye their hair to express individuality, most of them choose brown, and they end up with exactly the same look. Chapatsu is considered to be non-traditional, and is forbidden by most school dress codes, but the reality of chapatsu seems rooted, once again, in the ambivalent desire to be separate from, and yet just like, the rest of the culture.

Accept the present
Japanese trends such as cute mascots, prikura (print club) and Tamagotchi aid survival strategies in a stressful society. Such trends need to be simple and easy, quick, portable, fun and based on consumer capitalism. The role of the shojo is not to make products, but to ‘consume’ them (or symbolise their consumption). Shojo try to fill up their emptiness with cute new products.

Yet such trends encourage people to avoid direct contact. Contemporary society tends to take away opportunities for face-to-face communication. Children are busy studying after school. What little time they have for friends tends to involve playing computer games together – meaning they are looking at the monitor instead of each other. This is perhaps the reason why convenience store chain AM/PM Japan has opened an unmanned, 24-hour store, Automatic Super Delice, in Tokyo. It not only cuts personnel costs and floor space expenses, but also provides the kind of impersonal service preferred by customers who are more comfortable with machines.

But the most important requirement for successful Japanese trends, especially for mascots, is being kawaii. Although cute mascots are mere commodities for quick, easy fun, most shojo are attracted to them because they help escape pressure, alienation, emptiness and helplessness, while offering the comforting image of an individual, unique existence. As shojo cover their uniforms and school bags with mascots or engage in other trends, they can forget their feelings of depression, albeit temporarily.

The Japanese trait of patiently accepting the present, of seeking its good aspects, often puzzles people from other cultures, who are confused or surprised by the way the Japanese can maintain a smile in difficult situations. However they smile because they want to avoid giving pain or concern to other people. Shojo try to satisfy themselves with what they can do, and what they have. They appear to celebrate consumer materialism actively because this is the only thing they can do to protect themselves from the facelessness of contemporary society.

In Amaeno Kouzou (1974) the psychiatrist Doi, considering the present and future prospects of Japanese culture, wrote: ‘It could be a regression that everybody – adults and children, male and female, intellectuals and non intellectuals, and Westerners and Easterners – is acting like a child. However, this could be a necessary step to create a new culture for our future.’ Cute mascots serve Japanese culture by assuring the individual that there is a secure life and future – even in the smallest of things.

Miki Kato, designer, animator, Momoco, London and Los Angeles

First published in Eye no. 44 vol. 11 2002

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.


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