Cute, it’s the new… everything

What I believed simply to be yet another cultural difference between Japan and the West may be far more interesting. I have commented in the past on the ‘kawaii culture’ which dominates the public eye as THE concept of aesthetics to strive for. Endless pastel pinks, mini bow ties and glitter adorn an unimaginable variety of products, and command – I am certain – an enormous market share.
Being a woman in Japan your life will start out with all admirers calling you ‘kawaii’ as a newborn, and this will set the tone, on average, for the next 86 years of your life when finally, quite dead, you cease to be kawaii. Even then I am not certain your headstone will not be pink, adorned with Hello Kitty stickers, and coated in glitter. “Her grave is SO cute, neh!” your friends will say, as not even the finality of death can deprive the single greatest marketing theme since shoes and handbags (which are, of course, also very kawaii).
Being kawaii then must be the daily goal of roughly 64 million Japanese women, and some of its none-too-studly men as well. This is easier still than getting wet by jumping off a ship in the middle of the Ocean and swimming home. Indeed it seems impossible for a woman to purchase things marketed to them which are definitively NOT kawaii. Good news there then. But what then, with every woman being kawaii, does it mean? We – and I am talking now about you and I as Westerners – dress according to many different aesthetic ideals and social expectations. When we go to work we dress the part, just as when we go out, to the beach, or to a wedding or a funeral. I will admit there comes a time in most Western girls’ lives when they too may have the mood strike them just so, and dress ‘cute’ – our closest approximation of kawaii. In the lives of Western women – in stark contrast to all available evidence regarding their counterparts in Japan – this ‘cuteness’ is a phase usually thoroughly dead by the time her many creams can no longer hide the fact that she has the slightest hint of a wrinkle. Not so in Japan. Then again women here seem to have little choice, and here we come to the crux of it: when truly everyone expects you to be kawaii, it is very unwise to want to be something else. Where I had believed there to be no approximate term for ‘sexy’ in Japan (to my great dismay!) I have now come to realize the truth of it: Kawaii is the code for many styles – sexy among them. Let me explain:
The Japanese – women especially – are by Western standards prohibitively shy. Do not be troubled; this behavior is encouraged, presumably because it would be awkward for the equally shy men to be more shy then the women they are with. This shyness leads to a lot of averted gazes in public, a chronic inability to speak, and a fascinating façade to blend in nicely with expectation. It also means women cannot openly admit that today they did not feel like being ‘kawaii’ and instead busted out the 6-inch stilettos and mini skirt of matching length because they wanted to be – shockingly – sexy. Admitting such a desire openly would be tantamount to blasphemy in the church of kawaii and devil-worship of sinful western influence. Thus, Japanese society has come up with a wonderful compromise, elegant in its simplicity: a woman can dress like a slut or a slob, a professional or a princess, but all talk of how she looks is limited to ‘kawaii.’ In other words the Japanese have, rather than acknowledging a problem, paved over it with a blatant and enthusiastically embraced lie. So it is that Japanese fashion can be so very strange and still – if asked – all talk of even the strangest of outfits may be categorized as kawaii without the slightest hint of irony.

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