Cute—"Kawaii" in local parlance—wears many guises in Japan. There's old-school kawaii, embodied by the helpless, mouthless gaze of Hello Kitty. There's the newer guy-cute, manifest by masses of young men who have taken to shaving off their body hair, using cosmetics, and plucking their eyebrows in an effort to erase the coarser elements of their masculinity. Then there's highbrow cute, best known via Takashi Murakami's splashy cartoon-apocalyptica canvases, which sell for millions at art auctions.
But whether low-cute or high-cute, girl-cute or guy-cute, the myriad modes of cute have a common function. Kawaii is an appealing anodyne in a country marked by nostalgia for childhood and the rigidity of its social hierarchy.
If you've spent a day in Japan, you've witnessed the hegemony of kawaii. Street-corner police boxes take the shape of gingerbread houses. Nippon Airways jumbo jets are splashed with giant yellow Pokemon. Female pop stars dress and act half their age while singing in preadolescent voices. A recruitment ad for the national Self-Defense Forces features three cuddly cartoon soldiers calling people to arms. Tsunami warning signs on beaches feature waves with menacing eyes and carnivorous teeth that are still somehow adorable. Though pundits lament the societal infantilization that kawaii culture represents—some even blame it for creating a generation of youth unable to face reality—no one denies that cute sells.
Psychologists believe that cuteness is a function of resemblance to human infants, to whom we're programmed to respond sympathetically because of their helplessness. And Japan may have a surplus of unused parenting instincts, given that the country has one of the world's lowest birth rates (and one of the highest ages of marriage). Enter Kitty. "Hello Kitty needs protection," explains Merry White, a sociologist at Boston University who has followed the kawaii phenomenon since the 1960s. Childless adults get obsessed with Hello Kitty as a substitute for offspring. "She's not only adorable and round, she's also mouthless and can't speak for herself."
Perhaps more powerful than the desire to coddle a baby is the desire to be one. A deep nostalgia for childhood permeates Japan, a reaction against the regimentation and emotional restraint required of daily adult life. Japanese child-rearing practices, which juxtapose great freedom early on with fierce discipline once school age is reached, also breed fondness for early life. The dramatic switchover helps explain why acting childish (in addition to looking childish) is a key component of Japanese cute.
"Kawaii isn't just appearance, it's also a quality of innocence," says Kyle Cleveland, a professor of Japanese popular culture at Temple University. The widespread form of regression has given rise to the term "burikko," or fake-child. "Japanese are socialized to become emotionally dependent on others. They feel that in social relations they must look like they're deferring to those in authority, and the aim is to trigger a sympathetic response" from the powerful, says Brian McVeigh, a scholar of Japanese popular culture at the University of Arizona.
Kawaii also serves to soften social hierarchies. "Japanese society is very much stratified," says Cleveland. "Kawaii lets people transcend that." Authority figures often put on displays of cuteness to reach out to the masses. Recently retired Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006) broadened his popularity by adopting a cartoon persona, "Lion Heart," displayed on his official Web site as a determined-looking feline. Former opposition party leader Yukio Hatoyama embraced the nickname "Alien," inspired by his distinctive facial features, and his party distributed toys in the shape of an extraterrestrial bearing his resemblance.
Kawaii draws on old traditions. Long before Japan turned out the smallest and cutest portable cassette player, it gave us the charming haiku. Netsuke, dainty miniature sculptures that functioned as fasteners for purses during the Edo period (1603-1867), could be as adorable as any Pokemon. As for evidence of Japanese women's penchant for getting dolled up, look no farther than the geisha. Even the love of manga (comics) has old roots—in the cartoonish woodblock prints that flourished in the 19th century.
But today's kawaii springs from the country's modernization. Rising incomes and burgeoning media and advertising during the postwar boom ushered in a consumer culture that fuels fads and the whims of the young. "Kawaii is a by-product of affluence, and correlates with the rise of a very strong consumer society in the 1970s and the media culture that sustained that," says Temple University's Cleveland.
At the pinnacle of Kawaii Inc. is Sanrio, the firm responsible for Hello Kitty, whose likeness appears on more than 20,000 products. While it may just be marketing spin, Sanrio envisions its flagship character as a kind of cute-therapist for the emotionally exhausted masses.
Japan, Dr. Kitty will see you now.