Hello Kitty: Kawaii So Shy? Oh, You Don’t Have a Mouth

Even before the 1940′s dictionaries in Japan listed a word we now know as kawaii. To the left is the internet’s definition of kawaii. Although it wasn’t always so cute. The word started as kawayushi, then kawayui, and eventually kawaii as we know it today. However those earlier definitions might surprise you. Kawaii was defined as,  ‘shy’, ‘embarrassed‘, ‘pathetic’, ‘vulnerable’, ‘darling’, ‘lovable’,  and ‘small’.  Wow that’s a tall order from just one word. Yet somehow kawaii does encompass all of these sentiments while the definition has changed a lot since then.  However, another word directly derived from kawaii and commonly used today, kawaisō is currently defined as -’pathetic’, ‘pitiful’, ‘poor’, all negative connotations. 
So where did the kawaii movement we are familiar with start then? No, not in that photo above. In 1974 women, particularly teenagers, started rejecting traditional styles of Japanese handwriting. They created a new font(s) often referred to as ‘kitten speak/writing‘. Let’s say it is something equivalent to dotting i’s with hearts and writing in bubbly, rounded font. This new wave in handwriting was simultaneously followed up by a childlike manner of speaking. It apparently came and went in waves, but ultimately girls would obscure their words to sound like children learning to speak. This also included talking about oneself in the 3rd person. This manner of speaking is referred to as ‘burriko’ (fake children). This is exaggerated, but for effect it would sound something like, ‘Mawy wants cuwwie for dinna.” Assuming your name is Mary, you want curry for dinner. These trends were further advanced by clothing that matched the childlike quality of this movement. I feel confident you are all familiar with this fashion.
There are many theories for as to why this happened, and it’s entirely unfair to tackle this issue in such a small post, but post-war Japan was a place of dramatic change. Dramatic doesn’t even capture the feeling. Some theorize that desiring the innocence, purity, and simplicity of childhood is a coping mechanism. One even I can identify with at times.
Kawaii certainly is a big business in Japan now, but it seems it all started with these girls. Then companies saw opportunity, and took it. Sanrio being the big winner in this race. So appealing to the new trends in writing, Sanrio first targeted this movement in the form of stationary. It was a huge success offering these girls a canvas to put their new font on. They are still known for their stationary production today. Prior to this however, paper in Japan, and elsewhere was plain white. This market eventually extended to small toys, and other school supplies such as lunch boxes and backpacks.
Of course what is a kawaii product without a face/character to sell it?! Now according to scholars in this field, there are a few prerequisites for being a kawaii character, and here is where the plot thickens cats and kittens. Let’s use our old friend and Sanrio bread winner Hello Kitty as example. The ‘anatomy’ of a kawaii character goes a little something like this: infantile, mammalian, round, without appendages (hands/fingers/feet), without bodily orifices (mouths), non-sexual, insecure, mute, helpless, and bewildered. PHEW that’s a tall order. We can see a few of these characteristics in Ms Kitty. And this has a lot of people unhappy these days. In short, critics feel that this ideal is imposed on, and is the expectation of women in general. Unable to speak, codependant, helpless, and lovable. Hrm. Let’s see what happens if we give her some more features or expressions. Would it really change her feeling so much? 
Ummm. Yikes. Yes. It does. Point taken. So this is the heart of the critique on kawaii. It subjugates women into subservience, complacency, and infancy. In speech, appearance, and behavior. Feminists have a field day with this study. However these kawaii fashions/actions led the way for others to explore new and radical ways of expressing themselves. I personally feel that the anti-feminist rhetoric that surrounds kawaii culture today is outdated. However, I do think it’s important to know it exists. Before we make choices, it’s important to know what’s at stake by making them. In this case, if you choose to fashion yourself after a child, it should be knowingly. There are so many forms of expression out there, but knowing what yours stands for is key. I personally love Hello Kitty! Below is an image of me from of Halloween 2012. Can you guess my costume? My favorite part of that costume was when someone asked about it. I was allowed to chat a little bit about the history of Hello Kitty. And by now you all must know I LOVE talking about Japan.
 Kawaii is in the title of my project here. Sure it serves as a silly pun for “why”, but I also hope it recalls the interesting history behind it! What do you all think about this? Is Kawaii cute or crippling? Is it alright to know all about kawaii’s murky past, but acknowledge that it makes you happy regardless.  Maybe being an adult is overrated sometimes? Well that’s how I feel too!  
*To learn more about this subject I highly recommend Sharon Kinsella’s writing, which is listed under the citations+validations tab above.*

Yumiko Kayukawa’s Traditional Pop Culture!

Today let’s check out Yumiko Kayukawa from the north in Hokkaido, but now lives in my most favorite city (as KSJ is relocating there) Seattle, WA! She explains that Hokkaido gave her a love of animals and nature which she incorporates into her art along with influences of American pop culture such as rock and roll! Sold! You can learn more about Ms. Kayukawa on her website HERE.

 小さな国/CHIISANA KUNI, or Small Country 2011


物語/MONOGATARI, or Story 2011



トゥギャザーウィーキャン/TUGYAZAA UII KYAN, or Together We Can, 2013


Moga/Modern Girl – Japan’s Flapper

Moga, short for modern girl, モダンガール, modan garu might be considered the flappers of Japan during the Taisho era (1912-1926). Both in dress and attitude, these girls embraced a “Western” perspective.


They favored emotional, and financial independence. They also chose sexual partners freely, and embraced new notions of courtship as viewed on the silver screen. This fad could also be described as placing an emphasis on consumerism and bourgeoisie standards of livingThese women were often depicted smoking in cafes, and earning their own salary. This is a stark contrast to the typical women who would be entirely dependent on and inservice to their family. This break in tradition followed the introduction of mass Western culture in Japan. Indeed the fashions of the moga imitated the “Western” flappers down to the bob hairstyles.


 This shift from women as modest subservient caretakers to extravagant self-interested consumers didn’t last long, as the Great Depression and nationalist ideals in the 1930′s squandered the fad.


Takato Yamamoto and his Heisei Estheticism

Happy Monday cats and kittens! I’m putting together an independent study on post-contemporary Japanese art over the summer. I’ve been on the hunt for interesting artists to include in research. Right now Takato Yamamoto is on my list. He coins a term “Heisei Estheticism” that really appeals to me. Heisei is the current period in Japan FYI. He’s heavily influenced by the ukiyo-e we’ve discussed previously, but with a modern-dark twist. Check out a few examples of his style below. If I pursue research on this artist further, you will be the first to know! Do you have any favorite Japanese modern artists? *Don’t forget manga counts as art!*

yamamoto yamamoto2 yamamoto3

Harder Truths About Bosozoku…

A few weeks ago I posted something about women in the bosozoku motorcycle gangs of Japan. While I mentioned that the more aggressive behavior from this group of teenagers was dwindling as new legislations passed to persecute them, I did not give you all sides of that story. Here is a great documentary about a mentor in havoc to these angst-ridden teenagers. As an adult now, he is more yakuza than bosozoku, but he’s extremely interesting. The film more focuses on his disappearing role/identity in this capacity now that the subculture is dying out. Definitely check out this film if you can!


Bosozoku are Kawaii these Days?!

Okay, I’ll just say briefly that bosozoku are somewhat of a young subset of the yakuza (Japanese organized mob). They started as kids, well under 20, who were disappointed in life and decided to leave it all for a gang. It seems 20 is the the age you get to do anything in Japan, including joining the yakuza. Same song and dance as other parts of the world, right? Well, these were also kids who struggled with the crazy competitive nature of Japanese high school entrance exams and standards. In any event, these bitter teenagers put their aggression into awesome motorcycles, and in some cases extreme violence. Zipping through lanes of traffic, removing their mufflers for extra annoying sounds, running red lights, and throwing molotov cocktails at foreigners is part of the job description. The violence seems to have died out in the last 20 years. Nowadays, due to various legislation giving police more authority to stop that violence, it’s not all that popular. I’m featuring the women bosozoku exclusively here today because…well I like them.


 More traditional style of bosozoku women above…


All that being said, girls make up a small number of these bosozuku. And check out how awesome they are!! Apparently these girls are ditching long trench coats and WWII bomber onesies for kawaii garb. What do you think about these girls? It’s apparently being reinterpreted as fashion in the West too. Ladies, would you embrace this style? For the guys out there, would you watch a Fast and Furious 10 about these chicks? I would!


FUN-d a Sweet Japan Organization Friday…

Well cats and kittens, I’d like to introduce what will be a periodic posting here at Kawaii Study Japan. FUN-d a Sweet Japan Organization Friday… shall we call it FSJOF? Too confusing? Probably.


Anyway, to kick things off I’d like to introduce the Japan Cat Network. These selfless individuals run 2 no-kill shelters in Japan saving cats from all over Japan. What’s more, they perform regular, bi weekly rescue missions into Fukushima and evacuated areas of Japan where many cats were lost or abandoned. The Japan Cat Network also houses a number of dogs. They work endlessly building new housing, and finding new forever homes for these survivors. This network of individuals are definitely made of magic. These kind souls include many foreign volunteers as well as Japanese natives. In fact, this organization was founded by two individuals teaching English in Japan (like the JET program) back in 1993. If you can’t find time to join their crew in Japan, no worries you can still help! For as little as $5, $10, or $20 a month, or a one time donation, you can help give these mini warriors in the guise of cats and dogs food, litter, shelter, and a future. They’ll even throw you some swag in return for your kindness. You can read more about donating HERE. Small or large, any show of support for their efforts is priceless.

I don’t mean to get all Sarah McLachlan on you guys, but they really need and deserve your attention. I follow them on Facebook to see what their volunteers are up to on a daily basis. Check out this sweet window to the world/playstation they built that is getting a lot of love.


 Even if you can’t spare a donation, it’s good to know these people are out there fighting for these minis. The terrible 2011 earthquake affected so many, and it’s good to know the smallest aren’t entirely forgotten. Thank you Japan Cat Network, my heart goes out to you all!

Japan’s Anger Management Arcade Therapy…


Yesterday I wished you all the start to a great week. Well what if it wasn’t all that great? Maybe you watched the recent Game of Thrones installment, and were disturbed by the “red wedding” scene. Me too guys, me too. Does it make you want to flip a table in rage? Problem solved.


Cho Chabudai Gaeshi, or ‘Upending the Tea Table’   is a Japanese arcade game that allows your dreams of violently flipping a table full of items all over the angry mob that pushed you over the edge. You can chose from different scenarios such as being annoyed in a host club, people being disrespectful at your funeral service, or a life as disgruntled fast food worker. America, we need this. Whether you just finished reading the latest Game of Thrones book, or someone cut you off on the highway, you now have a way of creating devastation you could only dream of in a rage fantasy. Yet without the pesky side effects of fines and imprisonment! It’s all in good fun of course, but it truly is fun. I have even had the good fortune of playing this game a few times. Let me tell you it’s worth the couple ducats to try. Before you flip the table, you follow the scenario onscreen that you’ve chosen to play out, and slam the the table with your fists strategically. Eventually, you build enough rage that you throw the table with all you have, and watch the havoc in that scene ensue. Your character also yells “idiot” at everyone in the room simultaneously. They even give you a rating for your level of destruction. It’s extremely satisfying. These guys didn’t really understand how to play the game. That’s okay, mission accomplished either way.

What do you think cats and kittens? Would you play this game? Have you played this game? Is someone willing to bring this gem to the US? If so, please, keep me in the loop.


Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: Official Face/Voice of the Kawaii Generation


It was only a matter of time before we started talking about kawaii/かわいい here at Kawaii Study Japan. Is everyone familiar with this term, other than its use of ‘why’ in this project title? For simplicity, let’s for now say that the word means ‘cute’. It’s used in Japan about as much as the United States uses ‘cool’. We use it all the time, for all kinds of things, right? So kawaii is on the tip of most young people’s tongues in Japan. Now outside of describing something as ‘cute’, it has an entire subculture behind it.


This movement is ever-changing, and has a long history. The kawaii culture really started picking up in the 80′s, and we will talk about the more serious implications of kawaii next week. Believe it or not, kawaii culture is more than just ribbons and bows. It has an unspoken dark side that evokes negative feelings for some. We will absolutely talk about that too. For now, I just want to give an introduction to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, who was nominated by the mayor of Shibuya as the official “Kawaii Harajuku Ambassador ”. I wanted to talk about her as she has been flooding the, “Japan sure is weird” scene for years now. Who is she, and what is she doing?

Kiriko Takemura, aka Caroline Charonplop Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, began as one of the youths interested in kawaii fashion in the Harajuku district of Tokyo. KPP was known as a fashion blogger and model as a young teenager. We know her as an international pop star now, but she didn’t garner this success overnight. Prior to that fame she launched her own line of false eyelashes called, “Harajuku Doll Eyelashes by Eyemazing x Kyary”. Her interest in eyelashes never fades, and it’s one of the more common trends in her outfits as seen in the video Tsukema Tsukeru. Here is a video of Kyary before her success at the age of 16. The first few minutes follow Kyary back to her home to see how her mother disapproves of her fashion, particularly her eyelashes. She describes having to sneak out of her house with extra clothes so she can wear what she likes. P.S. The sound is TERRIBLE. Apologies.

This certainly isn’t a problem for Kyary now. She just finished a world tour, and is releasing new singles as fast as kawaii fashion changes. In a recent interview with the Japan Times, she states that her goal is to share kawaii culture with the world. She even describes how every country she visits identifies it as something different. I think that is worth exploring. Additionally, Kyary explains that kawaii fashion isn’t always lighthearted, or fun. She often pairs grotesque images along side the glitter, ribbons, and bows. Our next discussion on kawaii will address the more grotesque/dark side of kawaii culture and it’s reverberations. I am not referring to the goth/lolita subsets of kawaii in this statement either. Ultimately, what is being expressed through this imagery? Where does it come from? What does it say about the youth of Japan? Why did every country Kyary visited assimilate kawaii culture differently? What do YOU think about Kyary Pamyu Pamyu or kawaii culture?

kyary pamyu pamyu cherry bon bon