By Diana Lee
September 1, 2005
The world has been captivated by the Japanese popular culture, especially the Asian youths, as a rising new generation of middle-class Asian consumers who could easily identify with Japan's values and lifestyles. Whether attracted to Hello Kitty, teen idols, trendy fashion, or fun, snazzy, quality products, the young Asians described the charm of the Japanese youth culture in one word -"cute!" Representing wealth, high-tech modernization, and cultural roots, Japan appears to be the ideal model to emulate, as the sweeping craze for Japanese pop culture across the continent implicates an emerging Asian identity.
The cute element played a significant role at the outset of the Japanese popular culture. The term "kawaii" (cute) style was never a part of the culture until teenage girls introduced a form of handwriting written in child-like fashion to communicate with one and another, which became a rage in the mid 1970s. Companies and the mass media capitalized the cute handwriting fad in an attempt to boost domestic consumer boom. Since then, marketing the cute aspect of the youth culture has been a lucrative business. As a result, the high profile of the Japanese popular culture at home and spreading overseas, attests to the enormous corporate success of aggressive marketing and promotion efforts over the years.
Sanrio Corporation, the creator of Hello Kitty, understood the cute factor as a selling point better than anyone else. In 1971, Sanrio Corp. began producing cute decorated stationary, cuddly stuffed animals, cartoon-designed toiletries, bags, and other personal paraphernalia to indulge the whims of the young. A cartoon character, regarded as a symbol of cuteness, has often been used on goods with slogans written in nonsensical English or French to convey the notion of carefree fun. Firms, services, and even banks, have been exploiting animated characters for advertisements. Moreover, companies have been raking in huge profits by marketing popular products with extensive tie-ins, such as Pokemon characters not only appearing in cartoons, but also in videogames, live-action programs and endless merchandise. In just promoting Hello Kitty alone with its tie-ins of 15,000 products, Sanrio Corp. reaps in approximately $3 billion annually.
The effects of the "cute power" in the Japanese society have become a cultural phenomenon - seen in fashionable clothes and accessories, childish behavior and attitude among young women, adulation of idol singers and talents (teenagers), and transitory lifestyles of the young generation.
In the 1980s, cute fashion originated with frills and ribbons in white, pink or pastel colors for young women. As more males joined the ranks of females for the irresistible, adorable look, clothes became more cheeky and androgynous in the 1990s. However, in the 2000s, gender differentiation in clothes has returned with sexiness added to cuteness, as in the growing popularity of "empire baby doll" (a low cut camisole), the chic fashion for women.
The cute style extends beyond consumerism as seen in grown-ups with infantile behavior - acting silly, giggling, speaking with a squeaky voice, pouting and throwing temper tantrums. The Japanese society seems to be advocating the "Lolita" complex by accepting this type of behavior from a female adult under the pretense of being sweet and innocent. In the 1980s, Matsuda Seiko, who gained her fame being childish, kicked off a novel wave of "idol singers" (adolescents) who have been getting progressively younger every year. In the 1990s, cute stars dominated magazines and pop-music, as well as bombarded many TV programs, posing as hosts, contributors or part of the set decoration. Nowadays, cute young faces with no specific talent often appear on popular variety, game, and talk shows.
Being cute is a statement for and by the Japanese youths. Ironically, the cute culture, perhaps under a bit of Buddhist influence, appears to champion the apparent weakness, dependence and inability over the strengths and capabilities of an individual.
Many socialists and commentators have tried to analyze the Japanese fixation on cuteness. One claim says that individual acting childish harbors the need to be liked by others. In the Japanese society, as the young spend more time with computers, they tend to be isolated, fueling loneliness and the desire for making friends. Thus, they take part in the cute trend as a way to be accepted in society. The problem with this argument is that the convenience of Internet emails and the popularity of cell phones actually bring the Japanese more than ever in touch with one another, contrary to the perception of isolation. Another conclusion states that Japanese women with a long history of being socially oppressed would most likely embrace cuteness to fulfill their "proper role". But, there exist many Asian and African male-dominant societies that haven't followed the Japanese trend. The obvious flaw in this analysis is that an oppressed woman's position could never be equated with a child's position - a woman and a child have two distinctive roles in society.
Yet, another view claims that the younger generation is in rebellion against the traditional values of Japanese lifestyle. By being juvenile, the young defy to grow up and meet their austere life in work, family and social responsibility in the footsteps of their parents. Maybe, the cause of the youth statement lies not in a revolt against the adult life but in the refusal to give up the pampered, materialistic childhood lifestyle to which they were accustomed. The baby-boom generation, which had achieved affluence during the economic bubble years, spoiled their children with material goods and ample amusement while neglected to teach morals and values to prepare them for entering society.
It's not surprising that in a cute culture that has emphasized consumerism, pleasure and indulgence, mounting social ills, partly due to economic difficulties and partly due to the youth shirking responsibility, has been plaguing Japan. The declining interest in work ethics, marriage, or social commitment among the young has been on a rise, spawning a series of economical problems for Japan. A rapid growing trend among young workers known as "freeters" - drifting from one part-time job to another - poses a threat to the workforce stability for companies because these short-termed employees miss out opportunities to receive systematic job education and proper training. While some freeters choose to work temporarily until they could realize their dreams in the future, many others enjoy the "flexible and easy-going" lifestyle, as they remain financially dependent on their parents. In addition, Japan has a high rate of "parasite singles," grown children in their 20s and 30s (more than 60 percent) who are unmarried and working but still living at home with their parents. Furthermore, as eligible young women inclined to delay marriages for more personal freedom, birth rates have been dropping every year. Moreover, the Japanese government reported an unexpected first-ever deficit for the national pension program in fiscal 2003, declaring that 51.4 percent of those aged between 20 and 24 hadn't paid their pension premiums. Facing a dwindling stable workforce and a growing aging population, the government is now pushing for a controversial pension reform to an increasing discontent public.
Eventually, the baby-boom generation will no longer be around or run out of money to support the cute culture youths. Then, the harsh reality of traditional values will hit home - life is not a bowl of cherries. The young generation will then have to follow the footsteps of their parents to bear the heavy burden of supporting society.
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