Re-framing “Kawaii”: Interrogating Global Anxieties Surrounding the Aesthetic of ‘Cute’ in Japanese Art and Consumer Products

By Janice Brown.

Published by The International Journal of the Image

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

One of the primary modes through which the image or set of images of ‘Japan’ operates as a centre of global popular culture is that of kawaii, or what has been dubbed in English, the “cute.” Initially associated with cultural productions and consumer preferences of shōjo culture, images of kawaii now flourish throughout the globe, as ubiquitous in urban centers and suburban shopping malls as in the virtual worlds of the mass media and the internet. While the phenomenon of “cute” has been studied most frequently in relation to Japanese anime, manga, and what one critic calls “commodity animism” (Allison, 2006) and another “pink globalization” (Yano, 2004; 2009), cuteness has also been considered as an avant-garde aesthetic that often conflates the vulnerable with the aggressive (Ngai, 2005). The various readings of kawaii/cute highlight the proliferation of meanings and affective responses associated with this pop culture phenomenon. Yet attempts to explain cute, to account for its global impact, or to evaluate its influence often are bound up with assumptions of superficiality and shallowness, owing largely to the association with commodity culture as well as with the hyperfeminine and/or the infantile, particularly as expressed in the kawaii images of a feminized Japanese popular culture. Such assumptions, often dismissive or reductionist, evince an underlying uneasiness with kawaii, its manner of production, its emotional appeal, its Japanese origin.

This paper will examine images of Japanese kawaii as these both undermine and reconfigure established aesthetic boundaries. Focusing on well-known icons of Japanese cute, such as Hello Kitty! as well as other representations from global visual culture, the kawaii aesthetic will be explored as a product of late capitalist consumer culture that troubles and disrupts the visual field of high culture and yet remains ultimately, cute.

Keywords: Japanese Popular Culture and Aesthetics, Affect of Cuteness in Commodity Culture, Hyperfemininity

The International Journal of the Image, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp.1-10. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 717.486KB).

Prof. Janice Brown

Professor, Asian Languages & Civilizations, University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, CO, USA

Janice Brown received her PhD in Asian Studies (Modern Japanese Literature), from the University of British Columbia, 1985. She is currently Professor of Japanese and Chair of the Department of Asian Languages & Civilizations, University of Colorado-Boulder. Her areas of specialty are modern and contemporary Japanese women’s writing, particularly the poetry of Hayashi Fumiko and Ōba Minako, with additional interests in contemporary Japanese literary, popular, and visual culture.