Manufacturing And Subverting Cute Cultural Studies Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Widespread presence of Kawaii culture in Japan is converting other art areas and media to changes. Kawaii elements exist in mascot appearance in large business to corner markets and government offices. Nippon airways use Pikachu as their official mascot. Asani bank has Miffy character from Dutch cartoon as their mascot. The Japan post stylized their mailboxes and stamps being inspired by Kawaii elements. Each police office in Japan has own mascots, they look like cartoon characters, they are friendly smiling and waving their hands. Japan population also expresses their cute preferences in their clothing style. Cute fashion consists of ruffles, small toy accessories, all palettes of vivid hair color and pastel colored dresses.

Kawaii art is young. It is still changing and transforming into new forms.

After three hundred years of isolation, post - war Japan was open to the world and fresh information. What did Japanese need that time? According to Murakami's theory Japan was like a little child at that time. Child was under control of America. That child absorbed all information from new world and created infantile population who believed in sweet world and rejected harmless reality.

Post war art Otaku was born at the beginning of 60s. Takashi Murakami is a pioneer of this art generation. Lately in his art he will make fun of it, though his style was based on combination of Japanese art traditions and Otaku. At 80s it was very early period of Otaku art. Japan is changing social structure and absorbing new products from West. Impact of Disney, full color printed comics and animated colorful cartoons created Japan animation "Anime". Positive and multicolored art helped to block out the fears of Japan population at that time. One of the earliest anime produced in color was Anmitsu Hime manga, published in 1986-87. The lead character is Sugar princess from Otakama castle. The target audience were 4-14 years old little girls. Romantic comics about human relationships became so popular that readers created a community called "shojo". "Shojo" from Japanese is "a little female". Since then female under 17 interested with comics is called shojo. Revolutionary comics for this audience since then are called same.

Lambertson Kristen in his work talks about how Takashi Muralkami and Mariko Mori created their style by aligning themselves with idea of Japanesenes and playing on their origin. He states: "Aware of their status as Japanese cultural products, they embrace the Oriental brand. Art is a commodity, and culture is a brand for national identity. They and their works are only a small part of the larger exchange of the Japanese cultural product. The legitimacy and accuracy of their portrayals are not so very important, it is the illusion, or belief that they portray an idea of authentic Japaneseness. For any individual, the representation of cultural authenticity for an entire nation is predicated by an incomplete vision of nationality. Thus, through their embrace of superficiality, Mori and Murakami open up the dialogue concerning national identity and the future of the nation-state that is increasingly at odds with the populations that inhabit it and the economies that manage it."

In response to these trends Murakami and Mori created work that reflected all they were living in at that time. The question is to whom they are addressing their work?

Mariko Mori became popular when she was portraying herself as an alien, cyborg or spiritual avatar in her own photo shoot. On the photographs she was wearing provocative costumes and looked like a doll. The title below implied that she wants "to play". On these photos she combined key desirable elements, which were technology and sexuality.

While men in Japan are accused in fetishization of Kawaii girls, woman in Japan are criticized for their lifestyle based on the consumption of Kawaii goods. Men's manga dominant theme is erotisation of female body, women is violent and seductive. Economics of desire predicated by external consumption rather than an internalized production of meaning. Idealized life and fantasy is best selling product.

Japanese cultural identity now has become as much as a brand. Infantilized population is obsessed with creating online profiles for kawaii cats, hamsters or their own babies. Cute cat has its own blog where "he" writes what cute thing he has done today, posts fresh photos and links for favorite cupcake recipes. Producing a large portion of fan created goods leaves some sense of emptiness, sense of vacuity of kawaii itself. These fetishized elements are more essential than the purpose why is she doing it. Same problem exists in art environment. There is work without voice in it.


Sanrio with Hello Kitty brand is pioneer in turning cute into cash. Sanrio's clever marketing brought huge success. First item been produced with Hello Kitty icon was a vinyl coin purse. Fun adorable and unabashedly cute character that had no name at the very beginning now spread globally and everyone greets Hello Kitty. Incidentally, cat is a lucky emblem in Japan. Particularly beckoning white cat (Maneki Neko) brings luck to business.

"She is the original, and it is hard to replace her. She became the icon of cute for a whole generation. You cannot buy that kind of lucky conincidence" Ken Belson. Sanrio produces school supplies, accessories, stickers, toys, home appliances etc. Products rage from everyday to rare collectible items. Apart from the listed above guitars, jet airplane, wine, video games and theme parks in Japan called 'Sanrio puroland' and 'Harmonyland'.

Ken Belson and Brian Bremner's book about Canrio's conventional wisdom about brand marketing, called 'The remarkable story of Sanrio and the billion dollar feline phenomenon' has very distinctive sentence 'Sanrio turning cute into cash'. 'You can never have too many friends' says Hello Kitty or too many customers we could add to it. It was not only marketing success but also proper proportions and design elements of Hello Kitty created successful brand. What role Hello Kitty's Kawaii appearance played in her success?



Tom Sutchiffe in his article 'Don't get cute with me' states 'Cuteness is being employed because it presses a psychological button that we can't lock - even if we want to.'

Hello Kitty is the ultimate icon of Japanese cuteness. Hello Kitty is a part of Japanese 'Kawaii' (means 'Cute') culture phenomenon. Originally designed for children by Yuko Shimizu in 1975 in Japan. Year later character was given a name and family. It was a continuation of Hello Kitty's concept that states 'be perfect, be like Hello Kitty'. Because she is living in ideal place and ideal people surrounds her with all additional perfect decorations around that every woman needs. Her life is perfect as she is. Hello Kitty is offering escape from brutal reality, sweet escape to fantasy world. Adult is ready for it as a little child is. She enjoys same hobbies. She likes eating ice cream, writing poetry just like each of us does. Hello Kitty has a pet Charmmy Kitty. Her Papa gave it to her as a birthday present. Isn't having a pet for a birthday gift what every child wish? On Hello Kitty official there is her profile with all information including date of birth, blood type and favourite food.

This character seems to have no obvious ethnicity and appears asexual. White faced, round headed cat has emotionless expression. 'Hello Kitty speaks from her heart' states Sanrio explaining why she does not have a mouth 'It is easier for the person looking at Hello Kitty to project their feelings onto the character'. It is easier to consider that the character is your alter ego when she does not have distinctive characteristics. Interesting, that not much people do notice that she has no mouth. And emotionless expression scares you when you notice it.

Hello Kitty products offer what people need. Escapism, Sanrio helps to escape the hostile, industrialized urban world. Companies like Sanrio offer you new form of entertainment, buying, sharing and personal enjoyment of the brand. Merchandise of these companies has always been priced so that children can buy them as presents for friends and family members.

Hello kitty is done in Manga style illustration. Simply drawn features, any child can draw her easily. That was one of their point, children like simply drawn characters. At that time, early 70's adding little, simple picture to your writing was a trend. Schoolgirls created this 'icon-doodles language' and were using it all over Japan. Some schools prohibited using this new way of writing emotions on paper, because it was difficult to make out the writing. However magazines and comics adopted this style. Later it was widely used in packaging and advertising. Additionally, it is easy to type those characters on keyboard or while messaging or chatting.

Hello Kitty producers gave credits to original creator of Miffy. They admitted to have made Hello Kitty inspired by Miffy, white cute rabbit. It is useful to compare those characters appearance and its affect on popularity.

Musti is not as cute as a Hello Kitty or Miffy are. Musti has pointy edges, sharp ears and more rectangular, unround outlines. He does not look soft. Additionaly Hello Kitty and Miffy are more simplified. They do not have fingers or tail. Therefore, Hello Kitty and Miffy are more popular comparing to Musti, even though they do not have a 3D cartoon like Musti does.

Similarity is in story plot the subject of cartoon is always linked to the world of a small child. Musti is a little cat living with her mother and father in a little house in a rural village, surrounded by a large garden with animals and trees. Miffy is a small female rabbit with the same story, Hello Kitty is a cat and has same story.

Though Hello Kitty does no advertising in USA it is a sales leader among girl's brands in stores where toys are not sold. In toy stores it is second after Barbie.

Cute merchandise and products are popular in East Asia, it is making a public in Europe and there is a Kawaii Factory brand in Russia that sells Kawaii accessories.

Japanese characters are inclined to have more infantile characteristics such as chubby body, lack of mouth and fingers. All attributes of helpless child, like big head, droopy eyes and stubby limps. While Western characters are inclined to be more adolescent. They have more articulated limbs, they move more and they are loquacious and noisy. All of above affect the character interact with its audience. Cute Japanese characters seem to be more appealing because it subconsciously reminds the viewer of childhood, innocence and happiness. They entertain people of all ages.

Stephen Jay Gould in "A BIOLOGICAL HOMAGE TO MICKEY MOUSE" article analyses how Mickey's appearance and behaviour changed and he resembles infant more and more in 50 years period. By altering his proportions rodent like character was changed into baby headed icon. His body looks smaller increasing size of the head and making it chubbier. Legs and arms are thickened and making line of his pants lower shorts legs. Moving ears to back and pushing area of facial features down created his round forehead. This was done in attempt to increase Mickey's popularity.

Masubuchi in 1994 defined seven elements of Kawaii:


Innocence and naiveté

Youth (especially the very young)

Amae (dependency)


Pastel colours

Animal - like qualities

Mascots are extremely popular and usually involve slapping a super cute face on any product, food or object you can think of. The most common usage of Japanese style is for 'Chibi' or super deformed human characters. Proportions are the head is one third or half of the total body height while approximately adult figure varies from five to eight heads to the entire height. The child's figure from about four to five heads to the body height. Key proportions to create a chibi face are eyes located far apart, nose small or invisible, and the mouth high up. The core of chibi design is simplification of body parts and not drawing more details than is necessary to convey an emotion and outfit.

Some Otaku characters facial proportions are close to normal human beings. The other types of characters are extremely infantilized. The second type of Otaku characters has smaller area of facial features. Proportions of face are 1:1. These characters look more cute and small. Human psychological study explains that human react more positively to creatures with big eyes, wide foreheads and big heads than to regular ones. For instance, cats and dogs have cute facial proportions 1:1, therefore people are drawn to them. While their small-eyed, long snouted relatives are rejected. Moreover, scientific studies approved that people respond to cuteness same way as they do to attractiveness.

Coming to the body proportions Anime character has slightly taller body more similar to Barbi, while chibi and cartoon characters are more close to 1:2; 1:1,5; and 1:1 oversized head and small body.

Shapes contribute to character design, and it is clearly marked out in chibi design. Character's personality and mood is shaped and delivered by their look. In Chibi design it is considered that round shapes are cuter. Cute, innocent babies are usually chubby. Skinny innocence does not exist. In "Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye" Rudolph Arnheim states:

"Shape also depends on memories or experiences we've had with a particular object. The shape of an object is depicted by the spatial features that are considered essential."

When your eyes are rounder and curvier you are seen, as more friendly, bigger eyes look more harmless. Even English expression "wide eyed" can confirm that round big eyes mean innocent and credulous. Opposite to it when person is angry, features become sharper. Anime character Rurouni Kenshin has distinguishable features and we could use it as example. His eyes changes radically depending on what sort of mood he is in. He has huge, round sparkly girly - like eyes in his usual mood and when he gets more serious it becomes less round, there is less eyeball, the edges are sharp, the eyes are narrow and more stretched.

Simplicity looks more appealing. To justify it we could refer to Julian Hochberg's study of simplicity:

"The smaller the amount of information needed to define a given organization as compared to other alternatives, the more likely that the figure will be so perceived."

Especially, when design is oriented to children simplicity is crucial. Because children like to draw cartoons or characters they love. Simplified illustration is easier to copy and it means it is more enjoyable to draw. Rudolph Arnheim says that simplicity should be subtle, soft and orderliness should be taken in mind. Absolute simplicity is not what human is interested in.

Julian Hochberg defined the simplicity by attributes listed below:

1. The number of angles enclosed within the figure.

2. The number of different angles divided by the total number of angles.

3. The number of continuous lines.

Size Physically, the key element of Kawaii rests in miniaturization. "Netsukes" are miniature sculptures that were invented in 17th century Japan to serve practical function. Japanese robes "Kimono" and "Kosode" had no pockets, however, men who wore them needed a place to store their personal belongings. At the beginning it was just a box shape, but evolved over time. There were craftsmen who were making animal or Buddha shaped Netsukes. All the characters were nature based. Netsuke has same size and shape of modern artificial pet Tamagochi.

Mouth less Silence means trustworthiness. Anime characters typically have small, though visible mouths. Hello Kitty is an exception from Otaku style drawings. There is no "mouthless" manga examples or trends. Silence has positive effect. Silent thing it not able to harm you and cute but silent child wont bother you. Japanese toy Tamagochi is silent as well.

"The secrets of the female adolescent pertain to the silencing of her own voice, a silencing enforced by the wish not to hurt others but also by the fear that, in speaking, her voice will not be heard," by physiologist of 80s Carol Gilligan (1982).

Dependency Cute is always in some sense implies to individual in search of its mother and created to cause maternal desire. The owner of the cute is expected to pretend to be cutie's mother. The domestication of nature lies at the core of cute, animals that must be cared and trained. The 90s pocket pet - Tamagochi had to be nurtured, fed and cared to conform to these aspects of kawaii. There is a Japanese verb "Kawaigaru" which means to give a loving care, which obviously relates to Kawaii - cute.

In Japan inanimate objects are treated with respect. Maybe it means they put them on one level with a person that is why they have their own feelings, emotions. A 36-year-old Japanese female writer says that she uses cute characters because they personalize the space and makes her things hers.

Osaka Shoin Women's University professor Hiroto Murasawa, an expert on the culture of beauty, explains that Japanese like to be child and often are not ready for cruel adult life, to escape from imminence they act like a child and are keen to toys and games. She is warning that in order to be able to articulate on the international stage they must reshape this position.

Author of "Cool Japan: why the world is buying into Japan" Tomoyuki Sugiyama states that harmony-loving Japanese culture generated cute as a synthetic object that represents everything that is desired and cherished.

Color cuteness varies based on the context, saturation, brightness, and background colors. Thought pastel colors were considered to be cute. Surprisingly, during research scientists found out that child would select aqua- green as the "most cute" color. Pink is the one that woman prefer. Additionally, it is considered to be cute because newborns have pinkish skin and we have adorable pink blush on our cheeks when we are shy, which is cute. There is also aspect to mention about why woman has to prefer pink. At the early 50s woman were persuaded to "think pink". They were influenced by Audrey Hepburn to wear pink lipstick, to buy pink car or household appliances. Meanwhile girl's preferences were affected by Barbie doll. What is stated above demonstrates that perceptions differ according to age.



Takashi Murakami had an idea to make art in non-fine arts media. 'I express hopelessness' says Takashi Murakami. Takashi Murakami has written that he aims to represent Poku (Pop + Otaku) culture because he expects that animation and otaku might create a new culture. 'Otaku' refers to people who have an obsessive interest in things like manga, anime, and video games. He is quoted as saying that the market is nothing but "a shallow appropriation of Western trends". Murakami states that his art was born from Western art and culture impact made on post-war Japan, which caused frustration in Japanese art. He explains that post-war Japan status and general view of Japanese art was very low. It was "soft rebellion" against social conventions. Murakami is crossbreeding Western, postwar art language and the Japanese superflat aesthetic in his art. His creatures are Western heroes turning into Japanese otaku. Murakami calls his art 'Superflat' which is characterized by flat planes of color and graphic images involving a character style derived from anime and manga. His art criticizes the vacuity of post-war Japanese culture. In his art he is making fun of stereotypes of his favorite art Otaku.

His most popular character Mr. Dob is a combination of a Mickey Mouse alike ears, baby alike facial expression and monstrous teeth, that you can seen when he is yawning. All characters by Murakami have got baby alike innocent facial expressions and represent his idea of blended Western and Eastern art. They are crying, screaming or yawning like babies do. Their head size is as big as the body is. Body is simplified, basic shapes for limbs, usually the do not have fingers. And the main feature of all of them is that they have something monstrous in them or look like aliens. "In Japan, communication is about appearances and surfaces. We use cuteness and formality to disguise what we really want to say. My work looks at the other side of that cuteness," said Murakami, his words make us think what he really wants to express through his cute art.

One of the best-known works by Murakami is his collaboration with Luis Vuitton and design of bag and accessories targeted on woman all over the globe. Design was done in pastel and very feminine colour palette. It reached great success on market. Murakami says that as non-Western artists, economic viability is based upon their ability to cultivate desirability, not necessarily authenticity.

Murakami's made strong statement to the modern world of fashion and his impact is noticeable. Strict fashion advertising diluted with cute illustration and bright childish colours. Stella McCartney autumn winter 2010-11 ads, illustrated by British artist Barry Royate using the idea of cartoon characters it is not the first time she is using illustrations. In 2009 campaign was complete with Bambi characters. Stella McCartney explained that they wanted to contrast her quite fierce looking campaign with the innocence of Bambi, public liked eccentric and cheerful campaign. Vogue UK commented: "Prepare to have your inner child meet your chic outlet adult."

Takashi Murakami's art is also a convergence of cute and at the same time eroticized woman. Children illustration merges with erotic display of youthful female bodies. Murakami explains that this is a type of art just like erotic manga is. One of his latest and controversial projects is an art direction of a photo session with Britney Spears. Theme of a photo session refers to a manga called "My wife is a grade schooler." Pop star that reached success with image of a schoolgirl Lolita is posing in a bathing suit, wedding dress and backpack. "My wife is a grade schooler" is manga that caused lots of discussion because of showing young characters in an inappropriate manner. Some critics are calling it child pornography.

Yoshimoto Nara like Takashi Murakami has used his work to point and sharpen his feelings on Japanese cute culture. Nara paints portraits of lone, bitter little girls. General loneliness of them and absence of any friends, family adds violent tint on his pictures. Artist subverts manga and anime stylized typically cute images, by animating his works with horror-like imagery. Little girls on his illustrations are behaving like adults, their expressions are not the ones that child could have. Nara grew up in a place where dividing line between adult and child is blurred. This experience affected his mindset and artwork as well. Not only Japanese artists critique this obsession with kawaii culture that spread through Japan.

There is another example, the work by Chiho Aoshima. The work is drawn in consideration with all Kawaii elements. Blooming Japanese plum tree is pictured there. At the first glance you think it is cute because supportive pastel colors, curvy shapes and cute, simply drawn flowers make you think so. But when you take a closer look you notice sharp corners of mountains and naked woman bound in ropes. This is when you are facing a dark side of Kawaii art. Violent imagery becomes a sign for a fascination with the kind of power that postwar Japan lacked.

Cuteness could be cruel in its false consolations. Contemporary artists say there is always a dark side of cute. "Hello Kitty has no mouth but she must scream. That is why her head is so big," one Internet wit opined. "Hello Kitty has no mouth, and yet in space you can hear her scream," offered another. Artist of "Hello (Sex) Kitty" Uehara stated that it was "a parody response to Hello Kitty and to the cute ideas I grew up with." It might be a reaction against infantile cuteness. But it also could be a pure marketing progress, based on cultural research. Every woman wants to stay young and be cute but they also want to look sexy, glamour and provocative to man. Main readership is Shojogirls, potentially disruptive girls and women between puberty and marriage. Carol Gilligan, psychologist who published her works at early 80s. Was saying that girls around twelve or thirteen lose their self-respect because society around them expects curtain behaviour. Since they are not child anymore, they have to suppress any open expression or antipathy, they are also taught to value relationships more than rules.

Common anime themes and real - life themes are merged: high technology, aliens and cyborgs versus gender role, popular and consumer culture. Violence was always present in anime. At 70s when Japanese anime was exported to America it had to be changed and reinterpreted. American version was hiding violent details. No one was dying, all blood had to go, and even all actions were moved to distant place to avoid ambiguity.

Daniel Harris linked cuteness with sadism: "Cuteness is not an aesthetic in the ordinary sense of the word and must by no means be mistaken for the physically appealing, the attractive. In fact, it is closely linked to the grotesque, the malformed. Cuteness, in short, is not something we find in our children but something we do to them. Because it aestheticizes unhappiness, helplessness, and deformity, it almost always involves an act of sadism on the part of its creator, who makes an unconscious attempt to maim, hobble, and embarrass the thing he seeks to idolize."

Interesting to note that there is Japanese word "Kowai" which means "frightening" and "scary". Another Japanese word "Kimo-kawaii" that integrates two meanings "cute" and "disgusting". This term was created recently and been used often among young Japanese population. So erroneously these terms relate to child like primitive sketches at the forefront of popular culture.

In 2000 Mc.Veigh provided typology of cuteness: baby, very young, young, maternal, teen, adult, sexy, pornography, child pornography, authority and corporate. Nowadays there are two existing forms of kawaii: erotic-cute and grotesque-cute. Nudity and sexual images are not new in Japanese art. Line between innocence and sexuality was never strictly defined. Childhood and adulthood blends in Japanese artists imagination and creates so explicit and jaw-dropping images, artists are challenging our ideas about kawaii art. What are the messages modern Japanese artists are sending to the audience? There is a paradox. How such a strictly defined society produced art that is wildly imaginative and brutal?

Linda Hutcheon is a feminist theorist says: "It seems to me that… women are often in the position of defining themselves against a dominant culture or discourse. One way to do that, a way with great subversive potential, is to speak the language of the dominant (which allows you to be heard), but then to subvert it through ironic strategies of exaggeration, understatement, or literalization (1998)."

Maybe child-Japan that was reborn in 1980s is growing up and now it is aggressive teenager. Amateur kawaii kid with obsession of fantasy world is transforming into technology friendly grown up living in computer games and his sexual illusions.

Marketing Kawaii to adults. Sanrio's extension of its market into adult goods in Japan began in the late 1980s, when demographers predicted a shrinking youth population in Japan. It was targeted to office ladies, secretaries and housewives. The extension of Sanrio market shows how the concept of Kawaii has been broadened to include young female adults. Both may share product but not necessarily same meaning.

Ironic use of Hello Kitty can be misconceived. MAC cosmetics whose target audience is a young woman recently collaborated with Hello Kitty to create a new campaign. Year before MAC worked with Barbie brand and it was very effective. MAC launched collection of cosmetics in dominant black and supportive pink colours. The collection does not look childish and not so cute as we could expect from Hello Kitty. Thought colour cosmetics collection palette is full of vivid-pink colours, which normally are relevant for small girls.

32-year-old female writer and translator explained that she does not use characters like Hello Kitty as she remembers her as she was growing up in the 1970s and Hello Kitty seemed to her to be symbolic of the role that women were made to occupy in Japan: passive and voiceless. Some people use her ironically and paradoxically.

Is this a new form of feminism or is it antifeminist reaction? What social trends will bring violent dark kawaii image?



Japan is presenting an image of youthful, "cute" and playful when the reality is more conservative. Many people around the world are being fascinated with Japanese synthetic positively animated cartoons and dress-up. 'Cuteness is being employed because it presses a psychological button that we cannot lock,' said Tim Sutchiffe. And it does not matter what type of cute it is we will never feel indifferent when viewing it. Interesting that anti-cute still looks authentically cute. Murakami and Nara creatures are looking kawaii in their own way. It is about Japanese aesthetic sensibility. Culture allows anyone to express its vision of cute, whatever form it converts into.

While three cute ambassadors are sent overseas to promote Japanese pop culture to young people. There is a question will Japan sustain for staying cute, or not? We will have to wait another decade or so to know the answer to that one.