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And So, He Said

OZ Episode
Shinjuku Underground

The Two of Us

Korean Ghosts
Does This Dress Make Me Look Uncute?
Movie Review: Survive Style 5+
Personal Essay: Schedenfreude
Personal Essay: Pessimism


Does This Dress Make Me Look Uncute?

A literary journalism article written about the culture of cuteness prevalent in Japan and the various encounters I've had with it. Spring 2010.

Trying to use the bathroom when someone or something is staring at you is quite an uncomfortable experience, and even more so when the "something" is a chubby orange guy peering at you from the stall door. This fellow is Kutan, the mascot of Narita International Airport, and the first to greet me when I landed in Tokyo on a hot August day. Adorned with a red scarf and a pair of green aviator goggles, he grins at whoever is seated on the toilet, wishing that they will keep the place clean – which is reasonable, seeing that his job (at least according to Narita Airport's website) is "to keep everybody using the airport happy." I honestly don't know about the happy thing – who is ever happy in an airport, much less after a taxing international flight? – but he certainly does add to the cuteness factor of the place.

That's the thing about Tokyo, really: everything is made to be cute. All forty-seven prefectures of Japan have their own unique adorable mascot, as do many public services such as the police force and the postal service. Miffy (the x-mouthed bunny originally drawn by Dutch artist Dick Bruna) is often used as a mascot by Asahi bank, Suica (the Japanese equivalent of New York's Metrocard) has a penguin mascot who earns the company considerable income by the way of branded merchandise, and Sanrio – creator of Hello Kitty and her army of cute henchmen – rakes in over $1 billion each year. Cuteness in Japan is a lifestyle, more than it is an option, and this was made especially clear to me when I decided to hit Takeshita Street (Takeshita-dori) just off the Harajuku rail station, one lazy evening. The local hotspot for Tokyo fashionistas (and fashionistos, I guess), it was bustling with people and peppered with storekeepers hawking their wares out in the streets. Passing by a small store that sold photographs of handsome young singers and models to a horde of squealing young women, I browsed through a few stores selling punk-rock and visual-kei (the Japanese equivalent of glam rock) clothes before wandering into the basement of the Laforet department store – and was blasted in the face with enough pink to blind her highness Hello Kitty.

I had to take a step back to look up at the store sign which read "Angelic Pretty" – a gagworthy name, yes, and also grammatically incorrect, but also one of the top brands in the "sweet lolita (amarori)" fashion niche. For those unfamiliar with the term, "lolita" in the fashion world refers not to the novel, but to a fashion subculture meant to emulate the puffy, delicate look of young girls of the Victorian age -- those girls who look more like cream-filled pastries than women. Much like the way an American goth is never just a "goth" (the cybergoth, the vampire goth, the mall goth), the Japanese lolita can be further divided into subcategories – the gothic lolita (gosurori) that incorporates lots of black and eyeliner, the classic lolita that incorporates more mature looks, and the sweet lolita that throws on as much lace as the human body can physically withstand. To my understanding, everything about the amarori is about looking cute as a button and sweet as syrup. Even the major brand names sound adorable and fluffy and cotton-candy-like: "Baby, The Stars Shine Bright," "Milk," and "Innocent World," to name a few.

The store clerk who greeted me at the door as I awkwardly peered back in was just about a perfect embodiment of these sweet lolita principles. She stood at a petite 5'4" – about my height, but only with the help of a pair of chunky pink Mary-Janes with huge platform heels – and, though probably older than me, probably could have passed for an adorable teenager anywhere else in the world. "Irasshaimase," she chirped at me, her perfectly curled blonde hair (maybe bleached, maybe a wig) bouncing in rhythm with her lacy petticoats and the ribbon-adorned folds of her puffy skirt as she tittered up to me with the skipping gait of a small child. "Are you looking for anything?"

I was suddenly very aware of the fact that I was dressed in my usual, artful ensemble of cargo shorts and a T-shirt, and mumbled a very self-conscious "No, I'm just looking," before turning around to look occupied.

I nearly bumped into a mannequin dressed in a powder-blue skirt and several layers of petticoats as I stumbled towards a shelf and stared at the myriad of dresses and skirts that radiated girliness at me. There must have been a hundred pounds of frilly pink lace in that store, and I was feeling very manly in comparison when I exited after a few minutes of awkward browsing. The shopkeeper gave me a cheerful wave, the ribbons on her fluffy sleeves rustling against the pink headpiece she wore as she called out, "Please come again!" Thank you but no, miss, maybe somewhere where I'll feel less like a hulking Neanderthal in comparison.

Even racy adult stores were adorable, to be honest. I first spotted the store Condomania while walking around Shibuya chewing on a popsicle, and very nearly choked on it when I saw the smiling condom mascot giving me an amiable thumbs-up from the store window. The store interior, however, was not so charming – I took one curious step into the doorway before the storekeeper's stony stare and the walls of condoms (then again, what had I expected?) plastered around the closet-sized space at me made me feel awkward enough to turn around and walk back out.

When I spotted another Condomania store around Harajuku with the same smiling mascot still giving me an energetic thumbs-up, all I could think at first was "oh my god, it followed me."

And then there was that time I accidentally walked into a sex shop while thoughtlessly roaming the streets of Shinjuku. To be honest, I don't know that much about sex shops -- I'm not a connoisseur of such establishments. But unlike the sex shops in New York City, for example – "Cherry Boxxx" is one I will never forget, given its tasteful name and dingy storefront that I crossed the street just to avoid walking past – the one in Tokyo had an inconspicuous sign, a clean, streamlined storefront and a cutesy maid mascot drawn on their glass door. It wasn't until I was three steps in and found myself facing a wall of dildos that I realized where I was and fled. When everything around you is packaged to look like a basket of puppies rolling around in daisies, it grows a bit difficult to find out what's really cute and what's not.

And of course, this trend of cuteness has long since spread beyond the confines of Japan, or even outside the region in East Asia that it has already come to dominate. Simone Legno, an Italian artist, created the Tokidoki lifestyle brand that utilized a design aesthetic that leans very heavily on Japanese mascots and culture (the word "tokidoki" meaning "sometimes" in Japanese) and is probably most famous for its collaborations with bignames such as Lesportsac, Hello Kitty, Skullcandy and Levi's. And then, of course, there's Gwen Stefani's callout to cute culture with her "Hollaback Girls" music video and "harajuku lovers" perfume line. "Kawaii" (可愛) is the word I'm looking for here. Although the word, character for character, literally means "lovable," its connotations run deeper than something as simple as 'cute.' The same word also exists in different languages (kě ài in Mandarin Chinese, for example), and implies that the subject is desirable and vulnerable, something that you want to protect and cherish and dote on, similar to the way a parent views a child. Everything that is innocent and precious, in other words.

The ubiquity of cuteness in Japan, however, is not without its criticisms, and is often pointed out as the prime sign of an infantile mentality. For example, Hiroto Murasawa, professor of beauty and culture at the Osaka Shoin Women's University once stated that cuteness is "a mentality that breeds non-assertion ... Individuals who choose to stand out get beaten down."

Sugiyama Tomoyuki, president of Digital Hollywood – a Tokyo school for graphic designers, video artist and game creators – commented that "Japanese are seeking a spiritual peace and an escape from brutal reality through cute things," and there may be some truth in that statement. Artist Murakami Takashi – founder of the Superflat pop-art movement – theorized that modern Japanese society's tendency to skew heavily towards the cutesy and cartoon is an indirect result of Little Boy and Fat Man, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. And while it's difficult to trace as huge a chunk of culture as kawaii back to two specific bombs, Murakami may have a point in his suggestion that it's all a form of escapism – of searching for harmony after the fallout of such a devastating event.

After all, something cute can't possibly cause any conflict, so making everything cute is bound to result in a peaceful society, right? And in that aspect, the high prevalence of cuteness isn't all too different from the way in which Japanese people are often viewed as ruthlessly utilitarian and emotionally stoic – it's all about making sure there's no conflict.

However, this harmony-seeking nature behind the cuteness can also be quite stressful to put up with – mostly for people who aren't cute. Girls, especially. A "top ten list of how girls can look cute to guys" on the Goo Ranking website – a popular site in Japan where users can contribute to and vote for top rankings on any subject that comes to mind – suggests that the best ways to look appealing to your man include "speaking to him with a higher-pitched voice than usual," "coordinating lots of pink and white," and "questioningly leaning your head to the side when you ask a question." Other popular options included "standing pigeon-toed" and "running up to animals and small children." In other words, "act like a young teenager."

There is a specific Japanese term, burikko (ぶりっ子 ) which describes such a person – a childlike, innocent woman who is the pinnacle of desirability, at least to a certain subset of men. And such is the prevalent image of "how girls should be." No wonder that the amaroris are so prevalent in Tokyo. One can consider them a pumped-up version of the burikko. Burikko-MAX, perhaps.

So where does that leave the girls who aren't cute?


While there does exist an affectionate term for girls who tend to use more masculine pronouns and language (bokukko, for the more masculine form of "I', boku), tomboys and the rest of their uncute ilk tend to be looked upon as oddities and, even if they're seen as "cool" by classmates or peers, they've often got poor luck with men. In fact, the Japanese word for tomboy, otenba (お転婆) originates from the Dutch word ontembaar – meaning "untamable." Because girls are meant to be kawaii, as the general societal consensus dictates, the ones who don't at least make an attempt to be cute – or worse, flaunt their desire to act the opposite – are considered strange, unharmonious creatures that normally shouldn't be desirable. Either that, or they're "potential lesbians" – quite a harsh sentence in a society where homosexuality is fairly deep into "don't ask, don't tell, don't discuss" territory.

A week into my visit to Tokyo, I was lazily wandering around a department store in downtown Shinjuku, waiting for a movie to start, when I realized I had to go to the bathroom. (One without Kutan.) After hunting down the bathrooms on the fifth floor, I stepped in and was about to head towards the back when the cleaning lady who was mopping the floor – bless her heart – stopped me and told me, "The men's bathrooms are over there." She even helpfully gestured at the door for me, giving me a silent stare that resonated with the words 'get' and 'out.' Granted, I was dressed in baggy shorts and a T-shirt, and had recently gotten my hair cut into a short shaggy mess for convenience's sake, but that ensemble had never gotten me mistaken for the wrong gender in the US. (Maybe it's because I'm short and chubby and don't actually look manly at all.)

The more specific society's expectations are, the easier it is to catch people by surprise. Near the end of my stay in Tokyo, my parents decided to visit Japan with my younger brother, and called me up to play tour guide for their adventure around Odaiba. And while I translated for my mother so we could purchase tickets for the boat ride from Shinbashi, the ticket lady smiled and told my mother, "It must be exciting with two sons." I smiled at her politely and handed the tickets to my mother before translating what she had said. My mother sighed and told me pointedly, "You're going to be so unpopular with boys for being uncute." (Which has turned out to be very true, but that's neither here nor now.)

Almost 50 years old, my mother still has a fondness for cute stationary items. Whenever she sends me paperwork to file or packages from home, they're accompanied by letters written on pink stationary or, at the very least, instructions written on a Post-It notes that have Peter Rabbit drawn on the bottom in adorable pastel hues. I constantly make it a point to tease her about the fact that one of her favorite pencils has a bunny mascot on top, but how can I blame her? Even if I myself make no attempts to act cute – "I'm beyond any help," is how I defended myself when my mother tried to make me wear (horror of all horrors) a pastel-toned skirt – I still harbor a guilty fondness for cute things. A small collection of stuffed animals adorn my windowsill, accompanied by little designer toys that all exude an air of "I am so sweet that your blood sugar levels will skyrocket."

My point, really, is that cuteness should be something optional – not something that is required by unspoken rule. In Japan, especially, but also in my home country of Korea, cuteness is constantly considered a requirement for one to be a model citizen, and I feel that that's just unfair. What's wrong with being uncute? At this point I may sound like the fox crying sour grapes, but hey, being a bit bitter is part of human nature, right?

There are, of course, a few designers and trendsetters out there who seem to take pity on the uncute masses by trying to buck the trend of kawaii. "Gothic kawaii" is a subgenre of kawaii that (affectionately or not) blends conventional cuteness with elements that might not be as adorable. Gloomy Bear, for example, is a pink bear mascot designed by artist Mori Chak, massively popular in Japan. Yet, it is a bear – a bear that acts like a bear and often kills people (including the boy Pitty, who picked up and raised him) in a variety of creative and violent ways. Indeed, he is more often than not illustrated dripping blood and baring his claws, and can be considered pretty much anything but harmonious. Other artists like Mizuno Junko and Nara Yoshitomo also attempt to derail the bandwagon of saccharine sweet by showing that not all cute things are cuddly and safe. And while they still support the appeal of cuteness, at least it's a step towards showing that uncute things are okay once in a while, too.

I really have no right to berate cuteness when a vinyl model of the adorable Mr. Donuts lion mascot is staring at my from the windowsill, accompanied by a plush of the popular Mameshiba character who is currently all the rage in Tokyo. But truth be told, if Hello Kitty and Gloomy Bear were ever pitted against each other in a cage match, I'd side with Gloomy Bear in a heartbeat. Because for one thing, he takes into consideration the fact that cuteness isn't everything – and for another, he actually has claws and a mouth.