Since the end of the 1990s, Japanese subculture products have been growing increasingly visible throughout Europe, the United States, Asia and Latin America. The Japanese government took notice of this trend only in 2000, but since then the Japanese Agency of Cultural Affairs and other governmental organs have been searching for ways to foster the development of the nation’s culture industry.
The range of products is startlingly diverse, including many accessible to a general audience: the fiction of Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto; anime by Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Oshii; the live action films of Takeshi “Beat” Kitano; and fashion by Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo, to name just a few. Many other products are aimed at more particular groups, including Tamagotchi “virtual pets”, Hello Kitty, Pokémon, and a slew of manga,
anime and computer games that hardly register on mainstream radars but claim a devoted cult following. The historically self-conscious art exhibition/manifesto, “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture”, held at the Japan Society of New York in the spring and summer of 2005 and curated by the artist Takashi Murakami, might be considered another product of this wave—but one with an unusually recursive character to it.
There’s so much Japanese culture on the move that it’s hard to get a grip on it all. That said, there is one key term that epitomizes the current boom in Japanese subculture: kawaii, whose nuances are only partly captured by its rather cardboard common English translation, “cute.” If we view the spread of Japanese subcultural products as the rise of “Japanese cool”, as many have of late, this new 21st-century surge might perhaps be characterized as the rise within Japanese cool of “Japanese cuteness.”
A good deal has been said in recent years about Japanese cuteness.11.
See, for example, the new book by Roland Keltz, JapanAmerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). At the center of the discussion has been the question of what in Japanese subculture has allowed it to begin supplanting the standard emblems of global popular culture, epitomized by the Hollywood blockbuster and cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse and Snoopy. Two points have to be addressed if we want to answer this question: First, how does “Japanese cool”, with its cast of “cute” characters, differ from “American cool” and its characters meant for children, which have long set the global standard. Second, what is it about this difference that has made it possible for Japanese cool to challenge American cool. Since critics have yet to offer a persuasive answer to either of these questions, perhaps we need to come at them from a different angle.
From the Cultural to the Political
Japan has a long tradition of fascination with little things. The Pillow Book, a miscellany composed in the 11th century by Sei Shonagon, observes that, “Not only lotus leaves, but little hollyhock flowers, and indeed all small things, are most adorable.” In his insightful analysis of Japanese society, Smaller is Better: Japan’s Mastery of the Miniature (Kodansha America, 1984), which uses this same quotation by Sei Shonagon as an epigraph, the Korean scholar O-Young Lee argues that for centuries Japanese have used a variety of techniques of making things smaller—shrinking, compressing, folding, excerpting, deleting and so on—to make them more beautiful, more durable, newer and better. Bonsai, fans, Japanese dolls, obento boxed meals and rock gardens that represent an ocean are all good examples, though perhaps the modern epitome of the small, durable, high-quality product is the Sony Walkman.
O-Young’s cultural analysis offers a compelling explanation of postwar Japanese accomplishments in developing hardware like cameras, watches and computer games, but it does not help us understand the emergence of small “soft” products of the sort that define “Japanese cuteness.” The booming culture of cuteness that has been on the rise in Japan since the 1980s, represented by characters like Hello Kitty, Pokémon and Sailor Moon, clearly has less to do with a cultural background that stretches back into antiquity than with the particular climate of postwar Japanese politics and society.
The difference between Hello Kitty and the Japanese tradition of smallness becomes clear when we compare the contemporary feline with a character who represents the old tradition, Issun Boshi, or “Little One-Inch.” Similar to the German story of Tom Thumb, the tale of Issun Boshi concerns a boy about an inch tall, small enough to sit in the palm of one’s hand, who rows to the capital in a bowl and defeats an enemy many times larger than himself. This was the tradition in Japan: Things grow stronger and more effective when they diminish in size. Hello Kitty, on the other hand, is small, soft, and adorable, but she never expresses any will of her own, and she hardly seems like a character one would want to rely on in a pinch. The whole secret to her cuteness lies in the fact that she is obviously not what the Walkman is: She’s small, but not stronger or better.
The defining characteristics of Hello Kitty stand out still more clearly when she is set alongside the character Bou in Spirited Away, the 2001 anime by Hayao Miyazaki, whose films have played a major role in the popularization of recent Japanese culture abroad. Bou, the overprotected son of Yubaba—mistress of the bathhouse in which much of the movie is set—first appears as a monstrous, thoroughly spoiled baby who remains ensconced in his nursery, surrounded by fancy toys. Part way through the film, a spell transforms him into a tiny mouse (a latter-day Issun Boshi) and he goes off to overcome various obstacles, growing stronger in the process. Bou clearly embodies the cultural dynamic of “smaller is better”; Hello Kitty, who just sits there, does not.
Hello Kitty is also quite different from little characters who originate in Europe and the United States like Snoopy, Mickey Mouse and the members of the Moomin family. While these characters serve as objective correlatives for childhood as a point in the human maturation process, Hello Kitty has been plucked from that narrative of growth and set down in a world without adults as an objective correlative of unchanging immaturity. Hello Kitty has no mouth, and certain critics have seen this as a symbol of the social apathy and compliance that characterize consumerism. But the truth is that Hello Kitty isn’t just missing a mouth; she also has no story, no obstacles to overcome, and thus achieves no growth.
Seen in light of these comparisons, Hello Kitty emerges as a particular character with a history of her own that cannot just be ascribed to differences between Asia and the West, the United States and Japan. There is more going on here than facile dualistic references to the history of two cultures or civilizations can explain. As I see it, there is a good reason Hello Kitty appeared when she did, after Japan had experienced nearly half a century of “democratization.”
On April 28, 1952, almost seven years after the end of the war, the U.S. occupation ended and Japan formally regained its independence. Hardly anyone in Japan remembers that date, however. This is only natural, because as a result of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which went into effect on the day the occupation ended, U.S. forces continued to be stationed throughout Japan and the nation remained in what was substantially a state of political subordination to the United States. Considering that the American military still has bases in Japan, one might say the occupation and democratization of Japan still isn’t over.
In 2003 the democratization of Japan was cited as a success story by those seeking to justify the postwar democratization of the former Ba‘athi regime in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But how successful was Japan’s democratization? Surely the ongoing chill in Japan’s relations with its East Asian neighbors suggests that the results are deeply problematic, and hints that even now, more than fifty years after the official end of the occupation, Japanese politics and society have yet to recover fully from the shock.
On the other hand, maybe there is no need to reference actual conditions. After all, isn’t the very idea of a foreign power endeavoring to force democratization onto another state a contradiction in terms? As all Japanese adults know, Japan’s postwar constitution, which presents itself as a statement of popular sovereignty framed by the Japanese people, was drawn up by the occupation forces.
Or consider Hirohito, the Emperor Showa. As utterly self-evident as it was that he, too, had been responsible for the war, the United States stepped in to shield him, letting him off the hook at the Tokyo War Crimes Trial and allowing him to retain his position as emperor—if now a human one in the newly democratized state. Hirohito’s acceptance of this occupational transformation represented a shameless betrayal of those who had died in his name, and while the United States saw this as unavoidable if the democratization of Japan were to succeed, it played havoc with the nation’s moral fiber. Democratization was carried out in Japan in a way that dealt a fatal blow to citizens’ faith in the fundamental concepts that lie at the very core of politics, including morality, justice and the very idea of having political convictions. The pseudo-democratization of Japan has, in fact, prevented the recuperation of a genuine sense of the political.
Japan has never said much to the rest of the world about the after-effects of the occupation and its attempts at democratization, or about the bizarre position in which the nation has found itself. The problems with Japan’s democratization run deep. Even the concept of democratization needs to be treated as a problem, but so far neither the Japanese government nor the Japanese media has addressed these issues head on. But if little has been said explicitly about the occupation’s after-effects and about the troubles that have haunted postwar Japanese society, the problems have perhaps begun to be marked in another way. This is the meaning of Japanese cuteness.
Lévi-Strauss and Spirited Away
I have noted the difference between contemporary Japanese cuteness and earlier instances of Japanese smallness. Claude Lévi-Strauss’ theory of miniatures and Jacques Lacan’s discussion of the imaginary give us two good ways to explore the issue further.
Lévi-Strauss begins by asking why people take such delight in miniatures, and suggests that the reason lies in a reversal that takes place in the process of our perception of them. Ordinarily, when we are confronted with some huge object—a life-size replica of the Titanic, for instance—we first take in individual parts and only arrive at a recognition of the whole by a process of synthesis. In the case of a miniature, however, as we cradle the ship in the palm of our hand, the process is reversed: First we see the whole, then we take in the parts. This perceptual reversal is enabled by the compression and erasure of various features of the actual object. A similar sort of reduction and reversal takes place even in the case of full-size replicas, “since graphic or plastic transposition always involves giving up certain dimensions of the object: volume in painting, color, smell, tactile impressions in sculpture and the temporal dimension in both.” The pleasure of the perceptual reversal derives, Lévi-Strauss argues, from the reductions that take place, which sweep away the resistance offered by the hard reality of the real, life-size person or object, replacing it in the viewer’s mind with an awareness of his own subjectivity: “A child’s doll is no longer an enemy, a rival or even an interlocutor. In it and through it a person is made into a subject.”22.
Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1962), p. 23.
Japanese society, creating its new culture of the scaled down, has become incapable of tolerating silence, afflicted with a terror of misunderstandings. Direct confrontation with hard realities must, at any cost, be circumvented. Many foreigners who visit Japan for the first time are struck by the excessively coddling, “education mama”-style culture of overprotection that is found in every large city. Guardrails separate almost every road from every sidewalk, recorded announcements incessantly warn people waiting for trains and subways not to step beyond the yellow line that runs parallel to the edge of the platform “because it’s dangerous.” Eventually, these overprotective admonitions inspire the peculiar sense of bewilderment that Sophia Coppola so astutely conveys in Lost in Translation.
For some reason, too, television commercials in Japan tend to follow a fairly standard plot that starts with a lot of goofing around, poking fun at things, and comes to an end when all the characters break out dancing. Everything is filtered through a mild, lukewarm haze, a prism of fashionable items that deflects the viewer’s attention. Beyond the prism, in the unfiltered world, everyone is terrified of getting hurt, and of hurting one another. By means of a series of ingenious, carefully orchestrated maneuvers, the necessity of coming face to face with other humans, of being sober, sincere and right, of having pride, dignity and convictions—all this is whittled away, reduced, erased, circumvented.
Now consider Hayao Miyazaki’s Sprited Away. The main character in this anime, a girl named Chihiro, passes through a tunnel and emerges into a bizarre new world in which her parents are turned into pigs: She saves them and her family and finally returns to this world, where she finds, like Rip van Winkle, that years have passed in what seemed a short time. Structurally, this tale can be mapped onto the fate of the Japanese who found, when they tried to get back to their lives after passing through the occupation, that there no longer was an old life to which they could return.
If we read the film this way, the bathhouse run by the witch Yubaba becomes a homologue of the peculiar social space of postwar Japan after the experience of democratization stripped it of its ability to produce political value by and for itself. In Miyazaki’s film, Yubaba, who would be a symbol of evil if this were a Disney cartoon, is paired with her twin sister, Zeniba, a witch who lives in her own house and could perhaps be construed as a symbol of good. Miyazaki doesn’t have Chihiro join forces with Zeniba, the incarnation of good, to defeat Yubaba, the incarnation of evil, though, and neither does Chihiro make Yubaba arrive on her own at a recognition of the evil of her ways. Chihiro saves her parents and leaves the world of the bathhouse behind without changing anything. People can’t banish evil from the world all that easily, but even in the midst of intractable contradictions, they can overcome small difficulties, and they can still mature. As Miyazaki himself has said in interviews, this is the message he was trying to convey in Spirited Away.
For a viewer steeped in a Hollywood-style worldview rooted in a binary opposition between good and evil, Miyazaki’s message is bound to seem frustratingly ambiguous. But this is the answer the director formulated to the vexed question of how postwar Japan, which long ago lost its faith in clearly opposed standards of value such as good and evil, adult and child, right and wrong, belief and disbelief, might build a solid moral foundation for itself without lapsing into either nihilism or the fabrication of false pride.
Think a little more about the relationship between Zeniba and Yubaba. Watching Spirited Away, it is easy to miss the fact that the two never appear together. The voices of both women are done by the same actress, Natsuki Mari, and when the first characters of their names (zeni meaning “money” and yu meaning “hot water”) are combined, they form the word “sento”, meaning “public bath.” Miyazaki also observes in notes to his scenario that the two witches, who are twins, wear exactly the same rings, and in the same order. And it’s true: You do notice this when you watch the movie. So are Yubaba, the incarnation of evil, and Zeniba, the incarnation of good, actually one and the same person? Is the world of this film one in which the two extremes of good and evil are linked, like the two sides of a Möbius strip?
No answer is provided to this question. Clearly, though, for Miyazaki the world of the bathhouse is less like what Jacques Lacan termed the “symbolic order”, which is structured by language and clearly distinguishes good and evil, than the “imaginary order”, in which rigid boundaries do not yet exist between good and evil, self and other. Lacan says that infants in the first 18 months of life, who have yet to separate from their mothers and possess no ego, live in the imaginary.
If so, then the imaginary order of the bathhouse is the world Japan created for itself in the wake of the war. It was a world in which Japan was forbidden to have a military and compelled to deny pre-war ideology in its entirety, in which it found itself unable to piece together its own political ideas, making its own the values that underwrote the new postwar ideals of democracy, peace and international cooperation. Miyazaki’s bathhouse is the result of Japan’s postwar democratization—a world with no political language, no standards of good and evil. It is a world with no adult models, infatuated with cuteness.
No political solution has yet been found for the contradictions Japanese society was forced to swallow in the wake of defeat, so the contradictions have been suppressed. Sigmund Freud described as “uncanny” everything “that ought to have been kept secret and hidden and has come to light”, things that are terrible precisely because they are “too close to home.” The processes I have described saddled postwar Japan with an abundance of memories it did not wish to confront—in other words, with an uncanny history. Everything possible is done to avoid this history, to sterilize it, sanitize it, render it harmless. The overprotective character of contemporary Japanese society, symbolized by all the announcements and the careful mildness of the television commercials, is often described as excessively “motherly” in contrast to the excessively “fatherly” discipline of wartime Japan. In fact, we might just as well think of it in terms of exorcism, as a means of banishing the uncanny demons of the past.
The Uncanny Godzilla
This form of postwar Japanese exorcism is most often accomplished through a process of miniaturization like that discussed by Lévi-Strauss. Godzilla furnishes an excellent example of how this works.
The relationship between postwar Japan and Godzilla runs very deep. The first movie, released in 1954, reached an audience of about 9,610,000 people; by 2004, fifty years after the series was inaugurated, 28 films had been produced and seen by a total of 99,250,000 people. The first figure corresponds to about 10 percent of the population of Japan in 1954; the second comes close to the average population of the entire country over the next fifty years.
Why does Godzilla touch the hearts of so many Japanese? The first movie was essentially a monster film based on Hollywood’s King Kong, but it was also intended as an expression of protest against the U.S. testing of a hydrogen bomb on the Bikini Atoll in 1954, during which the Japanese ship Daigo Fukuryumaru and its crew were exposed to radiation, in some cases fatally. The creators of the first Godzilla film were quite explicit about their political message, and when the movie is interpreted as having a message, it is generally read in this way, as a prayer for peace and a protest against the hydrogen bomb.
But of course there is more to Godzilla than that. Anti-hydrogen bomb pacifism can hardly account for the production and continued popularity of 28 movies over half a century. We need to look elsewhere if we want to really understand the Godzilla phenomenon.
Why is it that after being awakened by a hydrogen bomb from thousands of years of sleep on the floor of the South Pacific, Godzilla keeps returning, time after time, to Japan? Doesn’t it seem likely that he would occasionally strike out in a different direction, make a stop on the shores of Australia, for example? Yet he only visits Japan. The reason for this is clear: Godzilla is a revenant, the returning spirit of the Japanese who died in that war we would rather forget. (This isn’t apparent in the American remake of the first Godzilla, issued in 1956; in that remake everything that clashed with a Hollywood sensibility was cut out and the whole movie reworked. But the original contains an abundance of details that support this interpretation.)
Once the war was over, the newly human Emperor Shwa—freshly relieved of his war responsibility by the United States—led the citizens of Japan in committing a spectacular national betrayal of the 3.1 million fellow citizens who died during World War II. This is largely what the democratization of Japan meant in what we can call the psycho-domestic context of postwar Japan. Prior to the defeat, these war dead had been depicted as defenders of their country, soldiers who fought off the hated enemy soldiers of Britain and the United States, or as innocents who lost their lives as a result of inhuman firebombings. After the war, their deaths took on a different cast: The soldiers came to be viewed as participants in a shameful, aggressive war, but also as human shields who kept their civilian compatriots from harm. The moment democratization converted the survivors into opportunistic believers in a shallow simulacrum of democracy, no one was sure what to think of the dead, or how to handle them. They were left hanging in the void; no one could say for sure what they had died for. So when the occupation ended and Japanese found themselves able for the first time to confront their war dead without trepidation, they nevertheless decided to sidestep them, to pretend they were not there.
It was then, in 1954, that Godzilla erupted from the South Seas. Lumbering up onto land near Tokyo, he set about destroying the recovering city, bellowing into the darkness. At times his roar sounded like a lament, as if he were crying out, “What happened to the country I died for?” At the end of the first movie in the series, Dr. Serizawa, a member of the wartime generation, uses a new weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer to kill Godzilla as he lies slumbering at the bottom of Tokyo Bay, sacrificing his own life in the process. At this point, the soundtrack takes on the air of a requiem. The crew of the boat from which the attack was carried out, left bobbing on the waves of Tokyo Bay, offers a silent prayer to Dr. Serizawa’s spirit, but somehow it seems as if they are also praying for Godzilla. Once dead, the uncanny, frightening beast arouses in the hearts and minds of the audience a profound sadness and sense of associative guilt, just as King Kong did for American audiences the moment he fell off the Empire State Building.
Why was Godzilla remade so many times? In subsequent films, Godzilla fought numerous other monsters—he became relativized, one monster among many. Eventually he started a family, had an adorable baby named Minilla and, as the 1970s wore on, began taking a fatherly interest in his child’s education. Finally, as in the TV commercials, Godzilla began doing silly dances. Stripped of his uncanny aura and turned into a joke, he no longer attracted much of an audience. Still, with telling persistence, the series continued, even though the real Godzilla had already said goodbye.
This was the process by which a democratized Japan sanitized its uncanny war dead. Godzilla goods are everywhere in Japan, even today. If you visit Akihabara, the mecca of otaku culture, you will find dozens of Godzilla miniatures. The Internet is crawling with cute pictures of Minilla and other monsters from the series. It was only a matter of time before other cute monsters such as Pikachu, the best known of the “pocket monsters” (Pokémon) appeared, and it was just one step further from the cute monsters to the cute non-monster Hello Kitty.
It is not an accident that Hello Kitty has no mouth. The small things Japan has been producing since the 1990s, of which Hello Kitty is the best representative, come at the end of a long process of “cutification”: They are what remains after words and meaning have been reduced, erased, cast away. These cute characters are the remnants, the purely imaginary shells of the symbolic. They are soulless celebrations of having achieved emptiness, for they mark the disappearance—but not the solution—of a problem.
The Paradox of Globalization
There is a passage in Kojiki—the first written work to appear in Japan (in 712 BCE), transcribed using characters imported from China in an age when Japan was being swept for the first time by a tide of globalization—about a sea cucumber. One day, the story goes, a messenger from one of the gods came, assembled all the creatures of the ocean and asked them, “Will you serve my lord?” All the creatures said they would except the sea cucumber, who remained silent. Seeing this, the messenger grabbed the sea cucumber. “Seems you have no mouth to answer with”, he said, and cut it one with his knife. This, Kojiki explains, is how the sea cucumber got its mouth.
This tale seems an apt image of globalization. For many non-Western peoples, globalization is the appearance of a new god who speaks a new language—or rather, languages: English, the Internet and consumer capitalism. Globalization makes all of us learn these new grammars. From a certain point of view, this seems like the advent of a series of global languages, but this is only one point of view. In the 1960s, most people in Japan were fine as long as they could use Japanese. People had a language; they were literate. But now many people have been rendered voiceless and illiterate by the spread of English through the Internet. Globalization divides the voiced and literate few, those who can decipher the new language, from the newly voiceless and illiterate many. What is liberating and empowering for the fortunately placed can be oppressive and emasculating for the unfortunately marginalized. Mass media in Japan have been making much of this gap, discussing it in terms of “winners” and “losers.”
The same situation is emerging in Afghanistan, China, Peru, eastern Europe, Egypt and elsewhere. From the perspective of the literate who can communicate in this new world, globalization seems like a movement toward the light; from the perspective of the illiterate, it is the darkness growing. And this brings us back to the main question: Why is phony Japanese cool taking the world by storm, displacing the original American cool? Why are the cute little “imaginary” products of postwar Japan’s twisted history gaining the upper hand over the “symbolic” American characters that have so long dominated the global market? Why is Hello Kitty overwhelming Mickey Mouse?
Douglas McGray, the author of a stimulating essay about the “soft power” of Japan’s “Gross National Cool”, argues that what is most important in the struggle between Japanese cool and American cool is not “cultural accuracy” or having an “authentic American origin.” He calls our attention to the omnipresence in Japan of phony products of American culture like potato salad pizza and “Harbard University” T-shirts. This is indeed the essence of Japanese cool: It’s all about being phony. Deliberately dubious imitations of American cultural products, fraudulent Americanization (or Europeanization), the creation of fake new global standards, expressions of illiteracy, of voicelessness—in all of this there is no creative principle of resistance. But it is nevertheless a form of resistance. Since the occupation, Japan has pursued a form of resistance that looks almost exactly like emulation of the American way, resistance infinitesimally close to imitation, while politically it has bumbled alongside the United States in a path, possibly, toward its ruination. This environment was an ideal incubator for cultural expressions of the power of voicelessness. The current wave of cuteness is an unexpected side-effect of this history. In this sense, one might say that Hello Kitty is a distant descendant of the sea cucumber in Kojiki.
In the face of this surging tide, it is only natural that the charms and attraction of Mickey Mouse, Snoopy and the rest of their American and European cartoon cohort should fade in the too-bright light of their own authority as emissaries of the vocal and the literate. In the past, when these Disney characters first emerged as “low culture”, when they were still stand-ins for the voiceless, they had the power to speak directly to the hearts of people all across the globe. But they’re no fun anymore. Like Americans who, having little if any training as language instructors, are nonetheless welcomed as English teachers by the language schools that are ubiquitous in Japan these days, the cartoon gods from the homeland of globalization are now defined primarily by their connection to power. Place Mickey Mouse and Snoopy next to Hello Kitty and Sailor Moon and you will see just how eloquent, vocal, literate and decorously ready to travel they are—and how in some contexts they might seem a bit overwhelming, oppressive, even macho.
Globalization turned America into a planet-spanning speaker, a broadcaster, the source of the new literacy. The iPod, that tiny box of voices, is a symbolic piece of hardware, but the soft power of cultural products shouldn’t be underestimated. According to Ken Belson and Brian Bremner in their book, Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of Sanrio and the Billion Dollar Feline Phenomenon (2003), Bill Gates offered $5.6 billion for the rights to Hello Kitty—though Microsoft denies any knowledge of this. If the story is true, one can only surmise that Gates detected something in Hello Kitty that Microsoft didn’t have: her blank, mouthless face looming up as a symbol of the unknown powers of the voiceless. Sanrio would not sell.
See, for example, the new book by Roland Keltz, JapanAmerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).2.
Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1962), p. 23.