Entering Japan is like stepping into an anime series. Kawaii, meaning cute and adorable, has fully permeated Japanese society. Cute culture in Japan is colorful, fun, and a little bit wacky.
As its popularity grew, different sections of the culture emerged. One such example is street fashion, an area where even the men are becoming just as involved as women. These fashions are most visible in Harajuku, Japan, nicknamed the “Kawaii capital of Tokyo.” It is becoming more common for one to see the trend of Decora, where people layer on as many cute accessories as possible, with colorful clothing and matching surgical masks, or the Lolita trend, where there is a fashion basis rooted in looking doll-ish, with Victorian-era elements.
At first, Kawaii culture was not widely accepted. In the 1970s, Kawaii started as a “cute handwriting” trend. Girls would insert adorable drawings into their Kanji lettering. Teachers, as a result, were unable to read their student’s handwriting, causing schools throughout Japan to ban the new trend.
From this cute culture grew a rebellion against the parameters of the highly orthodox nation and their traditional mindsets. People, mainly women at first, began to see the culture as empowering, giving them the freedom of expression and a sense of individuality.
Due to Kawaii’s ties with traditional ideas of femininity, the trend spread into other parts of Asia as well, gaining a specific foothold in South Korea and founding the Aegyo trend (Korea’s version of Kawaii, referring to cute ways of acting).
To further distinguish the two, Aegyo has taken the idea of cuteness and fused it into Korea’s admiration of innocence and childlike beauty, while also maintaining its disdain for the unorthodox. Cute culture in Korea takes careful steps to ensure that no one stands out; that people are not different from each other. All women will follow the same trends in fashion and makeup, with variations being very subtle. For instance, you would never see a Decora girl with flashy, neon tutus and layered accessories walking down the street of Seoul as you would in Tokyo. In comparison to Japan, Korea harnesses the trend to set traditional, gendered parameters within their society.
When I stayed in Seoul this summer, it was clear to me that women were still very much treated as second-class citizens. As an obvious foreigner, I was not treated in this way, but I was still very much affected by the restrictions for women in Korea.
I would go to restaurants and the waiters would never address me or any other woman about their order, choosing to ask the men instead. When I asked to join a summer basketball league, I was pointed to the sole women’s league on campus. It had only seven girls, most of whom barely knew how to do a layup.
When I asked these girls if they had ever played before, they replied that they hadn’t. Their parents had never let them play a sport, preferring for them to study instead. They explained that in South Korea, boys are expected to need a physical outlet or activity, but girls do not require the same.
Being sweaty and dirty is seen as highly unfeminine, and therefore, undesirable. Koreans, who value extremely skinny girls with zero arm and leg definition (also known as “chopstick legs”), must have been quite confused by the sight of me, sweaty and makeup free after playing basketball on the outside courts with the boys. I’ll never forget signing up for the school gym and realizing that I was the only woman lifting weights or, that every man had stopped what he was doing to stare at the odd foreigner bench-pressing more than they were.
I wondered what women that grew up in East Asia thought about the influence of cute culture and whether their experience was similar to women in South Korea. Ariel Lin, a freshman at Emerson College, grew up in Taiwan with the slowly growing market for cute culture infiltrating their society.
Lin specifies, “It mainly comes from Japanese anime. Boys in Taiwan have been watching it for a long time and girls like it more now too.” She claims that she has also been influenced by cute culture, saying that she acts shy in Taiwan because it’s considered more acceptable. “But I don’t want to be like that anymore. I like that in the US people are outgoing, and girls get to play sports here without parents disapproving.” Lin plays basketball for a team in Taiwan and is the team manager for the Emerson Women’s Basketball Team.
In her opinion, the way women are depicted in Japanese anime has caused men to believe that their girlfriends should look and act in a similar way to these anime girls. Additionally, she believes that girls are held back by cute culture in Taiwan, as they’re expected to put marriage and childbearing above other things and keep men dominating the public sphere. Most shockingly, she said, “Most girls from Taiwan think that men should be above them. They should be stronger than them too so they can protect their girlfriends. Also, they need to pay for what their girlfriends want. In return, men expect their girlfriends to be cute and take selfies with them. Then they need to dress in cute outfits for them, and always be happy and joyful.”
Peter Lovejoy, a film student at Emerson College, has been interested in cute culture since middle school, knowledgeable about both Japanese anime and Kpop. When asked specifically what he likes about it, he answered, “I like how different it is, whereas America is dramatic and intense all the time, it’s nice to have a fun change of pace.” When asked if he would like his girlfriend to participate in aspects of the culture as well, he said, “Once in awhile might be fun, but on the whole no. I’m proud my girlfriend is strong and independent. However, we do live in a culture that is still masculine driven and as someone who grew up in that environment, I still would like to be a protector and a provider for her.”
When speaking about the Kpop industry in particular, Lovejoy notes that, “Because of Aegyo and the desire for women to be cute, it’s hard for girl groups and female solo artists to stand out because they all go for the same cute concept. But if they try to distinguish themselves by being anything else, they’re criticized for being different and they usually don’t sell well.” He adds that, “I don’t think it gives women an equal say in what they want to produce because the producers, writers, managers, and choreographers are mainly men. In that business, women are put behind men and I really hope they’ll be elevated more.”
How could something that started off as an empowering movement for women, become something that traps them as it grows in popularity? Hopefully, it will develop into what it was meant to be: a fun, colorful way of empowering women to exercise individuality.