Getting Cute

September 14, 2020

Joana Grant explores the culture of kawaii, or “cute” in Japanese.


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(Screenshot), Overly Attached Cute. © Courtesy of Joanna Grant.

In the West, toys are reserved for children. Toys are a means for preparing children for roles as adults, and allow for learning and cognitive development. Friedrich Fröbel’s invention of the kindergarten was meant to teach children about work and learning through the method of play; still today, toys are viewed as constructive tools for the development of children. Yet in the East, a different view of toys has evolved.

The culture of kawaii, or “cute” in Japanese, emerged following the defeat of Japan in World War II. Japan’s newly formed nation was heavily influenced by American culture, and, following the brutality of the war as well as strict traditional cultural values, a new pop culture phenomenon emerged. Japan’s new constitution, formed in 1947, included specific clauses that prevented waging war. According to Takeshi Murakami, this triggered an infantilizing tendency in Japanese culture.1 The combination of a culture of repression with a history of manga came to head in the early 1970s, when school children began to alter their writing with pictorial and Roman characters as a means of rebellion. In 1971, Sanrio created Hello Kitty.

Ever since the advent of Hello Kitty, Japanese culture has exploded with pop icons of kawaii aesthetic. Kawaii has become entirely engrained in their culture, proliferated by the youth but adopted by people of all ages. It has permeated all aspects of culture in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. From signage to tissues to bedding and toys, cute is everywhere. It has become a method of escaping the oppressive and highly stressful obligations to work and family, as the aesthetic of kawaii presents friendliness and comfort. South Korea and Japan, both countries with a prolific kawaii infatuation, respectively rank third and seventh in suicide rates in the world. Traditional cultural codes of behavior, which deeply affect every aspect of life, manifests itself in the form of unexpected cultural phenomena. If cuteness is a means of rebellion against a tradition of seriousness, then its power to proliferate relies on an aesthetic that is widely adored. Clearly there exists a link between the pleasure or delight imparted by cuteness and a lingering social darkness or discontent with the status quo.

Interestingly, politics have become laden with kawaii. During the 1998 mayoral elections in Taipei, the Democratic Progressive Party created the A-bian doll as a political tool.2 The doll was a kawaii likeness of the Chen Shui-bian. This political ploy and its overwhelming popularity allowed the Democratic Progressive Party to oust the Chinese Nationalist Party after over half a century of dictatorial political dominance. What is notably strange, from a Western vantage point, is the ability of a caricature as a representational device of idealized deformity to operate in a positive method. In the West, the political caricature is most often employed as a mode of critique for the behaviors and decisions of politicians. The exaggeration of facial features has allowed critics to subconsciously paint politicians as evil or even buffoonish. However, in the case of the A-bian doll and Chen Shui-bian, his status as a political figure was exploited as inherently positive as his association with the image of a cute doll proliferated, helping him to win the election.

Just as the power of caricature allowed a politician to become loveable and huggable, another seemingly paradoxical phenomena involving kawaii can be seen in a popular Japanese fashion that allows women who dress modestly to achieve a degree of sexiness. The “Lolita” fashion, a style that blends Victorian-era clothing with childlike details, seeks to react against the exposure of skin through modesty but inherently enters the realm of sexual fetishization—aptly named in reference to the novel by Vladimir Nabokov. The coupling of meaning and representation in these contexts is clearly evidence of the difficulty of expressing the true meaning which might be unacceptable given the strict moral code. Therefore, topics such as sex and politics are discussed through the political correctness of cuteness.

The caricature has an architectural history as well, most notably with the typologies of Aldo Rossi and John Hejduk’s figural characters. Rossi conflates architectural tropes into recognizable figures and misapplies them within the city, while Hejduk’s figures take on animalistic postures. Hejduk’s figures employ the language of architecture combined with a caricature. Charles Jencks’s The Post-Modern Reader theorizes postmodernism as requiring a need for double-coding: “socially and semantically architecture […] mediate[s] between the ephemeral tastes of fashion and, like language and genetics, the slow-moving codes of the past.”3 Similarly, Robert Venturi’s “A Gentle Manifesto” calls for an architecture of a “both-and” reading as opposed to “either-or.”4 Considering the groundwork of double-coding, complexity and contradiction, and the annexation of outsider architecture into the canon performed by Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown in the form of ducks and decorated sheds, I propose a call to arms in defense of the potential cuteness of architecture.

The relationship of kawaii to architecture has not yet been theorized. Stylistically, it can be positioned in relation to a lineage of outsider art such as the rococo, mannerism, the sublime, the picturesque, or even “camp.” For example, rococo art emerged as a response to the baroque, quite literally as embellishment itself but also as an addition to the basis of the baroque architectural canon. Each period of art was followed by a marked period of height, in which the supplemental experiences and audiences were added and addressed. In most cases these periods are characterized by attention to aesthetics and formal language.

The distinction between fine art and outsider art was only recently made within the Japanese language in the past century; a distinction which Takashi Murakami has based his career on. The lack of difference between traditional Japanese paintings and manga and anime has led to Murakami’s famous aesthetic of Superflat, the name stemming from the single plane on which both high and low art resided. Takashi Murakami’s fascination with art began at a young age when he first saw a modern art exhibition of Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Kazimir Malevich on the twelfth floor of a shopping mall. Since then, his understanding of art is closely linked to the consumption of culture through shopping. The experience of seeing art in a gallery or seeing the display windows of designer store was the same, in Murakami’s opinion. This lends an easy understanding of how both he and Yayoi Kusama, another Japanese artist known for merging high and low art with commercialism, became designers for Louis Vuitton.

Cute is a representation of the real, but an ideal real. It is the opposite of seriousness, but somehow represents the gravity of serious. If an obsession with cuteness is the foil to the overbearing weight of Japanese obligations, then it is, in fact, a method of talking about what is truly significant. If comedy is a means through which serious issues such as racism, classism, and sexism can be discussed in an open environment, then perhaps the “cute” is a means through which issues of aesthetics can be discussed. Just as it is not proper to mention politics at a social function, it is similarly impolite to discuss matters of formalism, despite the fact that the discipline of architecture is inherently formal and therefore subject to whimsy. Perhaps cuteness can act as a Trojan horse to talk about impolite matters, exactly in the same way that it responds to the strict cultural codes of Asia.

If certain words such as “postmodernism,” “composition,” “figuration,” “kitsch,” “delight,” and—perhaps the most evil word of them all—“formalism” are now considered as politically incorrect in the context of architectural theory, then perhaps the inherent cuteness of architecture can allow certain impolite topics to proliferate. Think of the viral quality of cat photos on the Internet. Why has architecture been the slowest to respond to a culture of instantaneous memes, even if only in a representational format? The distance between what is real and what is representational is the most logical place for cuteness to begin to its rapid and giddy infectiousness. Style has long been distanced from the discipline but in the case of lifestyle, it remains popular and current. As the art critic Clement Greenberg states, “To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide. Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility.”5

Could cuteness take on the adorable qualities of stickers and plush toys, regretful of their own capitalism but optimistic for the future of architecture? While the soft sciences have recognized the relationship between cuteness in young children and the caretaker effect in adults, the possibility of the application of cuteness to architecture has not yet been explored. At the moment, the great styles of the twentieth century are faced with the threat of the wrecking ball, only able to communicate their genius to an audience of architects. The reproduction of the images of architecture as cute buildings is the method through which the general reception of architecture can be altered, perhaps even acting as the biological adaptation for survival.

Kawaii has no interest in representing the functionality of the object; it implies meaning but does not have it. It’s pink, it’s cute, it’s imageable, it’s a consumer product. There’s no logic to the application of decoration. The act of covering an image of a building may deface the architect’s intention, but if the affect is associating brutalism with a mental picture of a box full of kittens, the positive association could be heroic. Function is merely the acceptance of an aesthetic of rationality, and therefore itself a formal logic. Form and function have finally filed for a divorce, and now we have toilet seat covers.

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(Screenshot), Overly Attached Cute. © Courtesy of Joanna Grant.

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(Screenshot), Overly Attached Cute. © Courtesy of Joanna Grant.

1 Dean Chan, “The Cultural Economy of Ludic Superflatness,” (paper presented at the Digital Games Research Association conference on Situated Play, Tokyo, Japan, 2007), 2.
2 Yin Chuang, “Kawaii in Taiwan Politics,” International Journal of Asia Pacific Studies 7, no. 3 (September 2011): 4.
3 Charles Jencks, A Post-Modern Reader (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 4.
4 Robert Venturi, “Nonstraightforward Architecture: A Gentle Manifesto,” Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966), 16.
5 Clement Greenberg, “The Avant-Garde and the Kitsch,” in Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste, ed. Gillo Dorfles (New York: Universe Books, 1969), 116–126.