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Exhibition tells a cute tale of kawaii culture

by Maaya Konagai

Staff Writer

When you hear the term “kawaii” (cute) what do you think of? Hello Kitty? Domo-kun? Everyone has their own idea of what makes something kawaii, what they might not know is the origin of Japan’s particular brand of cuteness.

At the exhibition “Taisho kara Hajimatta Nihon no Kawaii”(“The Taisho Era and the Origins of Japanese Cuteness”), a collection of so-called fancy goods dating from the Taisho Era (1912-26) until now — a whole 100 years — will be on display. “Fancy goods” is a borrowed-English term that means merchandise decorated with cute characters or designs usually aimed at a young, female consumer.

Yumeji Takehisa (1884-1934) was a Taisho Era painter who is considered a pioneer of fancy goods. He operated a shop in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district, where he designed and sold everyday items such as stationary, tenugui (hand towels) and more in an effort to connect people’s everyday lives to art.

The exhibition includes products such as Katsuji Matsumoto’s Kurukuru Kurumi-chan goods, and bags, stickers and postcards from other artists such as Junichi Nakahara, Rune Naito and Ado Mizumori. Eighteen handkerchiefs by Mizumori will be on display for the first time.

In addition to the goods on display, there will be photos and written text from 17 people representing different periods of kawaii culture.

“We realized when we tried to start this exhibition, that there isn’t much data about fancy goods,” says Keiko Nakamura, curator of the exhibition. “So we interviewed people to know what their lives were like with regard to these items.”

With artists like Lady Gaga starting to throw the word “kawaii” into their lingo, now is as good a time as any to get up-to-date on the adorable world of cute.

Taisho kara Hajimatta Nihon no Kawaii will run at Yayoi Museum in Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, from April 5 till July 1 (10 a.m.-5 p.m.). Tickets cost ¥900 (adults), ¥800 (university and high school students) and ¥400 (junior high and elementary school students). For more information, call (03) 3812-0012 or visit www.yayoi-yumeji-museum.jp.