Long before the mayor of Shibuya announced pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu as an official ambassador of kawaii culture, Sebastian Masuda, her art director, had been on a mission to spread “kawaii culture” across the world, advocating it as not only a potent source of Japan’s emerging soft power, but also as a cultural revolution in its own right.
Now that today’s youth in Japan are set to be recorded in history as the “kawaii generation,” Masuda, as one of the most important architects of the phenomenon, discusses the future of what he says has been an oft-misunderstood facet of Japan’s culture.
You originally made a name for yourself in the Tokyo fashion scene through your Harajuku shop 6%DOKIDOKI. How did that come about?
I think it was around the end of my teens, when I was more interested in modern art. I had my own taste in clothes, but I wasn’t really interested in fashion itself, so when I first opened 6%DOKIDOKI it was as a place where I could sell my artwork. I was also interested in the L.A. rave scene and Tokyo’s techno scene, so I started to stock items that people would wear to those club nights.
When it started, I focused more on quirky lifestyle items. But with Harajuku being the fashion capital of Japan, the customers tended to be interested in clothing and they used to wear what I was making as accessories. I guess they made the shop a fashion destination.
When did the shop become synonymous with “kawaii”?
In the ’90s kawaii meant something different. Back then, I used English words like “sensational” and “lovely” to describe the shop style. “Lovely” came from my time in the U.K. I liked it is a reaction and a compliment, but I wanted to go beyond that, so I chose “sensational lovely” as the first concept for the shop. Over time, customers started using “kawaii” as a reaction to items in the same way as people in London would use “lovely.” So calling it “sensational kawaii” was a natural move, though I still try and go beyond what is normally considered kawaii.
Tell us about Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.
She used to come to the shop with a monstrously huge ribbon in her hair. Even back then she stood out to my staff as someone who had gone beyond kawaii.
It was the video for “PonPonPon,” for which you were the art director, that introduced Kyary overseas, wasn’t it?
That all started with an exhibition of the American toys called Popples, which I curated in 2010 for the department store Parco. I designed a bedroom to look like that of a girl who loves Popples. Kyary saw it and said she wanted a room like that as the setting for her debut video.
So even though many people may think that the video is very “Japanese,” most of the imagery is actually imported from America and Europe?
That is exactly what I had hoped for. I wanted to show that all the things we have imported from abroad have been absorbed and assimilated by Kyary’s generation, and most importantly that something new has been created from it. Her generation not only understands Western culture but is building its own culture from it.
How do you think the rest of the world has reacted to kawaii culture?
The first time I took the kawaii message abroad was in 2009 with “The Harajuku Kawaii experience” world tour. That really brought home the fact that the kind of fashion coming out of Harajuku didn’t exist abroad, that it was something 100 percent original and we needed to promote it. But it wasn’t easy. Even though kawaii is understood in London, which has its own anarchic elements, England is still a conservative country and to wear our kind of fashion on, say, the London Underground, would take a lot of courage.
Elsewhere in the world people were confused by cosplay (costume play), and I felt we had no chance at all of getting through to people. But I persevered. From Paris to San Francisco, I would hold workshops and try to get people thinking about kawaii culture and how we can create original culture.
What is it that you want people to understand about kawaii culture?
It isn’t necessarily to get people to wear Harajuku fashion. It’s to get past the complex that Japanese people have regarding Western culture. We don’t just take or appropriate Western culture, we use it to make something new, like kawaii fashion. This is an opportunity to show off Japan’s potential for originality. Fashion is different from anime and manga, which require prior interest to be received well. I think anyone can appreciate fashion. I want people to see that this is a fashion culture unique to Japan — and it’s original.
But the word “kawaii” is already commonly used abroad, with “cute” as its nearest translation.
“Cute” is really lacking, it doesn’t come close to the emotion invested in “kawaii.” It’s a concept on its own, so I think people abroad should use “kawaii.” Interestingly, we now often write “kawaii” in English to show that it’s meaning is different from what it was in Japanese before. It’s such a strong word now, it’s almost become a battle cry for this generation.
I think kawaii culture has given girls a lot more freedom to express themselves outside of societal norms, and has given them the power to create their own society. It has led to femininity, rather than masculinity, being a source of power. This is all leading up to it becoming a symbol of a more understanding and affectionate society.
How does kawaii culture relate to men?
It has given men a better understanding of traditionally feminine sensibilities, and through that more empathy toward women. That’s a necessity for the future, when the patriarchal top-down theory of society is replaced with grassroots movements that usurp singular power. We already see the beginnings of this in the use of social media networks. Such a society will better represent women, so it is great to see so many men learning to understand that through kawaii culture.
Are you suggesting that kawaii has the potential to be a version of feminism?
I think so. It certainly has the potential to remove some of the perceived distinction between men and women by making men’s sensibilities closer to those of women, as opposed to expecting women to act like men. But I don’t think it’s necessarily about men becoming more feminine. There is also a sense of infantilism to kawaii that rejects adult values — a sense that men can return to. In the West, the idea of becoming an adult is the ideal, but in Japan the adult generation is now being perceived as one of lies and corruption.
Kawaii is a rebellion against that idea of adulthood for both men and women.
So where do you see kawaii culture going from here?
I see Harajuku kawaii culture spreading throughout the world — up till now we have just been testing the waters here in Japan. I want to try incorporating kawaii in different media. For example, when I was art director for “The Wiz,” the Japanese adaption of the Broadway musical “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” I made it kawaii. I’d like to see that musical return to Broadway in kawaii form.