Let’s talk 100 percent kawaii!

by Samuel Thomas

Special To The Japan Times

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You originally made a name for yourself in the Tokyo fashion scene through your Harajuku shop 6%DOKIDOKI.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.

  • kyushuphil

    “Kawaii” as a revolt against the culture of patriarchal privilege?

    That’s rich. The girls I see in “kawaii” all go out of their way to look infantile — and stay infantile. Peter Pan, hello.

    Joining this scene requires no knowledge of Murasaki Shikibu, Yosana Akiko, Hayashi Fumiko, Kawano Satoko — no knowledge of any culture at all beyond that of the consumerism of shopping malls, where corporations prey on all who apparently never learn of any real women in the schools, either.

    • Masa Chekov

      So, you – a man – feel the need to tell women who they should idolize, how they should dress, how they should interact with their own culture?

      Does it get any more paternalistic than that?

      • kyushuphil

        I’m asking if and how much outside things, like clolthes, actually change inside things, like character.

        Advertisers and corporate marketers are telling women what to buy, and how to look — not me. Fashion designers are promising lots of built-in personality acquisition by simple commercial transaction — as if one can change oneself just by spending money on this fashion or that.

        I’m questioning the lies of the modern, consumerist era, Masa. Some very fine women, Japanese and other, have also questioned the modern lies. You’re quite free to buy into any and all lies you like, but please don’t assume, in your ignorance of good women’s voices, that it’s only and inherently guys who raise questions.

      • 1derer

        Where in that comment does Kyushuphil tell anyone who they should idolize?

        Nowhere. You’re strawmanning.

        He’s merely evoking influential Japanese women a way to demarcate what, in his view, is a relatively isolated and intellectually toothless subculture.

  • Mon

    Nice to see an interview w/ a Japanese streetwear designer that actually addresses the social rhetoric of the clothing in depth.

    I find the idea of women taking pride in kawaii culture and feminine symbols (even imagery that has been fabricated by a patriarchal culture) very inspiring; what’s not empowering about re-appropriating cultural artifacts that have been historically used to define your oppressed gender and employing them in an aggressively over-the-top, in-your-face sartorial context? I love that Masuda points out that kawaii culture allows women to derive power from their femininity— the idea that women must aspire to masculinity in order to garner respect is archaic and annoying.

    I kind of wish he spoke a bit more about the role of infantilism in kawaii culture and/or japanese culture, it’s something that seems difficult to grasp from an outsider perspective. Also, maybe I’m just nosey, but I think it’s weird that he never mentions the woman he co-founded 6%DOKIDOKI with in these interviews.

    • kyushuphil

      We can wish women better in any effort around patriarchal status quo.

      But putting on clothes of any one style or another as key, or sufficient in itself?

      The Japanese have a term, tatemae 建前 , which suggests the limits of externals as to their effect on internals — and the Japanese hold this outside set of things far and away from and irrelevant to the true inside, which they call honne 本音 .

      Maybe you’ve seen historical costume dramas, from Hollywood, or London, whose elaborate artifice may go over the top. Do you — does anyone — for a moment believe that putting on all those funny clothes automatically changes actors and actresses on the inside, or for any length of time? Do you — or anyone — suppose those costumes even generate good performance?

      “Kawaii” style may be less likely to do anything to girls than exhibit publicly what they’ve already done to themselves on the inside — to drop out of all serious human society and into the state of permanent goof-off, permanent play, as in the baby styles they so expensively posture.

      • Mon

        Your argument’s p convoluted but I guess if you don’t believe that fashion can be employed as a vehicle for social commentary (even by Japanese people who exercise tatemae) than we just have a fundamental disagreement. Masuda pointed out that many of his followers take legitimate issue with “serious human society” when he described the adult world as one perceived to be riddled with “lies and corruption.”

        Why does someone need to aspire to your own conservative/adult/masculine aesthetic in order for you to respect them?

      • Glen Douglas Brügge

        Because it does nothing to advance women’s place in society; it does nothing but play into the hands of the male fantasy of the non-threatening, infantile woman. I don’t see any negative comments on this page being based on conservative/adult/masculine aesthetic, but rather on the fact that this movement does nothing for women whatsoever in terms of garnering them the respect and advancement in this male-dominated society that they deserve. I lived in Japan for many years, and I was honestly dismayed by the complicit role many women took in trying to pander to male fantasy by suppressing their strengths to be cute, non-threatening and therefor and “acceptable.” They should be free to dress as they will, but to claim that it is empowering is a delusion.

      • Masa Chekov

        I feel the exact opposite on this point. This Kawaii culture is a female culture, and it is empowering Japanese women to fit into an ideal that they are comfortable with. It’s not about dressing to please a man, or acting in a way that men expect. It’s about dressing and acting the way that the women wish to dress and act.

        Does putting on adjusted-for-women male business fashion do that? Absolutely not.

      • Glen Douglas Brügge

        But don’t you think this plays into the hands of a very dominant male fantasy? Kawaii embodies the male fantasy of the non-threatening woman, forever virginal and child-like. Although I do not wish to admit it, this image is very much present in Japan, and is often sold to women as being the ideal they should strive for – just like “sexiness” is in the US. In order to find acceptance, many women do buy into societal ideals, because they will not fit the mold otherwise. Even if they are doing this purely out of enjoyment, and without any desire to satisfy men’s desires, they are implicating themselves in keeping the image going of passivity.

      • Mon

        6%DOKIDOKI followers are aspiring to a male fantasy? Google image 6%DOKIDOKI and look at their customers; these girls shave parts of their head, draw on their eyebrows, get conspicuous facial piercings, wear heavy makeup, and wear intensely loud colors. To say that this aesthetic is entirely non-threatening and panders to the male gaze would be quite off the mark. Sorry if I sound like a broken record, but to me, the bottom line is really that these women are choosing to dress in an intensely feminine way, and the fact that so many others interpret this as “degrading” to their dignity reveals an unfortunate message about how society views femininity.


      • paul

        Is this really choice. It seems to me that it as been rammed down the throats of all young girls by all the media. Thankfully not too many women or girls copy follow the line.
        Also I wonder if it is it all that feminine?

      • Glen Douglas Brügge

        But I don’t think piercings and shaved heads are part of the “kawaii” image. Frilly dresses, teddy bears and bright colors – feel good warm and fuzzies – that’s kawaii. I honestly sense kawaii is the Japanese version of the West’s “sexy” – it is an ideal that women are expected to meet, and are inculcated with from a very young age (in the West, “cute” gives way to “sexy”). Unlike “sexy” – which carries with it a degree of aggressiveness, kawaii values passivity. And although they claim ownership of the image, it still reinforces the ideal of the non-threatening woman – even if they themselves don’t strive to pander to men. It is not empowering. Those that shave their heads and pierce their faces – they are the ones who are making waves. They are standing up against the norms. That is what empowerment is.

      • Wrong Again Glen

        Got your subcultures mixed up Glen? Confused over Lolita and Kawaii? Why not use Google like the lady suggests and find out how wrong you are.

        You agree that the girls shaving their heads and piercing their faces are the ones making waves, and yet it was just explained to you that these are the very customers of the shop in this article.

      • kyushuphil

        Sorry, Mon, ad hominem won’t cut it.

        You’re ignoring the two central facts I gave on whether or how much externals effect internals. Please, don’t dish(wildly errant) adjectives in place of dealing with facts.

      • Mon

        Not trying to wage a (wildly errant!!) ad hominem assault on you, much of your syntax genuinely makes little sense to me so I chose not to respond to parts of your comment. I don’t think people generally wear specific clothes to change who they are on the inside (though I do believe that clothing has a psychological effect on the wearer,) but to externally explore and express the “internal” beliefs, ideals, tastes etc. that they already hold. This is proly gonna be me last comment on this article because I don’t really want to become That Guy.

    • Jeffrey

      “. . . the social rhetoric of the clothing in depth.”

      I wish you were joking.

      There is a message in all this nonsense – the continued refusal by Japanese women to assert their right to be taken seriously.

      “Kawaii” is a disease that needs to be wiped out like small pox or TB.

    • silaria

      The late 1960s in America also put infantilizing fashion side by side with talk of feminist empowerment. I wonder if there’s a parallel? Though it mobilized the discourse of feminine empowerment, the free love culture was really all about, well, women making themselves available for men. Those that didn’t were derided as frigid. And I must confess that I don’t really see kawaii fashion as empowering. Show me a CEO who wears it? Or, really, anyone other than a schoolkid or pop star?

      • Masa Chekov

        Show me a woman CEO anywhere that wears anything but bland power suits? It’s not exactly fashion central.

        If you need examples of women who wear clothes like this, go to any major district in Tokyo.

  • David Foley

    So much for solving the decreasing population problem. Everyone s gonna pink themselves up and stay eternally infantile. I hope Japanese don*t kawaii themselves out of existence. The corporations who supply all this crap will suffer without future customers. And why are they changing the name to Kawaii culture? I just see a highly advanced consumer culture. Nothing revolutionary about it.

  • After Article 9 is amended and conscription takes hold again, these girls will be expressing their chou-kawaii-feminism-equality power via Kitty-chan 30kg backpacks and glitterati-worship front-line trench shovels.

    As mortar shells become designed to burst into rainbow fireworks, the next fad becomes dyeing your own blood pink, since to bleed natural red-purple blood would be to allow for an unhealthy expression of patriarchy.

  • Glen Douglas Brügge

    How is dressing up and looking infantile supposed to empower you? A living doll does not bring about change, nor garner any respect. There is nothing powerful or society-changing about playing dress-up. If these women took to the streets, demanding equal pay and the right to be valued equally within society and the work place based on their skills and not on their sex; if these women made serious waves – then I would consider them a force for change. In addition, even though it is claimed that re-appropriating “kawaii” for themselves takes the power out of the hands of the male sex to determine what should be “attractive” – they are still playing into the male fantasy of ” the non-threatening, infantile, burikko” because the goal of “kawaii” is to be cute and non-threatening.

  • paul

    It seems to that to this guy, judging from the photos, anything pink is kawaii. Almost the entire shop is pink! May be a good translation of kawaii is- I like pink. It seems to be the predominant color- pretty mindless.
    Girls may want to express themselves but what does this cuteness really show- they are slaves to the other sex. They will do all they can to make men satisfied- I may be wrong but that is how I see it…..