Cuteness studies and Japan

Authored by: Joshua Paul Dale

The Routledge Companion to Gender and Japanese Culture

Print publication date:  December  2019
Online publication date:  December  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138895201
eBook ISBN: 9781315179582
Adobe ISBN:

10.4324/9781315179582-32

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Abstract

Cuteness studies is a new field that analyzes the phenomenal ascent of an aesthetic that dominates our present age. Japanese kawaii, a key factor in the global popularity of cuteness, has a distinct origin and features that make it different from North American cute. This chapter traces the history and development of the kawaii aesthetic from the Heian period to the present day. Though the explosion of printmaking in the Edo period produced many works perceived as kawaii today, this aesthetic didn’t begin its rise until it found a mass audience: the shōjo (adolescent girl). Early twentieth-century artists and illustrators commoditized the fashionable, upper-class shōjo look as an aspirational model for girls of all classes. As the century progressed, characters in shōjo manga became increasingly kawaii and grew in popularity. By the end of the century, many women as well as men began to view the unformed state of cuteness, free from adult responsibilities, as appealing. Though kawaii may contribute to gender inequality, this aesthetic also offers a form of resistance to established gender norms. Discovering how kawaii became a ubiquitous aesthetic within contemporary Japanese culture is key to understanding the social proliferation of cuteness around the world.

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