Taking Japan’s kawaii cultural phenomenon a step further

A while ago, I wrote about Japan’s export of soft power through its kawaii culture, spear-headed by Hello Kitty, and now complete with culture ambassadors wearing Lolita uniforms.

The same thread was picked up by Wilson Center, whom viewed the phenomenon through more cynical lenses.  Is Japan’s obsession with cuteness merely a reflection of an increasingly infantilized and emasculated culture?

A clue as to what’s really going on may lie in the career of artist Takashi Mura­kami, an Andy ­Warhol–­like figure who has played a big role in taking cute global. In 2005 he curated an exhibit in New York titled “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture.” “Little Boy” was a reference to the atomic bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, but it also “highlights what [Murakami] believes Japan has become in relation to the United States” since World War II—“a ­forever-­emasculated ‘little boy.’” Cute is a symptom of Japan’s infantil­ization, but as an “exploding subculture” it is also an assertion of Japanese soft power throughout the world, albeit an ironic ­one.

Or is it just simply, bored to death? Was the Japanese’ obsession with imperial glories simply channeled into more, mundane, matters? Is a country as rich and conformist as Japan doomed to become the poster child for post-modernism and despair?

Japan is rich enough, bored enough with national ambition, strait-jacketed enough and gloomy enough to find immense attraction in playful escapism and quirky obsession. … [T]here’s a Japanese word, otaku, denoting a whole universe of monomaniacal geek-like obsession, whether with an electronic game, some odd hobby, or the cartoonlike “manga” comic books devoted to everything from kamikazes to kinky sex.

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