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Tea Leaves

Japan proves that 'cute' can be soothing

In unsettling times, national passion for 'kawaii' offers peace of mind

At a post office in Tokyo, Kanpokun plush toys, the mascots of Japan Post’s insurance-services department, remind customers of social-distancing rules in the waiting area. (All photos by Edward M. Gomez)

The new kawaii (cute) looks a lot like the old kawaii -- but it feels different. It's the old kawaii with a psychic-emotional twist.

This is a matter of perception, of course, just like so many other reactions to aspects of everyday life that have been subverted by the coronavirus pandemic.

In these tough times, have the cute images that are to be found throughout Japan suddenly taken on a new, soulful, soothing meaning?

A green plush creature sits outside an insurance office in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward.

Panda bears, kitty cats, flowers, octopuses, coffee cups, bumble bees and the kanji character used for writing "big," drawn to look plump and wrapped in a sumo wrestler's loincloth: Is there something healing in all this visual saccharine?

Anyone who visits Japan or pays attention to its effervescent pop culture's quirky charms knows that the Japanese have more than a superficial fancy for everything cute. "Kawaiimono" (cute things) are as ubiquitous in Japan as ramen noodles, high-tech toilets, politicians with bad haircuts and sentimental depictions of cherry blossoms and Mount Fuji.

The gray-plush mascot of the Tokyu Store supermarket chain could be seen during the year-end holiday season dutifully wearing a face mask. 

Indeed, even such iconic subjects as cherry blossoms and Mount Fuji have been rendered irresistibly adorable in the form of ashtrays, stylish kimono fabrics, pillowcases, bean cakes or cuddly plush toys.

Just as a good jazz number "don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing," in the world of kawaii, it appears that there are legions of kawaiimono connoisseurs for whom cuteness cannot be fully expressed in anything except the softest, most squeezable plush. In Japan, plush is to kawaii what gold is to a Rolex watch or the finest boucle looped wool is to a classic Chanel suit -- the ne plus ultra of humble materials used to give tangible form to the ineffable.

Cute, angry faces on the labels of disinfectant spray bottles remind consumers that these products are serious about killing germs.

For it is no secret that, in Japan, to be regarded as kawaii is to be recognized with appreciation, affection and maybe a dollop of praise. A smart outfit or a single accessory -- a pretty scarf or handbag -- can be kawaii. A green-plush blob seated at the entrance to an insurance-services office is definitely kawaii. So is the gray-plush, box-shaped mascot of the Tokyu Store supermarket chain that is supposed to depict -- what, exactly? A cement block? A loaf of soft "shokupan" (milk bread)?

Now, a sensitive observer might get a strong sense that the world of kawaii has risen to meet the demands of these plague-weary times.

At the post office, Kanpokun, the cute kangaroo mascot of Japan Post's insurance services, has called up a detachment to fill chairs and mark off socially distanced waiting areas for customers. In supermarkets, on the labels of disinfectant spray bottles, cute, angry faces remind consumers that these products are deadly serious about killing germs.

Meanwhile, deployed by the government to encourage residents of Japan to apply for the My Number social-security and tax-identification card, a cute bunny has helped call attention to this important task. Then there is My Melody, a floppy-eared rabbit -- and best friend of fellow Sanrio-brand kawaii superstar Hello Kitty -- who has been dutifully hawking and appearing on the printed fabric of virus-defying face masks.

My Melody, one of the Sanrio brand’s popular characters, has been appearing on face masks during the coronavirus-pandemic period.

Elsewhere, these hardworking characters' brethren may be found in abundance in 100-yen shops (analogous to American dollar stores) and throughout Japan; like the ancient Greek Muses rallying in response to the god Apollo's call, they seem to be conspiring to fill a weary world with kawaii-fueled affirmations of the poet John Keats' dictum ("Beauty is truth, truth beauty") and, generally, to let cuteness soothe the soul.

In one store, must-have correction tape comes in a bear-shaped dispenser, and bird- and fish-shaped kitchen sponges vie for the privilege of providing a little good cheer. Smiling cleaning cubes for frying pans woo shoppers from hanging packages with shiny wrappers, while odd blue critters -- are they kittens, bunnies, chipmunks? -- adorn soft-packs of fruit-flavored drinks. On the checkout counter, solar-powered bobbleheads -- a monkey and a rabbit -- stand like statues of protective deities at an ancient temple.

In 2005, at the Japan Society in New York, the Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami curated the exhibition "Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture." In his own paintings and sculptures, Murakami has both celebrated and critiqued his native culture's unsinkable penchant for kawaiimono.

In his critical argument regarding "Little Boy's" themes, Murakami noted that he felt that, thanks to the decadeslong presence of U.S. military bases on its soil, Japan had long been infantilized -- that is, not allowed to fully realize its potential and identity as a modern, independent nation. The kawaii phenomenon has many facets.

For now, though, at least for this observer, its allure endures. I wonder if, when the government finally sends out notifications informing residents of Japan that they are now eligible to be vaccinated, those advisories will come decorated with cute cartoons showing a smiling, nonthreatening syringe.

What a cute idea.

Edward M. Gomez is a Tokyo-based art historian, arts journalist and critic specializing in Japan.

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