Most people know that Japan is obsessed with cuteness, considering its major exports are Hello Kitty and girls dressed like Victorian dolls. But having lived here for going on six months now, I think I'm beginning to understand some of the complexities behind it.
First, make no mistake--the cuteness thing is not an exaggeration. I haven't found any vending machines of schoolgirl panties yet, but when I graded class papers on New Years resolutions, I found that easily 50% of the female students wrote, "I want to be very cute girl." And even though I'm hardly a novel presence here, almost every time I say hello to a group of girls passing in the hallways, I hear them squeal, "KAWAIIIII!" as soon as I'm out of sight.
So what are the criteria for being kawaii? From what I can tell, the principal element is silliness. Specifically, the kind of innocent, helpless silliness associated with youth. Things I've done that are considered kawaii include wearing mismatched socks and mistaking the Japanese word for cheap (yasui) for the word for vegetable (yasai). Clumsiness is kawaii, to the extent that girls will often pretend to trip and fall in front of boys, and there is even a word for such imposters (which I unfortunately forget), who are generally recognized only by other girls. Wearing oversized clothing so that you appear extra small seems to be a kawaii thing to do. On our daily walks to the train station, Jonathan and I have noticed a young woman who rides an absurdly small bicycle, who is always cutely hunched over it and wearing extremely high heels. And when we visited Osaka, upon exiting the subway on a particularly cold and gusty night, a group of Japanese girls proceeded to run spastically into the wind, shrieking, which set off additional groups who presumably saw this as an excellent and very kawaii idea.
Kawaii behavior falls into two camps: unabashed silliness, and intense, straight-faced seriousness which is applied to being silly. In the former, I'd place the girls who ride the same train as Jonathan and basically go into giggling paroxysms of joy every time they see him. He reports seeing their heads collectively bent forward as the train pulls in so they can stare out the window at him. And when he gets off at his stop, they wave frantically, again clustered at the window, until he is out of sight. Extremely cute! In the serious camp, I'd place Hunchy, who pedals her teeny bike in her precarious shoes with an expression of deep focus and determination. Also, very cute.
So what are the roots of kawaii? It seems to be designed for men, although it has expanded and morphed to the point that girls can be seen acting like this all the time, whether or not a man is near. But we are talking about a country where not too long ago, women were expected to walk ten paces behind their husbands, a country with a commercial of a baseball player watching TV and grunting "o-cha" at his hovering spouse, who duly obeys him, and that isn't even the point of the commercial. Jonathan and I have noticed a kind of pigeon-toed walk many of the women here do, which upon some investigation I've discovered is based on how girls had to move back in the kimono-wearing days to keep their garment from flapping open in the front, and is now considered a cute and demure way of moving. Many women also tend to cover their mouths when they giggle, and giggle at every attempt at humor that a man makes, regardless of how feeble, since supporting their egos is pretty much the universally done thing--which may explain why so many Japanese men seem downright afraid of me, because I wouldn't know better than to just look at them blankly when their jokes fall flat.
All this leads to a slight conundrum for me, because I'm aware of the outrageous sexism upon which kawaii-ness is likely based, but I nevertheless am very entertained by it! Every day, I see Japanese girls doing something adorable and hilarious and I can't help but laugh and want to pet them on their heads. And, I am regularly rewarded for my own apparently kawaii nature without even trying. So, here I am, benefiting from and enjoying the fruits of a system that to American eyes is terribly outmoded and offensive. My sisters, is it time to turn in my feminist card?