Observations on Japanese Culture - Part 7 - Cute

When I was a kid and saw the cartoon Speed Racer for the first time I immediately fixated on the eyes. Why are they pupils so large? What's the deal with the way they draw Spridle and Chim-chim? Eventually I learned the show was from Japan, so I thought that explained everything. "Oh, it's just some weird Japanese thing," was what I thought every time I saw another imported cartoon with the large eyes. As a kid you just accept things, so I never tried to analyze the "big eye" style of the early anime, but later I heard people say that they thought it was influenced by a difference in perception between the shape of Asian and Caucasian eyes. I think that idea is bogus. In general, people think big eyes are cute, and this is simply a reflection of "cuteness" in Japanese culture.

The word "kawaii" (可愛さ, kawaisa?) is ubiquitous in Japanese conversation. During my trip I heard all sorts of people say kawaii, usually when they were talking about my kids, but also when they saw a baby, or a cute outfit, or a cell-phone charm, or whatever. In fact, I heard it a lot. I knew the word from Gwen Stephani's Harajuku Girls, which was probably what she was cuing in to in the song lyrics.

But people weren't just saying things were cute... things really were cute. And people everywhere had gone out of the way to make them cute. On the way through customs going into the country the sign warning about quarantined plants or animals sported a cartoony hound as the spokesdog. In Kyoto the garbage bags had a cute mascot.

We saw cute apple juice...

A cute mall in Utsonomiya (La La Square!)...

And of course we'd never be able to watch out for terrorists without this little fella

I can understand lots of cute characters at this amusement park in Ueno Park in Tokyo

Doraemon (the earless cat) and Anpanman (with the red nose) are both native Japanese cartoon characters.

Astro-boy, known as Atom in Japan, is a combination of cute and cool.

A bakery in Yanaka ginza is also an Astro-boy museum.

Here's a "life-size" Astro-boy at a candy shop in a mall in Utsonomiya.

In some cases one had to wonder whether people might consider the cuteness sacrilegious. For example, we purchased a cell-phone charm with a sitting Buddha with Hello Kitty's face. The photo shows some cute buddha food at the daibutsu in Kamakura. I wonder how would people react to a big-eyed Jesus blissfully smiling on a stylized cross?

This mixture of cuteness and religion completely confuses me. For example, Anpanman appeared to us on Miyajima Island as a concrete buddha. On TV and in the comics Anpanman is a character with a bready head filled with sweet bean paste.

Cute has been standard in Japan for a long time. Here's a pretty old sign teaching school kids the proper way to cross the street (stop, look, and then raise your hand so the drivers will see you). A friend of mine says this really old-school.

Finally, here's something that's of questionable cuteness. At least, not something one would see much of in the US:

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