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Saturday, Feb. 12, 2005

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

As cute as cute can be


A friend who visited these fair islands for the first time last fall had this to say of his weekend-to-weekend impressions of Japan.

On one hand, he'd come prepared to hoof through countless castles, shrines and temples, and find himself wabi-ed and sabi-ed about like a rubber-legged boxer, punch-drunk on culture.

Yet on the other hand, he'd also expected to be high-teched to smithereens, to be bullet-trained and Game-Boyed and Asimo-ed until his brain began to flash out "memory card full" warnings on his retinas.

"But," he said, "in the end, I needed another hand! For I never imagined Japan would be so . . ." And then he used it -- the "C" word -- and dubbed this mighty land, the hallowed home to macho samurai, cutting-edge electronics and the iron-pumping yen, with the most needling of cultural adjectives.

". . . cute!"

Yes, he called Japan "cute." Or, in the vernacular of the local teeny-boppers, "kawaiiiiiiiiiii," with that final syllable stretched like taffy and set at a decibel level high enough to shatter sanity.

Of course, my friend should have known this. But in his defense I must point out he possesses a child-free household, which means in the States he had never been hijacked into the pretty worlds of Hello Kitty or Pokemon. Hence his eyes were suddenly opened, and not because his itinerary placed him in contact with Japanese kids, but rather because -- as one marketing survey by the Hello Kitty people at Sanrio discovered -- cutie goods targeted at American girls ages 5 to 7 are still being scooped up by Japanese young ladies . . . into their late 20s!

Yes, cute! It's everywhere in Japan! From the pervasive color pink in female fashions, to swinging figurines on mobile phones, to tiny designer dogs, to endless sheets of "Purikura" photos, to an otherworldly love of Disneyland and Mickey Mouse, and on to all sorts of everyday products from stationery to handkerchiefs . . . in this country cuteness stacks up as a very marketable commodity.

And it is not only girls that buy it. Walk through any Japanese office and odds are you will find at least one guy with his PC decorated with a legion of miniature toys. Note too the number of adult men smitten by Morning Musume, a group of adolescent singers whose attraction lies much more in their dimples than in their voices.

In fact, Japan's entire obsession with "idols" and "talents" -- those oh-so-plentiful and oh-so-talentless celebrities who dominate television -- can perhaps be traced to the national love affair with cuteness. I wager cuteness was a factor too in last year's nutso fascination with the South Korean soap opera "Fuyu no Sonata," in that the young couple's first sweetsy winter date mesmerized the population into following the entire sappy series through TV and on into video.

To get to the syrupy bottom of Japan's cutesy-cute addiction, I approached an expert on cultural analysis -- my wife. Who said:

"Leave me alone! I'm watching 'Fuyu no Sonata!' "

But I was able to hold down the pause button just long enough for the following conversation:

"And what is wrong with cute? Would you rather see us absorbed with chunks of mud?"

"No. I just want to know why."

"I dunno. Why do fish swim, birds fly and husbands annoy? It's in their nature."

So I couldn't help but continue.

"Do you mean it's, like, programmed into your DNA? That maybe you have a "cute" gene? That maybe Japanese X and Y chromosomes are printed in petite fonts with curlicues on every end and then plastered with posters of Betty Boop? That maybe . . ."

At which point she pried my finger off the pause button and showed me a side of her foot that wasn't cute at all.

Yet I believe I am on to something, perhaps more psychological than genetic. For I feel the Japanese thirst for cuteness might well be a cultural inheritance.

Witness the twisting marvel of bonsai trees, the delicate design of arranged flowers, the crisp daintiness of origami and the beauty and grace of the calligrapher's brushwork. All of these crafts and more point to skill with patterns and miniaturization. And this artful emphasis has been soaked into the Japanese collective bone marrow for centuries.

Beautiful? Yes. Cute? Well . . . maybe not exactly. But add this aesthetic thrust to a pop culture marketing madhouse, and it's not hard to predict what you might get.

You get Hello Kitty, that's what. And Pokemon. And Morning Musume. And historically, much more. Like:

* The nation falling in love with a cherubic Janet Lynn, plopped on her backside on the Olympic ice of Sapporo.

* The entire population crazy about the "erimaki tokage," a small, scampering lizard with a frilled collar.

* The tender hand of every child across the archipelago clutching a pet tamagotchi -- with lots of adult hands clutching the very same.

Cute sells in Japan because this is where the concept was invented. This is cute's Mecca. It is a Neverland of glitzy trinkets and winsome charm. It is where Audrey Hepburn has never died. But if she ever should, this place will be her heaven.

"Oh, be quiet," says my cultural expert, her video finished at last. "So we stay young at heart longer. What of it? Not only is there nothing wrong with our love of cute, I'd say it's rather healthy and wholesome."

Japanese merchandisers could only agree. Especially those who argue that the economy here is kept alive by consumers in their teens.

"So? That's just a trait that foreign businesses should pick up on. No matter the reason, we Japanese have a fondness for items and people that are cute. We find them completely irresistible."

I reflect, take her hand, and tell her that's the nicest thing she's ever said to me.

"Well," she continues. "You do bear a resemblance to Mickey Mouse. It did catch my eye."

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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