Wednesday, April 13, 2011

K is for ... Kawaii

After yesterday's foray into the darker side of pop culture, something a bit lighter today - although, just as the darkness hid a message of beauty, there are undercurrents here that might be almost sinister... but we'll get to those later.

You may or may not recognize some of the friendly little critters depicted above - there was actually only one I knew straight off, but then I'm not exactly the target demographic here - and, if you do, the executives at Sanrio will be delighted. Those guys, and their chums, net Sanrio a billion dollars or more annually. Hello Kitty, the one I recognized, is one of the world's biggest brands. Nowadays, she is the flagbearer for an army of cuteness - in Japanese, the word is kawaii - and a driver of Japan's economic success. But kawaii wasn't Sanrio's idea, and it didn't originate as a corporate gimmick.

Sanrio was set up in the 1960s by Japanese businessman Shintaro Tsuji as a silk manufacturer. Through his political connections, Tsuji later purchased the rights to the characters Snoopy and Barbie, which proved as popular with the youth of Japan as elsewhere. Tsuji learned the salient lesson: cute animals sell big, and Sanrio's business model was set. However, the market for his kawaii was not primarily the young children of Japan - it was, incongruously, teenagers, of an age we in the West might expect to be ready, in good Paulian fashion, to "put away childish things."

The 1970s were an interesting period in Japan, sociologically speaking. When Hello Kitty debuted in 1974, she was fortunate to find a blossoming market for all things cute. Traditionally, Japanese culture is male-dominated and heavy on the formality - but a movement began in the 1970s among Japan's teenage girls that was, in its own way, revolutionary. It began, as many revolutions do, with written words.

Japanese writing actually encompasses three styles: kanji, which are stylized Chinese ideographs; and the two syllabaries, languages of syllables, respectively hiragana - for native Japanese words - and katakana, for loanwords from other languages. As with Chinese, the precise ordering of the strokes that make up kanji is very important - calligraphy is an art of delicate precision. The quiet revolution of Japanese womanhood began with subtle and not-so-subtle assaults upon this stylistic regimentation. Girls would use mechanical pencils that drew fine lines, rather than the variable thicknesses of 'proper' kanji; and they would employ rounded characters where straight lines were customary, and decorate their kanji with hearts, flowers, smily faces, and so on. All of these affectations seem quite familiar to us in the West as part of an overtly feminine approach to writing; through the prism of Japanese culture, these same affectiations become radical. Kawaii was a mechanism for individualizing expression: an insidious way to undermine the rigidly patriarchal authority pervading their environment. It proved impossible to suppress, but rebellions are peculiar things. It's often easier to fight the power than to keep the power.

Corporate Japan enjoyed the 80s at least as much as corporate America. Men like Shintaro Tsuji understood that if you can find a symbol for what people want, they can be brought to accept that symbol even if it obscures - or obstructs - their original goals. The tremendous brand power of Hello Kitty and friends created immense wealth for Sanrio, wealth that the corporation channeled into diverse media interests including film and publishing. Literally thousands of products today carry Sanrio characters and proliferate their brand. Their power to shape the culture is built on a movement engendered to overthrow that power.

Makeru ga kachi.


Arlee Bird said...

My daughters liked the Hello Kitty stuff I guess, but I don't remember them having much of it. Of course, I never bought them much of it either. But it is quite a huge phenomena even now. I wish I'd think of something like that.

Tossing It Out

Heather Henry said...

I admit, I love all things Hello Kitty. Reminiscent of my childhood. I had a set of colored pencils and a little notebook that all fit snugly into a kitty case. I drew many little doodles in it. It is still quite popular among the teens today, my son's girlfriend (17) wears a Hello Kitty hoodie and my daughter's first lunch box (when she was 16) was, you guessed it, Hello Kitty. A very lucrative kitty.