Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"Pray for Kumamoto & Kumamon" — The birth of Cute Studies

      This was a challenge. I first started talking to Mosaic in October about writing something about cuteness as an academic field. We quickly decided the topic warranted a research trip to Japan. The visit required a lot of prep work, contacting government officials and academics, lining up hotels and a translator. Then when I was finished, in April, the narrative had to be recast after the area I visited was hit by an earthquake.
      So I was very happy when the story was finally posted, last Tuesday. 
      Mosaic encourages distribution of its features, and we were all pleased that The Guardian reprinted this, and it was carried by the BBC, and Digg, and many other popular sites. The story is republished here under a Creative Commons license, which means you are free to repost or reprint it as you like—my version here is slightly different than what Mosaic published, in that it includes my photos and a few favorite lines that were cut in the editing process. Their only requirement is that you credit Mosaic, which posts a new long form article on topics of health and science every week, and link back to the original article.
    It's quite long, so you might want to space your reading out. There is also a sidebar on cuteness and robots which I'm posting Thursday. 

     On April 14, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake hit Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu, toppling buildings and sending residents rushing into the streets. Hundreds of aftershocks—one an even stronger 7.0 quake—continued for days, killing 49 people, injuring 1,500, and forcing tens of thousands from their homes.
     News spread immediately around the globe on social media.
     “Earthquake just happened,” Margie Tam posted from Hong Kong. “R u ok kumamon?”
     “Are Kumamon and his friends safe?” wondered Eric Tang, a Chinese college student.
     “Pray for Kumamoto and Kumamon,” wrote Nut Nattsumi Silkoon, a violin teacher in Thailand, a phrase that would be repeated thousands of times.
     Kumamoto is a city of 700,000 in a largely agricultural province in southwestern Japan.
     But what, or more precisely who, is Kumamon? And why in the wake of an immense natural disaster did concern for earthquake victims focus on him, specifically?
     That’s a bit more complicated.


It is March 12, 2016, one month before the earthquake. Kumamon bounds onto an  outdoor stage at the opening event of his birthday party in Kumamoto. About 150 guests, mostly women, cheer, clap and whistle. 
     Kumamon waves and bows. He's a little less than two meters tall, with black glossy fur, circular red cheeks and wide, staring eyes. He’s dressed for the occasion in a white satin dinner jacket trimmed in silver and a red bow tie.
     One woman in the crowd holds a Kumamon doll swaddled in a baby blanket. Another dressed her doll in a grey vested outfit matching her own. She says it took her a month to sew. A number of fans pasted red paper circles on their cheeks to mimic his. Those in the first row arrived at 3 a.m. to snag their prime spots to greet the object of their intense though difficult-to-explain affection.   

      “Actually, I have no idea why I love him so much,” says Milkinikio Mew, who flew from Hong Kong with friends Lina Tong and Alsace Choi to attend the three-day long festival, even though Hong Kong is holding its own birthday party for Kumamon. She slept in, showing up at 6 a.m. for the 10 a.m. kick-off, so had to settle for a seat in the last row.
     Kumamon is ... well ... he’s not a exactly cartoon character, like Mickey Mouse, though he does appear in a daily newspaper comic strip. He’s not a brand icon either, like Hello Kitty, though like her, he does not speak, and like her, his image certainly moves merchandise.
     He’s sort of a ....
     But first, the big moment is here. A birthday cake is rolled out, and the crowd sings “Happy birthday.” Then birthday presents. A representative from Honda, which has a motorbike factory nearby, gives him its Kumamon-themed scooter. An Italian bicycle maker unveils a custom Kumamon racing cycle. Plus a new DVD, an exercise video, featuring Kumamon leading calisthenics.
     The Italian bicycle is not for sale, yet. But the other two items are, joining the more than 100,000 products that feature his image, from stickers and notebooks to cars to airplanes — a budget Japanese airline flies a Kumamon 737. When Steiff offered 1,500 special edition Kumamon dolls, the $300 figure sold out online in five seconds, according to the German toymaker. Last year Leica created a $3,300 Kumamon camera, a bargain compared to the solid gold statue of Kumamon crafted by a Tokyo jeweler which retails for $1 million.
     So what is he then? Kumamon is a yuru-kyara, or “loose character,” one of the cuddly creatures in Japan representing everything from towns and cities to airports and prisons. The word is sometimes translated as “mascot” but yuru-kyara are significantly different than mascots in the West, such as those associated with professional sports teams — Benny the Bull, Cyril the Swann — which tend to be benign, prankish one-dimensional court jesters that operate in the narrow realm of the sidelines during game time.
     Kumamon has a far wider field of operation as the yuru-kyara for Kumamoto Prefecture (a prefecture is like a state in the U.S. or a county in England) and has become more than a symbol for that region, a way to push its tourism and farm products. He is almost regarded as a living entity, a kind of funky ursine household god (it is perhaps significant that the very first licensed Kumamon product was a full-sized Buddhist shrine emblazoned with his face). Kumamon has personality. “Cute and naughty” Tam explains, later, asked what about Kumamon made her care about him enough to be concerned about him immediately after the earthquake.
     She wasn’t alone. After the April 14 quake, Kumamon’s Twitter feed, which has 473,000 followers, and typically updates at least three times a day, stopped issuing communications. With a thousand buildings damaged, water to the city cut, a hospital jarred off its foundations, and 44,000 people out of their homes, the prefectural government, which handles Kumamon’s business dealings and appearances, had more important things to do than stage manage its fictive bear.

      But Kumamon was missed.
     “People are asking why Kumamon’s Twitter account has gone silent when the prefecture needs its mascot bear more than ever,” the Japan Times noted on April 19.
    Into the vacuum came hundreds, then thousands of drawings, posted by everyone from children to professional manga artists, not only in Japan, but in Thailand, Hong Kong, China. They waged an impromptu campaign of drumming up support for earthquake relief, using the bear, which stood in for the city itself and its people. Kumamon was depicted leading the rescue efforts, his head bandaged like Apollinaire, lifting stones to rebuild the tumbled foundation of Kumamoto castle, propping up tottering walls, enfolding children in his arms.

     “Ganbatte Kumamon!” many wrote, using a term that means something between “don’t give up” and “do your best.” 


     Kumamon is kawaii­­­—the word is translated as “cute,” but it has broad, multi-layered
Kumamon meets the Emperor and Empress
meanings, enfolding a range of sweetly-alluring images and behaviors. Not only does kawaii include the army of Japanese mascots, but a world a fashion that has adult women dressing as schoolgirls and schoolgirls dressing as Goth heroines or Lolita seductresses, giving rise to ero-kawaii, or erotic kawaii, a mash-up of cute and sexy.
      Kumamon is not sexy. Though when the Empress Michito met Kumamon, at her request, during the imperial couple’s visit to Kumamoto in 2013, she asked him, “Are you single?” He hovers in a realm of fantasy closer to a character from children’s literature, a cross between the Cat in the Hat and a teddy bear. Fans line up to hug him, often reaching back for a lingering last touch as they’re led off to make way for the next waiting fan. There is a tacit agreement to never allude to anything as crass as a man in a bear suit. 

Masataka Naruuo, left, helps his boss through a press conference.
     To, if not accept his reality, then to pretend that it exists. In 2014, Kumamon gave a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, where his title was given as “Director of PR.” The journalists posed respectful questions. “How many staff do you have, to help you out with your activities?” one asked. The answer, “We have about 20 staff members in our section,” was delivered by one of those subordinates, Masataka Naruo, who enjoys saying that Kumamon is his boss.
     What is happening here? Why are we drawn to cuteness? What about it causes us to open our pocketbooks and our hearts? Is appreciation for cuteness hardwired in human beings? Is it something embraced by individuals, or imposed upon them? Does it limit us? Or liberate us?
     These are questions being mulled by a potential new academic field, “Cute Studies.” We eagerly spend fortunes on cute avatars — Kumamon earned $1 billion in 2015, Hello Kitty four or five times that—without ever wondering: What is cute? What does it say about our society? Is what it says good or, possibly, could cuteness harbor darker facets as well?
     And where do our concepts of cuteness originate? That one is easy. The primal source of all things cute is found in every country, in every city and town, every neighborhood and close to every block in the world. You may have the template for all the cuteness in the world right in the next room and not even realize it.


      Soma Fugaki has dark eyes that sparkle with intelligence as he scans the opening night crowd at “Blossom Blast,” a feminist art show at the UltraSuperNew gallery in Tokyo’s hip Harajuku district.
     Drinks pour, music pulses. But Soma can’t dance, or walk, or even stand. His arms and legs are stubby, his muscle tone, poor. Nor can he speak. He has a condition the Japanese call akachan joutai, or “being a baby.”
     Soma is five months old, squirming in the arms of his father, Keigo, who gazes lovingly into his son’s face and describes what he sees. 

Soma and Keigo Fugaki
     “Everything about him is a reflection of myself,” Keigo says. “It’s like a cartoon version of myself. That has to do with how much I think he’s cute. I stare at him all the time. He looks like me. It’s my features, but exaggerated: bigger cheeks; bigger eyes.”
     Babies are our model for cuteness. Those last two details—big cheeks, big eyes—are straight out of Konrad Lorenz’s kindchenschema, or “baby schema,” as defined in the Nobel-Prize-winning scientist’s 1943 paper on the “innate releasing mechanisms” that prompt affection and nurture in human beings: fat cheeks, large eyes set low on the face, high forehead, small nose and mouth, stubby arms and legs that move in a clumsy fashion. Not just humans: puppies, baby ducks and other young animals are enfolded in Lorenz’s theory.
     Lorenz’s paper is the Ur-document of Cute Studies, but did not produce an immediate reaction among the scientific community — he was a Nazi psychologist writing during wartime, exploring their loathsome eugenic theories, a reminder that the shiny face of cuteness invariably conceals a thornier side.
     For decades, scientists focused on what babies perceive, what they think. But in the 21st century, attention turned toward how babies themselves are perceived, as cuteness started taking its first wobbly steps toward becoming a cohesive realm of research.
     Part behavioral science, part cultural studies, part biology, the field is so new it hasn’t had a conference yet. Experiments have demonstrated that viewing cute faces improves concentration and hones fine motor skills — useful modifications for handling an infant. A pair of Yale studies suggest that when people say they want to “eat up” babies, it’s prompted by overwhelming emotions — caused, one researcher speculated, by frustration at not being able to care for the cute thing, channeled into aggressiveness.
     These emotions are triggered chemically, deep within the brain. Experiments hooking up volunteers to MRIs have shown how seeing cute creatures stimulates the brain’s pleasure center, the nucleus accumbens, releasing dopamine, in a way similar to what happens when eating chocolate or having sex.
     Women feel this reaction more strongly than men. While biologically this is explained by the need to care for infants, society’s larger embrace of cuteness leads academics in gender studies to wonder whether cute culture is the sugar pill that sexism comes in — training women to be childlike — or could it instead be a form of empowerment, “that publicly signaled these young women taking control of their own sexuality,” in the words a paper by Hiroshi Aoyagi and Shu Min Yuen, recently printed in a journal edited by a little-known American instructor living in Tokyo who has become something of the father of Cute Studies.


     “Feel free to wear these slippers,” says Joshua Paul Dale, pausing to remove his shoes at the entrance to his large — well, large for Tokyo — light-filled apartment in the Sendagaya section of the city.
Joshua Paul Dale
 Dale, 50, a cultural studies scholar on the faculty of Tokyo Gakugei University, is the driving force for creation of Cute Studies. He was the first to assemble academic papers into an online “Cute Studies Bibliography,” a list now at nearly 100 publications, from T.R. Alley’s “Head shape and the perception of cuteness,” in Developmental Psychology to Leslie Zebrowitz et al’s “Baby Talk to the Babyfaced” in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior.
     Dale’s latest step in creating his field is editing the The East Asian Journal of Popular Culture’s special cuteness issue, published in April 2016.
     “The articles collected in this issue demonstrate the flexibility of cuteness as an analytical category, and the wide scope of the insights it generates,” he writes in the introduction.
     Despite such progress, it is too early to declare cuteness an independent scientific field, like geology.
     “It hasn’t yet happened,” says Dale, who estimates that only a few dozen academics worldwide focus on cuteness. “We hope that it’s in the process of happening. I started independently and then other scholars are interested. We have conference panels to try to get the word out. I suppose the next step is to get the funding and do a small conference or symposium.”
     Dale says one inspiration is “porn studies,” now with its own quarterly, created after academics united to focus on a topic they felt cultural researchers were neglecting out of misplaced squeamishness. A distinct field encourages exploration.
     “If we just limit it to people in biology, or people in one area, then certain work will get done and certain work won’t get done,” Dale says.  
     Hiroshi Nittono, director of the Cognitive Psychophysiology Laboratory at Osaka  
Dr. Hiroshi Nittono
University, contributed to the East Asian Journal’s special issue. Nittono, wrote the first peer-reviewed scientific paper with “kawaii” in its title, and postulates a “two-layer model” of cuteness: not only does it encourage parental care of newborns, first, but once a baby grows to toddlerhood and begins interacting with the world, cuteness then promotes socialization, a pattern Dale sees reflected in the aborning field.  
     “It’s interesting because it’s inherent in the concept itself,” Dale says. “Cute things relate easily to other things. It kind of breaks down the barriers a little bit between self and other, or subject and object. That means it invites work from various fields. It’s interesting to get people together from different fields talking about the same subject.”
     Not that you need an academic conference to do that. Japan has uniquely embraced cuteness as reflecting its national character, the way tea ceremonies or cherry blossoms were once held up as symbolic of Japanese nationhood. In 2009, the government appointed a trio of “Cute Ambassadors,” three women in ribbons and baby doll dresses whose task was to represent the country abroad. But the preferred national image doesn’t necessarily correlate to the found reality.


Tokyo subway station

     Cuteness is so associated with Japan that encountering the actual country — mile after mile of unadorned concrete suburban buildings alternating with rolling green fields and periodic densely-packed cities — can come as something of a surprise. The Tokyo subway is jammed with hurrying businessmen in dark suits, rushing women in paper masks, racing kids in plain school uniforms. Cute characters such as Kumamon can be hard to spot, and to expect otherwise is like going to America and expecting everyone to be a cowboy.
     Still, there are pockets of cuteness to be found — tiny yuru-kyara charms dangling off backpacks, peeking from posters, or construction barriers in the form of baby ducks.
     But not everywhere, not even in most places.

     Even in Kumamoto during Kumamon’s birthday weekend. Exit from the Shinkanesen bullet train at Kumamoto station, and there is nothing special on the platform. Not so much as a banner. Not until you take the escalator down and catch glimpse of the enormous head of Kumamon set up downstairs, plus a mock stationmaster’s office built for Kumamon. The train station shop is filled with Kumamon items, from bottles of sake to stuffed animals including, somewhat disturbingly, a plush set that pairs him with Hello Kitty, the wide-eyed bear directly behind Kitty in such a way as to suggest ... well, you wonder if it’s deliberate.
     In the city, his face is spread across the sides of building, with birthday banners hanging from the semi-enclosed shopping arcades that are a feature of every Japanese city.
     Six years ago, Kumamoto wasn’t known for much. There is an active volcano, Mt. Aso, 
nearby, and the 1960s reproduction of a dramatic 1600s-era castle that burned hundreds of years ago. In 2010, Kumamoto residents told officials there is nothing in their city that anyone would want to visit. The region is largely agricultural, growing melons and strawberries.   
     They were being asked about local attractions because in 2010 Japan Railways was planning to extend its Shinkansen bullet train to Kumamoto, and the city fathers were eager for tourists to use it. So they commissioned a logo to promote the area, hiring a designer who offered a stylized exclamation point (their official slogan, “Kumamoto Surprise,” was a bright spin on the fact that many Japanese would be surprised to find anything in Kumamoto worth seeing). The exclamation point logo was a red blotch, resembling the sole of a shoe. The designer, seeking to embellish it, and knowing the popularity of yuru-kyara, added a surprised black bear. “Kuma” is Japanese for bear. “Mon” is local slang for “man.”  
     Paired with a mischievous personality — Mew calls him “very naughty” — Kumamon made headlines after Kumamoto held a press conference to report that he was missing from his post, having run off to Osaka to urge residents there to take the train. The stunt worked. Kumamon was voted the most popular yuru-kyara in 2011. (Japan has a national contest, the Grand Prix, held in November. The most recent one was attended by 1,727 different mascots and 80,000 spectators. Millions of votes were cast).
     A few Kumamoto officials resisted Kumamon — their concern was he would scare off potential tourists, who’d worry about encountering wild bears, of which there are none in the prefecture. But the Kumamoto governor was a fan, and cannily waived licensing fees for Kumamon, encouraging manufacturers to use him royalty-free. 

     Rather than pay up front, in order to get approval to use the bear’s image, companies are required to promote Kumamoto, either by using locally manufactured parts or ingredients, or boosting the area on their packaging.  The side of the box the Tamiya radio-controlled “Kumamon Version Buggy,” for instance, has photos of the region’s top tourist destinations. In one of the songs on the exercise DVD released on his birthday, as Kumamon leads his fans through their exertions, they grunt, “Toh-MAY-toes ... Straw-BEAR-ies” ... Wah-TER-melons.” All agricultural products that are specialties of Kumamoto. Go into a grocery store and Kumamon smiles from every pint of strawberries and honeydew wrapper.
     It’s as if Mickey Mouse were continually hawking California oranges.     
     The bullet train began service to Kumamoto on March 12, so the date now used as Kumamon’s official birthday. He was there to greet the first scheduled train, a moment recreated during his birthday fest.
     Shopping in Kumamoto the day before the start of the celebration, Mew and her friends wear Kumamon t-shirts and carry Kumamon backpacks. They stand in the entrance of the Otani Musical Instruments, a store in the Kamitori Arcade. Otani sells sheet music and guitars, but has put a sale banner featuring Kumamon in its window and a table of small items carrying his image: keychains and change purses and handkerchiefs, some with musical motifs, directly at the store’s entrance.
     The three women show their discoveries to each other. They own a lot of Kumamon products already. Why buy more? What makes Kumamon so special?
     “Because he’s very cute,” says Tong, in English.



      Nobody is cute in Shakespeare. The word did not exist until the early 1700s, when the “a” in “acute” was replaced by an apostrophe — ‘cute — and then dropped altogether, the sort of truncation for which frenetic Americans in their restive colonies were already notorious.
     “Acute” came from “acus,” Latin for needle, and later denoting pointed things. So “cute” at first meant “acute, clever, keen-witted, sharp, shrewd” according to the 1933 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which doesn’t suggest the term could describe visual appearance. This older, “clever” meaning lingers in expressions like “don’t be cute.”
     The newer usage was still being resisted in Britain in the mid-1930s, when a correspondent to the Daily Telegraph included “cute” on his list of “bastard American expressions,” along with “O.K.” and “radio.”
      Not only is “cute” unknown before 1700, but Lorentz’s kindchenschema is largely absent from visual arts before the 20th century. Even babies in medieval artworks are depicted as wizened miniature adults.
      Cute images of the kind we’ve become accustomed to begin showing up around 1900. While purists fussed, popular culture was discovering the bottomless marketability of cute things. Rose O’Neill drew a comic strip in 1912 about “Kewpies” — taken from “cupid” — preening babylike creatures with tiny wings and huge heads who soon were being handed out as carnival prizes and capering around Jell-O ads (to this day, Kewpie Mayonnaise, introduced in 1925, is the top-selling brand in Japan).
      Cuteness and modern commercialization are linked.
      “In terms of Western culture, world culture in general, it’s definitely the rise of consumption and the nascent middle class able to afford trivial objects,” says Joshua Paul Dale.
      Still, kewpies followed the lines of actual human anatomy, more or less, the way that Mickey Mouse resembled an actual mouse when he first appeared on film in 1928. A half a century of fine-tuning made him much more infantile, a process naturalist Stephen Jay Gould famously described in his “biological homage” to Mickey. Gould observed that the mischievous and sometimes violent mouse of the late 1920s morphed into the benign, bland overseer of a vast corporate empire.  
Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie

     “He has assumed an ever more childlike appearance as the ratty character of Steamboat Willie became the cute and inoffensive host to a magic kingdom,” Gould writes.
     In Japan, the national fascination with cuteness is traced to girls’ handwriting. Around 1970 schoolgirls in Japan began to imitate the caption text in manga comics, what was called koneko-ji, or “kitten writing.” By 1985, half of the girls in Japan had adopted the style, and companies marketing pencils, notebooks and other inexpensive gift items, like Sanrio, learned that these items sold better festooned with a variety of characters, the queen of whom is Hello Kitty.
     Her full name is Kitty White, named for Alice in Wonderland’s cat, Kitty. She has a family and lives in London (a fad for all things British hit Japan in the mid-1970s).
      That first Hello Kitty product — a vinyl coin purse — went on sale in 1975. Today, about $5 billion worth of Hello Kitty merchandise is sold annually. In Asia, there are Hello Kitty amusement parks, restaurants and hotel suites. EVA, the Taiwanese airline, flies half a dozen Hello Kitty-themed jets, that carry images of Hello Kitty and her friends not only on their hulls, but throughout the plane, from the pillows and antimacassars to, in the bathroom, toilet paper emblazoned with Hello Kitty’s face, a detail which an observer does not need to hold a doctorate in psychology to wonder about.
     Just as Barbie’s measurements drew critique from feminists and scholars, so Hello Kitty caught the interest of academics, especially in Japan, where the progress of women has lagged far behind that of other industrial nations. With girlishness a national obsession —  Japan did not ban possession of child pornography until 2014 — and its most popular female icon lacking a mouth, if cuteness does become a separate field, then, like porn studies, much credit has to be given to feminist pushback against what Hiroto Mursawa of Osaka Shoin Women’s University calls “a mentality that breeds non-assertion.”



     “If your target is young women, it’s saturated,” says Hiroshi Nittono, of the market for cute products in Japan. That is certainly true. In an effort to stand out, some yuru-kyara are now made intentionally crude, or semi-frightening. There is a whole realm of kimo-kawaii, or “gross cute,” epitomized by Gloomy, a cuddly bear whose claws are red with the blood of his owner, whom he habitually mauls. Even Kumamon, beloved as he is, is still subject to a popular Internet meme where he is revealed as Satan in disguise.
     Because the practice of putting characters on products is so prevalent, and subject to resistance, Nittono, a placid, smiling man who wears an ascot, has been working with the government on developing products that are intrinsically cute. He asks to meet, not at his apartment or an academic office, but at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in Hiroshima, where he is finishing up an academic tenure.
     For the past few years, Nittono and the government have been collaborating to develop cute items, a few of which are laid out on a table: a squat makeup brush, a bowl, a brazier, a few medallions and tiles. Given the mind-boggling array of cute merchandise available at shops in every mall around the world, it is not an overwhelming display of the ingenious synthesis of academe and government.
      Nittono’s group is exploring how cuteness can be used as a device to draw people toward products without blatant branding.
     “We use kawaii for such sentiment, feeling, kawaii things are not threatening, that is the most important part, small and not harmful,” says Nittono. “A high quality product is somewhat distant from the customers; it looks expensive. But if you put kawaii nuance on such product, maybe such items can be more approachable.”
     “If you have something cute, then you want to touch it, and then you see the quality of it,” adds Youji Yamashita, a ministry official.

Date Tomito
     Objects can be unintentionally kawaii. With her husband Makoto, Date Tomito owns “Bar Pretty,” a tiny side street tavern in Hiroshima. Six people would be crowded sitting at the bar. Makoto comes in from the market bearing a small plant in a yellow pot, a present for his wife.
      “This is kawaii,’ Date says, holding the plant up, elaborating. “There are lots of different meanings for kawaii: ’cute,’ ‘small,’ ‘clumsy.’ Some things just have a cute shape.”
     She stresses something about kawaii.
     “It’s never bad,” she says. “I never use kawaii in an ironic way. Kawaii is kind of the best compliment. Around Japanese people, especially girls and women. They really like kawaii stuff and things.”
     Not that Japanese necessarily consider themselves kawaii. In a German study of 270,000 people in 22 countries, the Japanese came in dead last in being pleased with how they look. More than a third of the country, 38 percent, said they are “not at all satisfied” or “not very satisfied” with their personal appearance.
     Those surgical masks worn in public? Yes, to avoid colds, pollution and allergies. But ask Japanese women, and many will say that they wear them date masuku — “just for show.” Because they didn’t have time to put on their make-up, or because they don’t consider themselves cute enough, and they want a shield against the intrusive eyes of their crowded world.


Harajuku Mikkoro

     One question that Joshua Dale agrees could be worth exploring in his new field is how cuteness is affected by duplication, by overload. One baby draws you in, a dozen send you fleeing. Cuteness doesn’t seem to work as well multiplied. In abundance, it can be overwhelming.
     Go to Harajuku, the fashion district not far from Dale’s apartment—which, perhaps significantly, is sparsely decorated, with nothing stereotypically “cute” on display. The stores are so crammed with kawaii merchandise, vast arrays of character faces and kitsch and glittering fashion accessories, it’s almost blinding.
     And for every Kumamon, for every popular yuru-kyara, there are a hundred Harajuku Mikkoros. A five foot tall yellow and brown bee, Harajuku Mikkoro stands on a sidewalk, celebrating Honey Bee Day by finishing up three hours of loitering in front of the Colombin Bakery and Café, greeting passersby, or trying to. Most barely glance in his direction and do not break stride, though some do come over and happily pose for the inevitable picture. There is no line.
     Harajuku Mikkoro is cute yet obscure, the common fate for most yuru-kyara. The city of Osaka has 45 different characters promoting its various aspects, and must fend off periodic calls for them to be culled, in the name of efficiency; one administrator piteously argued that the government officials who created these characters work hard on them and so would feel bad if they were discontinued.
     Harajuku Mikkoro is trying to avoid that fate.
     “He is not a success yet,” admits one of his handlers, distributing cubes of the café’s trademark honey cake. “Many are not as successful....”
     “...as Kumamon?”
     “We’re trying to be.”


     Humanity has always embraced household gods — not the world-creating universal deity, but minor, more personal allies to soften what can be a harsh and lonely life. Not everyone has the friends he deserves, or the baby she’d cherish. Often people of both sexes are alone in the world.

     On Shimtori Street, in Kumamoto, is a second floor walk-up tavern, the KumaBar, so called because its décor consists entirely of Kumamon images: dozens of them, all sizes: figurines, dolls, signs, posters. He beams from bottles — Kumamoto-made beer and sake are featured here — and smiles from menus. Sitting at the bar is a full-size fiberglass Kumamon statue, with changeable eyes that, at the request of customers, the bartender will adjust to reflect advancing inebriation.
    KumaBar opens its doors at 7 p.m. the night before the birthday festival begins, and Rika Usui is waiting. She hurries in and grabs the stool at Kumamon’s right, orders a drink and pats his paw.
     She is, she says, a home economics teacher in Tokyo.
      Does she like Kumamon?
     “A lot,” she says.
     “The way he moves,” she says, in Japanese. “He moves jerkily. He’s round and cute.”
      She does not like any of the other yuru-kyara.
      And her students? Do they like Kumamon too? They do, universally.
      “It doesn’t make a difference,” she says. “Girl or boy.”
     Usui has her picture taken with Kumamon, and spends a long time puzzling over the various Kumamon products for sale, glassware mostly, including one glass showing him sprawled on the ground, perhaps asleep. She eventually purchases a Kumamon kitchen apron.
     The bar begins to fill up. She does not talk to the arriving patrons, or even seem to notice them. Just before she leaves, she quietly turns and raises her glass to Kumamon’s lips to give her friend a quick little sip, and then is gone.


Tamami Yazawa, performing as "LivePainter Gerutama."


     Back at the UltraSuperNew gallery opening attended by Soma and his father, guests watch artist Tamami Yazawa in a frilly white miniskirt, draped in white feathers, with fuzzy leggings, an enormous yarn bow atop her head, her face painted white with a red flower on each cheek and blue dots running down her nose. She kneels in the gallery window and dabs at a teal and yellow painting that closely resembles finger-painting writ large.
     Her professional name is Gerutama, and she insists that, despite appearances, she is definitely not kawaii. She is a “LivePainter.” Some Japanese of both sexes reject kawaii—“fake” is a word often used. But they are in the minority. Japanese women still live in a culture where single women in their 30s are sometimes referred to as “leftover Christmas cake,” meaning that after the 25th — of December for cake, the 25th year for the women — they are past their expiration date, and hard to get rid of. Nobody wants either.
     “Kawaii is sickening,” says gallery-goer Stefhen Bryan, a Jamaican writer who lived for a decade in Japan and married a Japanese woman. “Kawaii is especially baby-like. If a woman acts like an adult in Japan, it’s an offense. Their self-esteem is nothing in this country. It’s all under the aegis of culture. It’s low self-esteem en masse.”
     Without question. But there is also more going on with cuteness than just the training wheels that help keep a sexist culture from toppling over, more than just conditioning girls to survive in a world dominated by men, or a tactic to hotwire biology in order to sell change purses and motor scooters. A very human need is also being filled. Teddy bears exist because the night is dark and long and at some point mom and dad have to go to bed and leave you. There is real comfort in cuteness.
     “Filling in an emotional need is exactly where kawaii plays a significant role,” writes Christine R. Yano, a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and author of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific.
 “Even in America, journalist Nicholas Kristof has written of an ‘empathy gap’ in today's society. He points to the place of objects that may be considered promoters of ‘happiness,’ ‘solace,’ ‘comfort.’ When a society needs to heal, it seeks comfort in the familiar. And often the familiar may reside in ‘cute.’ Witness the use of teddy bears as sources of comfort for firefighters in the wake of NYC's 9-11. So I see kawaii things as holding the potential as empathy generators.”
     Kumamon is a power station of empathy generation. In the weeks after the Kumamoto earthquake, Kumamon was so necessary that in his absence his fans simply conjured him up themselves, independently, as an object of sympathy, a tireless savior, an obvious hero.
     And then the bear himself returned. Three weeks after the April 14 earthquake, Kumamon visited the convention hall of the hard-hit town of Mashiki, where residents were still sleeping in their cars for protection as one of the 1,200 tremors continued to rumble across the area. The visit was reported on TV in the papers, as news, as if a long sought survivor had stumbled out of the wreckage, alive.
     The children, many who lost their homes in the earthquake, flocked around him, squealing, hugging, shaking hands, taking pictures.

     “It’s so fluffy and cute,” said Suzuha Araki, 5, smiling.

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  1. This one is a keeper. And the delightful photos add a nice personal touch. Congrats!


  2. Very entertaining. As I read it I kept an eye out for favorite sentences that might not have made the published version. I guessed that "his head bandaged like Apollinaire" might have been one and a quick look at the published version confirms I was right. I can see both why you liked it (clever) and why it was cute (too clever). Care to reveal the others?

    1. The part about the baby -- there was a little joke in there about a condition in Japanese "known as 'being a baby.'" They dispensed with that. I was too in love with it to let it go.

  3. This is a fascinating article that offers an interesting insight into Japanese culture. Here is one that's tough to beat, the BBC has a sample video of a creature called super cute.

  4. In my long distant youth we embraced a cute cartoon possum, intrigued by such swamp wisdom as "We have seen the enemy and he is us," and, faced with unattractive political choices, promoted a Pogo for President campaign. But that was college humor, not a cultural phenomenon like Kumamom. Hard to think of a real counterpart here _"east is east and west is west, etc."

    At first blush "cute" didn't seem a weighty enough concept for academic study, but in Neil's hands it has generated a nice piece of cultural anthropology.

    Tom Evans


    Do you think Kumamon can be a Chicago Bears mascot for Japanese fans? They could use the help.....

    1. I did pitch Kumamon at the Cubs -- I thought he should throw out the first pitch. But they don't want anybody to remind fans how inadequate Clark is.

  6. This was an interesting and excellent piece. It doesn't matter how mundane the topic, bridges, concrete, or cute, you make it fascinating. I hope it's not too long of a wait for your next long-form essay for Mosaic. Kumamon reminds me of a Totoro only with bear ears, and it is admittedly pretty cute.


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