In his essay In Praise of Shadows, published in 1933, the novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki described and defended an aesthetic which, he said, suffused the traditions of daily life, design, theatre and architecture in his native Japan. This was an aesthetic that revelled in shadow: the customary darkness of the No theatre, the meditative joy of a chilly outside toilet on a dusky evening, the traditional dark colours worn by middle and upper-class women who rarely left the gloom of their deep-eaved houses. Tanizaki had an abhorrence of the well-lit toilet, the distant nocturnal view ruined by urban electric lighting, the white ceramic tableware which took away the mystery from a bowl of soup. Overdecoration was similarly offensive to him: the pictures, ornaments and other bits and pieces with which Westerners filled their houses ruined the calm of an unadorned Japanese interior, decorated only by the flickering shadows cast on its walls.
Tanizaki knew that this aesthetic was disappearing. It was almost impossible, he complained, to get a lacquered wood cistern rather than a ceramic one. His favourite candle-lit restaurant in Kyoto was now flooded with electric light. The West had brought to Japan a pervasive electric glare; a proliferation of shiny white surfaces in league with the rude light. And it was remorselessly sweeping out the shadows and mystery accumulated during Japan’s long isolation from the world.
What this man would have made of the mall culture of modern Japan can only be imagined. These books depict the contemporary urban landscape of a country that has embraced technology more enthusiastically, perhaps, than any other – and which has found ever more ingenious ways of consuming its products. This is the Japan of Hello Kitty and Pokémon, karaoke bars and automated snack dispensers. Between this Japan and Tanizaki’s, seventy turbulent years have passed: the trauma of the Second World War; the miraculous boom of the 1970s and 1980s as Japanese consumer electronics flooded the global market; the economic decline that followed in its wake.
Such rapid historical change is fertile soil for fashion, particularly in Japan, where conformity seems to be a social imperative. Fashions seem to come and go faster there, mutating into ever more astonishing forms, assisted by accelerating technological innovation and eager consumers hooked on novelty. Consultants – many of them teenagers – advising multinational corporations have little doubt that what is big in Japan may well soon be big over here, too, at least among teens and pre-teens, who spend the most money on consumer knick-knacks.
It is remarkable that throughout Japan’s recent economic decline, one of its biggest exports has been something rather less tangible than the electronic products of the 1980s. ‘Cute’ is a curious and very contemporary aesthetic, a style, a taste, an affectation: it denotes anything small, vulnerable and childlike that induces a feeling of pitiful love. Hello Kitty is cute (or kawaii); so is Astro Boy (a robot with a quiff and a heart of gold), Blythe (a bug-eyed doll with well-coiffed hair and a miniature body), Miffy (a blank-faced rabbit), and the host of cartoon characters with wide-eyed, open faces, chubby bodies and stumps for limbs which grace a vast range of products in Japan, from stationery and soft furnishings to condoms and laptops. There are cute ways of dressing, too, especially for girls and young women: shoes with buckles, crinolined mini-skirts, mittens, toys worn as accessories, and the ubiquitous socks, some ankle-length, others longer and worn as if in the process of falling down, an effect achieved with special sock-glue. There are cute expressions, cute gestures and cute ways of standing, with toes turned in. This is a cult of young women – and, increasingly, young men – who want to look like children, and there is a vast market in place to cater for them.
Cute may not yet have its aesthetician, but while it awaits its own Tanizaki, it does have a chronicler. For the last ten years, Shoichi Aoki has been photographing the street fashions of the suburbs of Tokyo, and publishing these images in the magazine he founded for the purpose, called Fruits, the highlights from which have lately been gathered together. Most of the pictures were taken in a single suburb, Harajuku, whose pedestrianised precinct provides the stage every Sunday for a multitude of teen styles, many of them cute, all of them playing with sartorial and cultural codes, and producing spectacular hybrids: tartan samurai, geisha Holly Hobbie, techno Yeti and – my favourite – ‘Elegant Gothic Lolita’. This is dressing as sampling, and the range of references is pop-encyclopedic: Shirley Temple, cowboy, Star Wars, manga, the Sex Pistols. No more arresting image of postmodern style could be found – all of it filtered through film, comics, pop music and TV. And everywhere, there is cute: the pigeon-toed stance, the innocent stare, the face made up, doll-like, with reddened cheeks and hair in ringlets or bunches, toys dangling from bags, necks or hands. Some wear clothes they claim to have worn as infants; others sport garments so vast that their bodies look tiny and helpless.
These fashions seem to beg interpretation, but Fruits offers little, and while Donald Richie’s Image Factory promises an ‘appreciation’ of the ‘inherent meanings’ in ‘Japanese fads, fashions and styles’, readers will search in vain for insights. When he isn’t simply describing the various cultural phenomena he observes in Japan, he offers a range of incompatible and superficial ‘explanations’ for them, usually uncritically gleaned from journalistic sources. Richie, who has lived in Tokyo for more than fifty years, has made a career out of interpreting Japan for the benefit of Western readers; this book trades on his reputation as a ‘Japan expert’, but also reveals some of the pitfalls of the aloof ‘outsider role’. The prose is rushed, the tone arch: this is cultural criticism in the Whicker’s World mould, in which the role of the middle-class, middle-aged, white male observer is foregrounded and the subject-matter ridiculed rather than analysed. Richie is especially short-sighted when it comes to contemporary fashion – the subject, after all, of his book. His assessment of fashion as an industry that caters to the frivolous demands of an excitable and gullible public doesn’t suggest that he has the flexibility to deal with the complexities of style. And his account of the teen fashions of Harajuku as a weekly Halloween that offers their wearers an opportunity to be ‘someone (or something) else’ before entering a boring middle age is patronising and underestimates the significance of cute style.
It is characteristic of subcultural style that it should resist the interpretations of outsiders. The signs emblazoned across the bodies of these Japanese teenagers speak in code to those who inhabit the same world of meaning; that, in one sense, is the point. But more than this, the broader ‘meaning’ of style is not something that can be read off its surface. If cute means anything, it isn’t going to be what it seems to mean. It isn’t, for example, necessarily juvenile to dress like a child. Nor does dressing up at the weekend necessarily betray a desire to be ‘someone else’. Most important, the deliberate dumbness of many of the youngsters in Fruits doesn’t necessarily mean they have nothing to say, or that they are saying nothing by acting dumb.
Cute culture has thrown Richie and other writers off track because it doesn’t conform to what the baby boomer generation expects of youth culture. Cute is not rebellious – at least not in any obvious way. It isn’t cool. It doesn’t seem to be about sex. It doesn’t want to overthrow capitalism – cute is hooked on brand-names. It is cosy, not angry. And despite the apparently unique get-ups in Fruits, it isn’t really about individuality: Richie points out with a triumphant air that the most outlandish sartorial affectations are widely copied, as if this were proof of a lack of imagination in this nation of conformists, rather than simply in the nature of subcultural style the world over. Cute is evidently rather disappointing and embarrassing to writers such as Alex Kerr, who, in Dogs and Demons (2001), sees it as one of many depressing symptoms of Japan’s decline. Whatever we might think of grown women in lacy ankle-socks and Barbie handbags or young men wearing tiny school uniforms, we ought to take them seriously, not least because cute culture is spreading. Sanrio, the company responsible for Hello Kitty, Little Twin Stars and a host of other cuties, has a billion-dollar turnover, much of it derived from the lucrative licensing of products from T-shirts to sex toys. These characters have a huge demographic appeal in many parts of the world, with or – increasingly – without the gloss of camp irony which justifies their consumption in some quarters. And it must mean something when large numbers of young people dress in ways which twenty years ago would have been considered more suitable for children.
Richie would have done well to read the work of Sharon Kinsella, whose writing on cute is free from the preconception that youth culture ought to be an authentic expression of individuality. On the contrary, according to Kinsella, cute style betrays a lack of confidence in the very notion of the individual, and cannot muster the energy and optimism necessary for rebellion. It is a soft revolt. It seems that becoming an adult is not an attractive option to these burikko (‘fake children’) when it is associated with the responsibilities and obligations of work and family. This is a generation of ‘freeters’ (the word comes from ‘free arbeiter’) who have rejected the stringent work patterns of their parents, even when they are available, as they often are not in the current economic climate. Acting and dressing like children represents their refusal of the adult world: as Kinsella writes, cute style ‘idolises the pre-social’. Cute is a kind of rebellion, then, but its retreat to the imagery of childhood indicates that there is no alternative to the adult world except a deliberate regression to this one remaining realm of freedom. Seen in this way, cute style is bleak: it allows no looking forward to a future, either for individuals or for society. In this sense it is far darker than punk, which had an energy and rage that promised action, if not social change. Cute disguises its pessimism and political inertia as winsomeness.
Cultural studies departments, in the early days of the discipline, searched for authentic, spontaneous and oppositional youth subcultures much as anthropologists looked to South America for examples of tribes untainted by modernity. Both groups have repeatedly been disappointed. Researchers in cultural studies found that mods, for example, were more interested in labels than in class conflict; subcultural style, it turned out, was particularly vulnerable to swift commodification, as punk and hippy styles were sold back to the kids who generated them. The curious thing about the outfits paraded in Fruits is that they seem to acknowledge both the idealism of youth and its commercialisation. Punk motifs, in particular, recur again and again, but only as hollow signifiers on pre-slashed and distressed clothing bought from boutiques. Hippy styles, too, are often assembled entirely from branded items. Coupled with cute, these motifs seem like the ghosts of idealism, clinging to the bodies of teenagers capable only of shopping and acting dumb.
The fact that a young person can dress like Nancy Spungen one Sunday and Annie Hall the next can be seen as the liberating and playful expression of a fluid postmodern identity, or a depressing cultural cul-de-sac in which consumption is the only remaining option. But to see the youth styles in Fruits only as symptomatic of historical forces is to be blind to their ingeniousness, their fun and in some cases their beauty. What Aoki has documented is a sort of performance art, a use of style which can, at its most interesting, represent cultural contradictions and historical dead-ends. Recycled punk imagery in cute form gives new meaning to the Sex Pistols’ slogan, ‘No Future’; ‘Wa-mono’ styles mix traditional costume, such as the kimono, with Western motifs in ways that speak eloquently about Japan’s accelerated modernisation and its ambiguous relationship with Europe and America. In the so-called ‘decora’ style, a plethora of jangling tiny toys and pieces of cheap plastic jewellery are hung about the body so as to create a kind of music when the wearer moves. These teenagers have grown up amid a cacophony of cultural signs and information; there is art in the way that some of them have transformed this cacophony into often bizarre combinations of sartorial signs.