Courtesy Morgan Wood
The first time my friends in Japan shouted “so kawaii” at something, I was deeply confused. I must confess that I came here with an extremely limited vocabulary. I haven’t progressed much, but “kawaii” is one of the words you can figure out without trying. Kawaii is used to describe the particular brand of “cuteness” typical in Japan. The Japanese obsession with kawaii is the reason things like earthquake instructions feature brightly colored cartoon characters with huge eyes and heads on top of small rounded bodies, rather than, say, the stick figures you might imagine on any kind of American instructions.
Now, I take myself seriously. I’m an adult. Like any self-respecting art person, I wear all black. I drink black coffee and eat kale like a grown up. And the Japanese are no different. They wear business formal on the train, and they bow instead of smile. That said, kawaii is very pervasive here—it’s hard to stay away from the delicately pastel pillows at the dollar store with animal faces on them, or the packs of tissues with the confusingly relatable “Gudetama” character on them.
Gudetama, a Sanrio character based on an egg, is cute but also exasperated and defeated; he provides a kawaii counterpoint to the more positive and energetic Sanrio characters. Even the food here is kawaii, like the rice I had packed together, shaped like a heart, and given “nori” (seaweed) as eyes. And then of course there are the women in Harajuku dressed in Lolita fashion, wearing saccharine pink and lace confections. It is amazing that the same culture that produced “wabi-sabi” minimalism is steeped in the often cloyingly sweet kawaii culture.
No place in Japan is more kawaii than Sanrio Puroland, which I visited last week. Sanrio is the company behind Hello Kitty. They design, produce, and license all sorts of goods and services with their signature characters, such as Hello Kitty, Cinnamoroll, and my favorite, Gudetama. Sanrio Puroland is the theme park dedicated to Sanrio’s characters; here, you can tour Hello Kitty’s palace, take a ride on Mymeroad Drive through My Melody’s world and go on a Twinkling Tour of a dreamy world.
It’s impossible to avoid a few kawaii purchases, but I generally prefer the pared down functionalism of Uniqlo or Muji. I decided to go to Sanrio Puroland because I thought it would be fun to escape into Sanrio’s pastel and glitter dreamscape for a few hours, and Tokyo is the only place in the world where you can do this. I got a friend who also loves Gudetama to come along.
If Sanrio Puroland sounds like its for kids, you’re not exactly wrong. It’s very family friendly. But my friend and I were not the only adult women there sans children. Groups of 30-year-old women strolled around, pairing the chic minimalist outfits I’ve come to expect from Tokyo with Hello Kitty headbands on their freshly blown out hair. Even more comical were the women with the Gudetama figures lying belly down, complete with little yellow butts, perched on their heads.
My friend and I ogled a Hello Kitty figure descending on a platform from the ceiling in the center of Sanrio Puroland to sing a Christmas tune. We excitedly hugged Hello Kitty in her house. We stood in line to take a ten minute boat ride through the park. We enthusiastically ran to the top of the ‘Wisdom Tree’ at the center of the park. We were sad when the park closed promptly at 5:30 p.m., and we hadn’t gotten through Gudetama Land yet.
And at the end, I’d be lying if I said I did not consider getting some kitty ears as a souvenir. I combed through the merchandise looking for something chic enough that I could use it in America without any weird looks, and I was sorely tempted by a white-on-white leather wallet embroidered with Hello Kitty’s face. Ultimately, I didn’t think I could pull it off in America.
So yeah, you could say that I, while wearing my nearly all-black no frills ensemble, got more than a little into kawaii. I can’t say I really understand it. Sanrio Puroland was something of an escape; I’ll never be a Harajuku girl. But maybe that’s how the other adult women felt too. We know the color scheme and the characters are overly feminine and childish—it’s not how I see myself or how I’d want to be seen all the time. However, the aesthetic, full of unnecessary flourishes, is a respite from the cold rigidity of Tokyo, where efficiency is prized above all else.
“Kawaii” is a uniquely indulgent aspect of Japanese culture, where the extra time and resources it takes to, for example, to craft a heart out of rice and a face out of nori are celebrated.
Even more, when everything is girlish and juvenile, like in Sanrio Puroland, I didn’t have to worry about distinguishing myself as mature and refined. There was an unexpected pleasure in caving to the soft, glimmering, pastel aesthetic, which is so widely accepted that my choice to engage in it, as a serious student or an ambitious woman, wasn’t questioned.
Morgan Wood is a third-year student double majoring in art history and economics. She is currently studying abroad in Tokyo and will return to Cleveland for the Spring 2018 semester.