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How Kawaii culture is changing the world

The internet’s cutest power revolution is trolling terrorism, bowel movements and Trump

While Japan still retains fame for its rich cultural history and a bent for futuristics, over the past few years the home of sushi, sake and Sailor Moon has been redefining itself as something slightly more... cuddly. Softly and slowly, cultural markers such as anime and kawaii have been gaining popularity, and according to search engine analytics published last month by the Japan Times, they are now eclipsing interest in traditional Japanese iconography like samurai and geisha. What with the V&A recently adding a Hello Kitty rice cooker and other twee regalia to its showcase of Japanese arts, it seems the idea of Japan as the purveyor of cuteness has been firmly stamped into our psyche. It is the country responsible for Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and the poo emoji after all, and everything there is charmingly upbeat, if a bit wacky. Train stations play happy little jingles when you alight, and cute mascots are de rigeur for every brand or organisation - even the Tokyo Metropolitan Police have one. Jubilant anime faces adorn everything from Shinjuku billboards to roadworks signs, and the earthquake survival guide given to the capital's residents enjoys a lovable hard-hat-toting cartoon rhino on its cover. Natural disasters and bowel movements included, Japan can stick anime eyes and pink cheeks on just about anything and *bang*: kawaii!ヽ(^◇^*)/

The word 'kawaii' is usually translated from Japanese to mean cute, but its true definition is a little more nuanced. Misha Janette, founder of Tokyo Fashion Diaries and panelist on NHK’s Kawaii International show, describes its root meaning in detail: “kawaii actually means a delicate cuteness, like a weak, small type of thing. It’s also an embodiment of all that’s happy and positive.” This phenomenon hasn't been lost on the West, who have been appropriating kawaii culture for years, (think Gwen Stefani's problematic accessorizing of her Harajuku Girls, or Nicki Minaj's faux-cute Harajuku Barbie phase), but in 2015, kawaii evolved from a mainstream pop culture aesthetic into a veritable political tool. The sense of protectiveness it evokes for being small and cute means kawaii makes perfect irony material, and subversive kawaii memes have been popular online for a while, featuring feminist catchphrases like ‘mermaids against misogyny' and ‘fuck the patriarchy’ in pastel fonts against sugary backdrops. A more recent example is the KawaiiTrump Tumblr, which creates memes of Donald Trump by photoshopping him with fluttering eyelashes, candy floss hair and coral lipstick alongside improved-upon campaign slogans such as 'let's make anime great again' and 'notice me senpai'. Trump’s not alone: a quick google search brings up kawaii politicians, celebrities, and even Jesus sporting sparkling eyes and blushing cheeks.

“Kawaii has become a unifier for people trolling terrorism without encouraging them to spew polarising hate everywhere – a rare thing when it comes to the internet”

Kawaii’s most surprising victim, though, is terrorism. As the UK joins forces with France and America to bomb Syria in a spiralling cycle of knee-jerk hypocrisy, Japan selects a different weapon from its arsenal. In January, two Japanese journalists were among those beheaded by Isis. No violent retaliation took place, and instead the Japanese took to social media to launch a counter-attack, bombarding the internet with super kawaii terrorist memes. Thus Daesh gained a mascot it hadn’t bargained for, and ISIS-chan was born. A green-haired anime girl dressed in black jihadi garb, ISIS-chan uses kawaii tactics to fight terrorism, and is often depicted brandishing a tasty Japanese musk-melon. One image describes her in a typically sincere Japanese-to-English translation as “a so kind girl with a broad mind, who never hurts anyone in any ways. She won't represent any of your extremist thoughts. ISIS-chan loves melons, not violence.” The meme is mostly active through the twitter account of @isisvipper, but the artwork is also showcased on a Tumblr, which denotes ISIS-chan’s raison d’etre as “disturbing the propaganda of Daesh through google bombing”, which basically means it hijacks Isis’s online presence by saturating search engines with ISIS-chan instead of extremist propaganda. It’s a crowdsourced meme which encourages artwork submissions, but there are strict rules: no gore, no porn, and no Islamophobia.

Noble though it may be, sticking eyelashes on a problem like Isis won't make it go away. So what’s the point of it all? The artist Sebastian Masuda, an authority on Japanese cute culture and owner of the recently-opened Kawaii Monster Cafe in Harajuku, muses that “Kawaii is unusual, because it has this power to null negativity and evil.” Masuda believes that kawaii culture is a positive influence on the world because of the kind of “soft power” it exerts. “It somehow makes things peaceful without resorting to violence.” Because our brains are hardwired to find cuteness endearing, when we see something as kawaii, it’s a given that we also see it as unthreatening. That’s simply part of the charm. So with these parodic memes gaining huge popularity on social media, (which Isis is notorious for utilising to recruit would-be extremists), kawaii has become a unifier for people trolling terrorism without encouraging them to spew polarising hate everywhere – a rare thing when it comes to the internet.

Despite the seemingly positive way the kawaii aesthetic is being utilised, it isn’t always perceived as a good thing, especially from a feminist perspective. To a Western audience, kawaii, especially in the context of fashion, is often seen as girly to the point of parody, and the fact that it is often fetishised doesn’t help. The association kawaii has with giggling teenagers and saccharine frilliness means it has drawn criticism for presenting femininity as ridiculous and infantilised, and that its purpose is to enforce the gender binary by making women appear unthreatening. Yet although this infantilisation could be interpreted as creepy to a Western viewer, Misha Janette insists that to the Japanese, kawaii’s essence is less about gender oppression, and more about the fun of childhood. “It’s possible to never grow up in Japan,” she says. “You’ll see old lady lolitas here. Women dress up young because it makes them feel more free and happy. Femininity in Japan is treated very differently to femininity in the West, and here it’s acceptable for men to like kawaii stuff too, so it’s not so much a gender thing.”

While this might be the way kawaii is used by the Japanese, when it’s filtered through a Western lens it’s easy to see how cultural differences are lost in translation. When we edit Donald Trump to be feminine and cute, for example, is it because we find it funny to make him even more ridiculous than he already is? Of course part of kawaii’s power lies in parody, but it's really about making the day-to-day more palatable, and the real world less awful. When kawaii is used, say, to fight terrorism, and when its influence reaches much, much further than clothing, it's simple to dispel detractors on the grounds that kawaii has become a type of weaponised femininity – and there's nothing twee about that.