Oh Japan, why are you so kawaii?
Japan is the Mecca of cute-ness. Polka dots, pink, ruffles, lace not just in clothing, but in bags, phone cases, toothbrushes, stationary, and basically everything else. When I first came to Japan I thought it was adorable… but now I find it overwhelming (and smothering).
When I first came to Japan, I came as a visitor. It was a fun, easy place to live. And the fact that kawaii-ness wasn’t just for kids, that it it well into the teenage and adult years blew my mind. I bought a couple ruffle skirts and uber-frilly dresses and went through a phase where I tried to do my makeup as kawaii as possible.
I was a teenager who probably believed if I dressed and acted the part, I could “become Japanese” (which in-itself is kind of problematic for everyone involved, but that’s a whole other blog post).
I don’t know when I stopped liking kawaii things.
Recently, I got an offhand remark from someone along the lines of “if you dressed nicer, you would be really cute like a Japanese girl.” and I was just kind of like “And I would want to do that because…?”
Of course I want to assimilate into Japanese culture. I enjoy (most aspects of) living here, the food, the personal safety, the public transportation, the friendly little old ladies who love to chat about the weather. Living in Japan with my husband is wonderful.
There is not a single part of me that wants to grow up to become grumpy old lady who always complains “This isn’t how we do it in America!” when problems arise. I see people like that all the time, especially on Japan-related chat-boards and it terrifies me.
But I don’t want to give up myself and my own values in order to assimilate.
More specifically, I really just don’t want to be kawaii. And I get that this is the epitome of First World Problems but the word “cute” makes me cringe.
Some people like the compliment “cute.” Other’s don’t. I’m in the latter camp.
Calling me cute feels patronizing. I’m not a child.
I pay taxes and vote and run my own business and cook my own meals and exercise regularly without anyone telling me to. I’m a grown woman and I every time someone calls me cute (or tells me I should try to act/dress more cute) it feels like they’re looking down on me and aren’t taking me seriously.
This didn’t bother me when I first came to Japan because I didn’t really expect anyone to take me seriously in the first place. I was a teenager who barely spoke the language and was following her boyfriend around the world. Heck, I didn’t take myself seriously (and that got rid of a lot of the pressure to be successful).
The whole “cute” thing bothers me now because my looks are always being called into question in professional settings. I wrote about it more in this post I wrote: 6 Things I Don’t Understand about Working in Japan
Basically, I said:
Japan is a very visual society. I mean, pretty much every society is visual. Beauty is rewarded and looking outside the “norm” usually has negative effects.
I run into the “visual” problem when it comes to meeting new people. I have quite a few odd jobs – reporting for a Japanese TV show, voice acting, narration, doing one-on-one lessons for new bloggers, freelance writing, drawing comics freelance, doing script-checking for English-teaching online courses. Doing different things every day is the easiest way to ensure I never get bored (and never stop learning).
In any case, most of the time when I meet someone new, they will comment on my looks. “You’re so cute!” they will say. Or “You look so beautiful.”
I’m not trying to fish for compliments here – I find it massively uncomfortable when I’ve just given a 10 min presentation on how to improve their SEO rank for their companies’ blog and the first question or comment is “You’re very cute.” Perhaps this is my weird American side going, but I think it’s rather rude to tell a woman in a business suit, who you’re trying to hire to help with your website, that she’s cute. Or if you’re just introduced to the person hired to do narration for your textbook, and the first words out of your mouth are “You are very pretty” (and the person who introduces you says “Yes, she really is”).
Puppies are cute. Babies are cute. A teenage girl in lolita are cute. A woman in a power-suit isn’t cute. Especially if you are trying to hire said woman on a freelance basis to do work for your company.
You wouldn’t believe how many red flags pop up when the first words out of someone’s mouth (aside from basic introductions) are “You are beautiful.” It makes me feel like someone is going to slip something in my drink and I’m going to wake up somewhere I really don’t want to be. It also makes me unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) head for the door.
In chats with other friends, I’ve realized I’m not alone in this experience. People’s looks are constantly being commented on with the most common compliment being “cute.”
This is weirdly topical because around the time I published this post, a report came out that over one third of working women in Japan have been sexually harassed (25% of those cases from an immediate supervisor). And the most common complaint type was inappropriate “comments about age, appearance, or other external characteristics.”
What about you?
Do you enjoy being called cute (a compliment is a compliment)? Or does it bother you like it does me (I’m not a child)?