Thinking about kawaii (cuteness)

Japanese male celebrities categorised by what kind of “sauce” their face is. This is an integral aspect of definitions of masculine cuteness in Japan

Last night, I attended a fabulous presentation at the Japan Foundation, Sydney by my colleague Megan Catherine Rose concerning her extended ethnographic fieldwork among practitioners of cute sub-cultures in Harajuku, Tokyo. Entitled “Where have all the Lolitas gone?“, Megan’s presentation touched on many important themes in the study of Japan’s Lolita communities, a sub-cultural group about which there is much academic and popular writing. Megan emphasised that many of these writings about Lolita draw upon a number of common-sense assumptions concerning the notion of kawaii, a term which is traditionally translated as “cute.” This term is quite complicated, and there have been many attempts in the literature to provide a comprehensive definition, which I will not go into here.

Megan emphasized that, for her informants, cute was a very subjective and emotional concept and that there was a certain level of resistance among the Lolita with whom she spoke to provide a succinct definition of the term. She noted a tension between an aesthetic and an affective definition of kawaii, and argued that one cannot be privileged over the other. This is a tension which I have also encountered within my own ethnographic fieldwork among young gay men in Tokyo’s “gay town” of Shinjuku Ni-chome.

In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Language and Sexuality, I explore how “cuteness” (kawaii) and “freshness/hunkiness” (sawayakasa) are juxtaposed on a Japanese gay dating site in order to present identities. I argue through my analysis that “cuteness” is linked with “effeminacy” and “hunkiness” is linked to “manliness,” and that “manliness” is ultimately privileged among users of the dating site as normatively desirable. This is a tension within much Japanese gay cultural production, and will form an important theme that I will explore in the monograph emerging out of my PhD and postdoctorate fieldwork.

In this post, I would like to share an extended excerpt from an interview I conducted with one of my principal informants, a young gay man named Haruma (this is a pseudonym). Within his narrative we can see a similar tension between a stylistic definition of kawaii and an affective one (based in feelings). Ultimately, Haruma argued that whilst most gay men in Japan may view kawaii as “effeminate,” he doesn’t feel that way. There is some ambiguity, however, in his feelings about this and the role which media play in contouring his understandings of being/feeling kawaii. I present the extract with minimal commentary and invite interested readers to respond below.

Interview with Haruma concerning kawaii (October, 2013)

T: As a gay man, how would you define kawaii (cute)?


H: Hmmm, let me think … (pauses to think) being asked to define kawaii, I mean it’s not something that I can define very easily. Maybe that is the definition, “something which is difficult to define” (laughs). But I can tell you what other [gay men] think about kawaii. They will tell you that being kawaii is effeminate (onnarashii), that it’s “being like a woman” (onnappoi) or that it’s “not manly” (otokorashikunai). Others will define it as the opposite to the ikanimo-kei,[1] and other people will say that maybe being kawaii is “not very straight-acting” (totemo nonkerashikunai). Maybe someone will say that it’s “androgynous” (chūseikan) and others might even say “oh, that’s someone who is a bottom (neko)” or something like that —


T: [Interjects] — and what about the media?


H: (pauses) … um yes, media … I think these [ideas] are the kinds of responses that gay media program [into Japanese gay men]. But still, this doesn’t give you too much of an idea about what kawaii actually is, it just tells you what people expect kawaii to be. I think that being kawaii is a very personal experience (kojinteki na keiken). It’s certainly true that as someone who feels kawaii I have a “salty face” (shiogao)[2] … as they used to say a few years ago (laughs). But kawaii is a style which emphasises softness (yawarakasa) but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily “girly” (shōjo). Maybe gay guys don’t think kawaii is “manly” because they feel it feeds into the common-sense idea that all gay guys are “camp” (onēppoi) … but I feel manly and I’m also kawaii and I really like other kawaii guys (laughs)! This is an unpopular opinion, but this is the best I can do for a definition. I feel kawaii and I feel manly… (pauses to think) but this is not a typical response, most [gay men] would say that being kawaii and manly are mutually exclusive. Ultimately being kawaii is just how you feel, but that feeling is influenced by the media we read and that media doesn’t share my opinion! So yes… that’s what kawaii means to me (laughs)!


T: So “that thing called kawaii” (kawaii to iu koto) is very personal (kojinteki)? Does this mean it’s more something you feel?


H: I don’t think feeling is the right word, because there is also like fashion and style and stuff like that —


T: — but you did say that you “feel kawaii” before (laughs)?


H: — oh right, yes, I guess I did (laughs)! So … yeah I feel kawaii, but that feeling is programmed, like I said before also. I respond to things which are kawaii or maybe “packaged” as kawaii in the media —


T: — do you mean gay media?


H: (thinks)… not really. I mean, you have kawaii-kei (Cute Type) as a genre of gay porn but I think maybe the ideas we have about kawaii come from like shōjo manga … (pauses to think and drink some coffee) … so yeah, this is why it’s hard to define because I feel manly, but I don’t want to define kawaii as a feeling (kanji) (laugh)! I said it’s not “girly” but then I say that it comes from shōjo manga! I mean, I am sōshoku-kei[3] as I told you so this makes me feel like there is a manly part to it as well … and when other gay guys deny that, like Akito[4] did, it is a big problem!

[1] The “Obviously Gay Type” which is based in heteronormative notions of masculinity, as I discuss here.

[2] Within young women’s popular culture, a trend emerged where men’s faces were categorised according to various condiments. A shio-gao was one of the faces understood as kawaii. You can read more about this classification system here.

[3] Haruma is referring to the “herbivorous boy” idea which emerged in the early 2000s. During fieldwork, Haruma emphasized his identification with this sub-culture. You can read more about herbivorous boys here.

[4] Akito is Haruma’s ex-boyfriend. They broke up because Akito felt that Haruma was not manly enough and this caused Haruma a lot of emotional stress.

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