Japan's culture of cute

Prince PicklesIn Japan, there is nothing unusual about the most popular boy in school waxing his eyebrows to have defined, pencil thin arches. No one looks sideways at a grown woman in pigtails or a businessman with a snoopy charm dangling from his cell phone. Indeed, the ultimate compliment is to be kawaii, or cute. Thanks to the iconic status of cuteness, a multitude of companies and government agencies capitalise on it by using cuddly cartoon characters to gain mass appeal. Recently, the Japanese military introduced Prince Pickles, an adorable wide-eyed mascot who shakes hands with grateful -- and, of course, cute -- Iraqis, to win public support for the transition to a more active military role. In an ironic twist, it is this same culture of cute that seems to have bred a phobia of that epitome of cuteness: babies. Since the 1970s, the birth rate has dropped significantly in industrialised countries throughout the world. Japan, however, stands alone with the lowest percentage of youth and the highest percentage of elderly. Thus, in February, when the Ministry of Health announced that the birth rate in 2006 was expected to be a measly 1.29 children per woman, up from 1.25 in 2005, this was cause for celebration.  Despite the momentary upturn, the celebration was short-lived. The ministry still predicts that the current population of 127 million will shrink by about 37 million people in less than 50 years. Consequently, the likelihood of maintaining economic growth is dim and it will become impossible to meet the welfare and medical payments needed to support the ever-growing elderly population. Other nations have dealt with their decreased population size by welcoming, or at least turning their head and allowing immigrants. The current foreign population of Japan is about 1 per cent, but to make up for the decline the foreign population would have to reach 30 per cent by 2050. This would be idealistic at best for most nations, but is impossible for a nation which continues to struggle with deep-seated issues of xenophobia. In 1853, Japan emerged from over two and a half centuries of isolation, but this resulted in cries of, “Revere the Emperor, expell the barbarian (that is, the foreigner)” ringing throughout the land. Today, Japan has made remarkable progress in internationalisation and even developed a keen interest in Western culture. Despite this, some Japanese remain suspicious of foreigners residing in Japan, as evidenced by the Foreign Crime File (Gaijin Hanzai Ura File) published in late January. The short book sports a devil-like foreigner with blazing red eyes on its cover and warns of the many dangers of foreigners. While the majority of Japanese do not harbour such feelings of hostility, the climate is still not entirely welcoming to residents of non-Japanese origin.An alternative solution is encouraging the Japanese to have more children. This has also proven difficult, as it is such a personal and complex issue. Hesitancies about having children cannot easily be erased by a tax break or more maternity leave. Perhaps the Ministry of Health should consider creating an adorable and about-to-burst Pregnancy Patty or a bouncing Baby Booty, as current government policies have yielded few results. The failure of past and current initiatives is most visibly demonstrated by the eerie transformation of rural villages into ghost towns. Even in larger towns and cities, more and more schools are closing down because they do not have enough students. Japan’s dwindling population is not due to a cultural fear of babies as I initially -- and absurdly -- suggested. Of course, the Japanese coo and caw over babies as much as any other society. Indeed, it is a universal trait for adults to find babies adorable, as this is an infant’s natural defence mechanism against being abandoned in times of distress. Instead, Japan’s predicament is due to a complex combination of socio-economic and psychological factors. These include the sexual revolution, the introduction of the birth control pill, increased independence for women, long working hours, small living quarters, the lingering effects of economic recession, and the exorbitant costs of having and raising a child.

One of the most controversial reasons advanced is the trend of "parasite singles", or young adults who continue to live with their parents into their 20s and 30s. As their name implies, parasite singles leech on their parents, typically paying no rent and contributing little to household duties. These young people typically work at part-time jobs and then fill in their time with shopping, eating out and, if they are so inclined, partying with friends into the wee hours of the morning. Academics are engaged in an ongoing debate concerning whether parasite singles are the cause or the consequence of Japan’s economic and societal problems.


I imagine the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes, but the result is the same in any case: many young Japanese find lifestyles involving large disposable incomes and little responsibility too enticing to give up. Therefore, they put off marriage and children until much later in life or forgo them completely. Yet, none of these factors are unique to Japan. Even parasite singles exist in other nations, though they operate under different names: in Canada they are Boomerang kids; in France, Tanguy Syndrome; in Germany, Nesthocker; in Italy, Mammone; in England, KIPPERS (kids in parents’ pockets eroding retirement savings) and in the United States, Twixters (between adolescence and adulthood). Why, then, is Japan’s youth population so uniquely low? The cause is not so much a baby-phobia as it is a fear of the sacrifices that accompany babies and children. As a parent, it becomes increasingly difficult to present yourself as cute when you spend your money on diapers instead of on designer clothing. Not only does a parent have less disposable income, but also significantly less time to go to the gym and lose those pregnancy pounds or sympathy weight. There is nothing cute about cellulite. Cuteness is a charming and apt attribute of puppies, babies and children, but it is something that we are intended to mature beyond. Beauty, on the other hand, is something that that we spend our entire lifetimes striving to achieve. While I would not describe most parents who sacrifice their money, time, and appearance for their children as cute, I would certainly describe them as beautiful.  Jennifer Van House Hutcheson is a freelance journalist living and working in Okayama, Japan.   


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