Why is kawaii so popular in the West?

Angela Chen wrote about the popularity of cute culture from Japan, known affectionately as “kawaii”. The main focus of the article was Hello Kitty, with its global popularity a source of contention from some who thought it “infantilized” the country:

The widespread Japanese embrace of cute has always been self-aware and political, according to Yano. Icons like Hello Kitty were always intended to be global and the Sanrio’s founder even said that it was meant to be “the Japanese cat that overtook the American mouse.” The attitude toward kawaii has, of course, at times been mixed. Op-eds and critics have suggested that it infantilizes the country, calling Hello Kitty a potential embarrassment abroad, linking Japan too closely to kitsch.

The aggressive development of this aesthetic was not fully organic, but in fact developed with a “global wink,” as part of Japan’s plan to build cultural cachet overseas. Being associated with coolness and youth, especially globally, brings a lot of power—just ask any of the social-media sites desperate not to lose their teen users.

The fact that Japan has a cartoon culture ambassador (hi, Doraemon!) is cool to me. It’s not for everyone as many people see cultural icons such as Hello Kitty and Pokémon as “stuff for kids” but these phenomena have bypassed generational boundaries. Have the Looney Tunes made the USA look childish (it’d probably have to get in a long proverbial queue if it did)? Is Peppa Pig an embarrassment to the UK (same sentiment as before applies)? These cultural moves from Japan may be laced with capitalist ideals but they’re no worse than any other Western country doing the same. Keep it cute and keep it moving.

An interview with 'Women of Colour in Japan' director, Amarachi Nwosu

Women of Color in Japan Documentary | Women Navigating Life and Culture in Tokyo through Creativity

For Tokyo Weekender, Cezary Jan Strusiewicz interviewed Amarachi Nwosu, the director of ‘Women of Colour in Japan’ and two of the documentary’s co-stars, Uzochi Okoronkwo and Ameya:

Women of Color in Japan focuses on three people. There’s Ameya, a Japan-born filmmaker, photographer, writer and co-founder of the visual media collective Ikix Studio. Uzochi Okoronkwo is a Nigerian-American stylist and owner of the vintage online boutique KO Vintage. And then, there’s Tiffany Cadillac, a Tokyo-born DJ, singer and producer of Japanese and Jamaican descent. We talked with Ameya, Nwosu and Okoronkwo about their lives in Japan as women of color and about how their work, vision and their very existence can help to spread awareness of the ever changing fabric of Japanese society.

It’s a good interview with interesting insights from all three covering everything from the treatment of women of colour in Japan to the collective struggles of WoC and Japanese women within the country:

9. Do you think non-Japanese WOC should be involved in the struggles of Japanese women?

Ameya: I think WOC in general should be allies to other minorities in this country. Whether that is Japanese women, LGBT, or less-able-bodied people, etc. None of us are free until we are all free. If we work to support each other, then we can create changes on a national and perhaps international level.

Related to Japanese women and PoCs in Japan: A blog post about Japanese geishas and kimonos, Seitō – a 1911 Japanese magazine exclusively for women, and Living While Black, in Japan

MSG (monosodium glutamate) as the 'sixth taste'

Daniel Soar wrote about the origins and racist vilification of monosodium glutamate (MSG), an umami-rich flavour additive created by Ajinomoto Co., Japan’s biggest producer of condiments and seasonings. It grew in popularity for the first half of the 20th century but that success came crashing down thanks to a medical journal article:

In 1968 the New England Journal of Medicine published a letter from Robert Ho Man Kwok of the US National Biomedical Research Foundation. ‘For several years since I have been in this country,’ he wrote, ‘I have experienced a strange syndrome whenever I have eaten out in a Chinese restaurant.’ Fifteen minutes or so after finishing a meal he would experience a range of unpleasant symptoms: ‘numbness in the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness, and palpitation’. Kwok narrowed down the cause to the MSG so popular in the Chinese eateries now spreading across America. The journal began referring to the effect as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, and reports from sufferers abounded. The following year John Olney of Washington University set out to confirm these findings under laboratory conditions. His experiment involved injecting newborn mice with monosodium glutamate, and the results were alarming: the effects on the mice culminated in acute neural necrosis – aka brain damage. A few biochemists questioned Olney’s methodology and conclusions: unlike his mice, people tended to eat glutamate rather than inject themselves with it; human infants, unlike infant mice, have an effective blood-brain barrier that prevents ingested glutamate from reaching the brain; and the doses Olney applied were big enough to floor a horse. But amid the roar of noise about the dangers of eating Chinese food these dissenting voices were barely heard.

Classic case of culinary racism, right? Well, yes but that wasn’t where the story ended. I won’t spoil the plot twist—and it’s a doozy—but I will say it doesn’t detract from how powerful the West can be when it comes to tearing down cultures outside their own.

Anyway, enjoy your MSG unless it has been absolutely proven to make you ill (somehow), in which case that has nothing to do with Far East Asian cuisine. Speaking of which, here are some articles about food and drink from Japan, China, and beyond you might be interested in:

Hasekura Tsunenaga: the samurai who became a Roman citizen

Open Culture delved into the history of Hasekura Tsunenaga, a 17th century samurai who had an incredible life of travelling which included meeting Pope Paul V:

Sent on a mission to Europe and America by his feudal lord, Date Masumune, Hasekura “set off on a quest to earn riches and spiritual guidance,” Andrew Milne writes at All that’s Interesting. “He circumnavigated the globe, became part of the first Japanese group in Cuba, met the Pope, helped begin a branch of Japanese settlers in Spain (still thriving today), and even became a Roman citizen.”

Hasekura was a battle-tested samurai who had acted on the daimyo‘s behalf on many occasions. His mission to the West, however, was first and foremost a chance to redeem his honor and save his life. In 1612, Hasekura’s father was made to commit seppuku after an indictment for corruption. Stripped of lands and title, Hasekura could only avoid the same fate by going West, and so he did, just a few years before the period of sakoku, or national isolation, began in Japan. Traveling with Spanish missionary Luis Sotelo, Hasekura embarked from the small Japanese port of Tsukinoura in 1613 and first reached Cape Mendocino in California, then part of New Spain.

He went on to convert to Catholicism and became Philip Francis Faxecura.

Samurai related: A samurai made out of a single piece of paper, Indo apples, samurai, and Japanese farmers, Yasuke, the African samurai, and Samurai Pizza Cats.

A blog post about Japanese geishas and kimonos

I found these articles in October and thought I’d share them.

The first one, from Vogue, is an interview with a Japanese kimono culture expert and she shares her beauty and wellness secrets some of which had been followed by “Geishas and Japanese women over 100 years ago”:

On her detailed skincare routine

“In the morning, firstly, I wipe my face with cotton soaked in plenty of rose water. Secondly I apply a serum, toner, and the Kyoto Secrets’ Beni Balm on the lip, around the eyes and smile lines to reduce the appearance of fine wrinkles. Lastly, I apply an oil and sunscreen. At night, when I wash my face with fluffy soap foam, I use a silk puff to gently caress the foam away. Fine Japanese silk helps to smooth the skin. From the aristocrats of 1100 years ago to the Geishas of 100 years ago, it is understandable that they used to wash their faces with silk cloth to keep their smooth fair skin. Other than sunscreen, it’s almost the same routine as in the morning but I put on a face mask regularly. The neck and the backs of the hands show our age easily, so I take the same care of my face. I use a silk puff to cleanse my body and slather body lotion all over.”

On home remedies

“I apply Sakekasu (white liquor solids produced during the process of making Sake) that is used to make a face mask. The hands of Sake craftsmen, even men in their sixties, are white and beautiful, and many of them look like women in their twenties! Kyoto is the best place in Japan to make Sake, so we can get a lot of good quality Sakekasu. Women in Kyoto have been using face masks with Sakekasu for a long time, which makes their skin look moist.

For my hair mask, I use a mixture of eggs, coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, honey, etc., depending on the conditions at the time. Especially for the special hairstyles I do for Kimono, I use more oil or spray than usual. Applying this hair pack before shampooing my hair will loosen up the hardened hair smoothly.”

The second one looks at the “Niigata Geigi”, a group of geishas from Furumachi in Niigata City, far from the more commonly known region of geishas (Kyoto):

Niigata’s geisha tradition dates back more than 200 years to the Edo era (1603-1867) when the city was a major port on the Kitamaebune (literally, “north-bound ships”) shipping route that connected Osaka with Hokkaido. Thousands of cargo vessels made this journey each year. As the capital of Japan’s largest rice producing area, Niigata became the busiest port on the Sea of Japan coast. By the early Meiji Era (1868-1912), Niigata was among the wealthiest, most populous parts of the nation.

A thriving entertainment district grew up in the Furumachi neighbourhoood of the city to cater for the countless wealthy merchants and other visitors. Geishas (or geigis, in the local dialect) began performing at Furumachi’s many teahouses, ozashiki (banqueting halls) and ryotei (luxury restaurants). Politicians and even members of the Imperial family figured among the clientele. By 1884, nearly 400 geigis were performing in Furumachi.

Related to kimonos and Japanese female culture: Chiso is a 466-year old Japanese kimono house and Seitō, a 1911 Japanese magazine exclusively for women.

Living While Black, in Japan

Living While Black, In Japan | All Things Considered | NPR

“Living While Black, in Japan” is a film by photojournalist and filmmaker team Keith Bedford and Shiho Fukada. They are both married and moved to Japan three years ago. Fukada was born in Japan and missed her family while living in New York where she met Bedford.

Bedford is African American. He says he likes living in Japan but there is a sense of being an outsider or a sense of being the other. He says this is a lot of what Fukada went through living in America.

They discussed moving back to America but then the George Floyd killing happened.

Fukada said she worried that something like this could happen to Bedford or her son. And she wanted to learn how others in the Black American community in Japan felt about it. This film touches on what it’s like living abroad for a group of Black Americans in Japan.

The film features interviews with men and women discussing how racism and encounters with police in the US, contributed to their decision to leave.

Blackness and Japan related: Yasuke, an African samurai in Japan and the Black polyglot who speaks Japanese, Mandarin, and Arabic

(via NPR)

The African origins of Yasuke's name

I covered Yasuke, an African samurai in feudal Japan in 2019 (I honestly thought it was in 2020 but I digress). His story was retold by Satoshi Okunishi for a popular* Netflix animated series and Language Log investigated the African etymology of his name via Wikipedia. Apparently, there are a few theories:

  1. He was a member of the Yao people from Malawi, Tanzania, and Mozambique and his name was a portmanteau of Yao and the common Japanese male suffix -suke.
  2. He was a member of the Dinka people from South Sudan due to his height and skin tone, which was a defining characteristic of the Dinka.
  3. He was Ethiopian, according to this theory that suggests his original name might have been the Amharic Yisake or the Portuguese Isaque, derived from Isaac.

Who knows if any of them are correct. The Dinka theory gives me “all Black people look alike” vibes and his appearance was the only match (Adult Dinka men used to have decorative patterns tattooed on their faces and Yasuke apparently didn’t have any.) Nonetheless, etymology is fascinating and none of it takes away from how awesome Yasuke was.

* – Popular on Rotten Tomatoes (93% as of today), not so popular on IMDb (6.2/10) or MyAnimeList (5.8/10)

'Repro Japan' and how Japanese culture has influenced the rest of the world

Lord knows we (the West) have a lot to thank Japan for in terms of pop culture and a new exhibit called ‘Repro Japan: Technologies of Popular Visual Culture‘ pays tribute to that influence. The exhibit is running at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) until 20th March 2022 and features an array of visual artefacts, from woodblock prints to anime cels.

This from Yuchan Kim, writing for The Williams Record:

The first thing I noticed walking into the exhibition is that Repro Japan feels like pieces of Japanese culture stitched together. It’s not organized by timeline, region, or style as you would expect at other exhibitions that survey a particular country’s culture. The two galleries are instead organized by rough groupings of mediums, ranging from textiles and woodblock prints to manga, 3D prints, and cosplay costumes and performances. 

As Kim said in his conclusion, it’s not a cohesive, all-rounded representation of Japanese visual culture (it’s in Massachusetts after all). But you’ve got to start somewhere and if it’s safe to do so and you’re in the area, go check it out.

Found out more on WCMA exhibit page.

The ordered chaos of Yeesookyung's kintsugi sculptures

If you’re familiar with kintsugi, you’ll know how it finds beauty in the broken. Yeesookyung’s kintsugi sculptures, however, try to turn broken chaos into a sense of ceramic order.

Blending ornately patterned vessels with deities and animals, the delicate assemblages meld shards of discarded ceramic into new forms with bulbous sides, halved figures, and drips of metallic epoxy. Utilizing fragments from previous works references the Korean tradition of discarding porcelain with small irregularities, while the visibly repaired crevices draw on Kintsugi techniques, the Japanese art of highlighting the beauty of broken vessels with thick, gold mendings.

Kintsugi related: Alex’s “foodsafe” kintsugi hack and Kintsugi: The Japanese Art of Repairing Pottery with Gold

(via Colossal)

Liam Wong – After Dark

Liam Wong's After Dark book

We’ve featured Liam Wong previously and now he’s back with a new book called “After Dark”.

After Dark is a one-of-a-kind publication documenting Wong’s nocturnal journeys through the world’s most captivating cities. Following his début monograph, TO:KY:OO, which captured Tokyo’s beauty at night, Wong widens his lens from the city that became his spiritual and photographic muse to Osaka to Kyoto, London to Seoul, Paris and Rome. But he goes still further, seeking the rich tapestries of night-life in the foggy historical streets of his hometown Edinburgh, penetrating the backstreets of the megacity Chongqing, seizing the verticality of Hong Kong from its rooftops.

In classic Liam Wong style, the book has been crafted with a meticulous eye for detail. I particularly like the cinematic feel of the shots and the custom typeface, designed by Toshi Omagari exclusively for the book. 

If you love photography or cinematography, you’ll love After Dark. A crowdfunding project was set up by Volume and met its goal within 48 hours. You can still pledge for a copy here.

Toy Galaxy on Samurai Pizza Cats

The Many Controversies of Samurai Pizza Cats: Racism, Gag Dubs & Disney Trying to Kill It!

They’re cats who are also samurai and they like pizza. What’s not to love? Unfortunately, racism and a bunch of other issues stopped Samurai Pizza Cats from being greater than the premise was and Dan Larson tells the story of its history.

If you want to see what all the fuss was about, you can stream it for free on Peacock or Amazon Prime.

Photos of the Bookshelf Theater in the Kadokawa Culture Museum by Ryosuke Kosuge

Japanese photographer Ryosuke Kosuge captured the majesty of The Kadokawa Culture Museum’s Bookshelf Theater – a library with 8m tall bookshelves, containing over 50,000 titles. It’s like a film set or a modern, dizzying interpretation of the Library of Alexandria.

Related: The Instagram account capturing Japanese facades, the captivating neon photography of Liam Wong and the night photography of Junya Watanabe

Fumi Ishino's 'Index of Fillers' chronicles Japanese culture in the 80s and 90s

someone making stir fry in a wok

Index of Fillers is the artist’s second monograph following his acclaimed publication rowing a tetrapod (MACK, 2017) and is the first artist book published by Assembly. Composed of found images of Japanese culture from the late 1980s and 1990s along with Ishino’s own photographs, Index of Fillers is a recreation of the artist’s elusive memory of growing up during this era in Japan.

I like the Japanese comic strip panelling he uses for his images. There’s nothing dramatised or embellished about the subject matter; it’s literally an index of cultural fillers and while that may seem mundane to some, it’ll be refreshing to others.

Buy it on the Assembly Art website.