Michael Fitzpatrick reports from Tokyo on the mighty clout of Japan's growing cute culture.
Japan's envoy of cute, Hello Kitty, has just turned 35. Her creators are celebrating her metamorphosis from kids' character to global icon of super-cute accessories, worn by everyone from hipsters to film stars.
Like a host of other Japanese exports before her - Pokèmon, sushi, phone mascots, manga and even tattoos - Hello Kitty has been elevated into the mainstream, as the world's youth tap the East for new trends.
Japan has come to excel in exporting its fluffy and sometimes vacuous pop culture. And with an eye on increasingly marketing its cute characters overseas, the country has no shortage of know-how - and a character licence business worth a massive two trillion Yen to draw on. But it is the domestic market that drives the insatiable appetite for twee characters in Japan, which may just come down to the fact that Japanese women hold the purse strings.
Japanese companies now take special care over projecting their cute, or 'kawaii' (pronounced to rhyme with Hawaii) - image, says Yasuko Nakamura, president of the Tokyo-based marketing company Boom Planning. "Japanese products are made to be 'kawaii' so they are liked by women," he explains. "In Japan, women hold the spending power. Even for things that women don't purchase themselves [here], such as a car, they have a strong say in the final decision."
In the West, too, women took to Japan's cute characters first. Hello Kitty, anime, super-cute fashion (loose socks, cleft-footed shoes, Gothic Lolita clothes), super-mini-cars and cupcake mobile handsets have all been snapped up by an increasingly Japan-obsessed world.
It's all part of our post-punk, post-modern consumerist society, says Momus, the theme song creator for Japan's most achingly cute TV cartoon serial, Chibi Maruko-chan. "We now have a society incapable of disgust, revolt and, some would say, also incapable of any style outside a kind of bland, high street cappuccino culture," he explains. "The way people have bought into Japanese culture is a reflection of this."
"Hello Kitty has been successful because she's a blank character without a story," he continues. "Also, she represents the irresistible idiocy of consumer culture, which is hardwired to our neurological system. We shop with almost the same reflexes that make us stretch out to stroke a big-eyed, fluffy kitten."
Japan has adored Hello Kitty and cute for decades, he argues, because she reflects Japanese values such as agreeableness and harmony. The result is that in Japan, where Kitty-chan has been all but deified and Barbie stands as a peerless role model, people have been consumption-mad since the end of World War Two and therefore slightly off their shopping trolleys. Now, it seems as though it's our turn in the West.
We may have mocked the idea of 'Made in Japan' - which denoted shoddy plastic goods' - back in the 1960s, but ever since the dawn of the Sony Walkman, we've been fixated on Japan. Now, thanks to the Nintendo generation's exposure to manga through cartoons and computer games, and the popularity of films such as Kill Bill, Japanese pop culture has become mainstream outside of the country too.
Our newly developed urge to consume Japan's cultural exports has also helped the nation out of a huge economic hole. "From pop music to consumer electronics, architecture to fashion, and food to art, Japan has far greater cultural influence now than it did in the 1980s, when it was an economic superpower," journalist Douglas McGray wrote in Foreign Policy magazine, where he first coined the phrase "Japan's Gross National Cool". Cute, cool Japanese exports have helped the country back on its fiscal feet. The digital media industry feeds off manga, and provides a steady progression of even cuter images to seduce the consumer.
That a mouthless poppet has become the pin-up for a new, aggressive Japanese pop culture drive is no accident. With it comes Japan's unique cultural take on what adults are allowed to like. And for a long time, that has meant huge dollops of cute for both young and old.
Western culture and ethics may demand that we put away childish things once we reach adulthood, but in Japan, no matter how old you are, it's cool to be seen with 'kawaii' stuff. Now, where Westerners had once cast a cold, weary eye on such honey-dripping trifles, we're captivated too, although it's often in an ironic fashion - something that would be lost in Japan.
In Japan, the fully grown, well educated and cosmopolitan all wield loveable characters on their stationery, clothes and even their business cards. Gadget designers - and indeed designers and illustrators in general - share a similar outlook and are likely to work to the same mantra: keep it small and keep it cute. Just look at the latest batch of clamshell mobile phones, another idea taken from Japan.
The country also makes and needs cute characters partly because its citizens mourn their loss of innocence - "of childhoods stolen from them by the demanding education system," says Tokyo-based fashion consultant Maiko Seki. "Because of this loss, they tend to feel nostalgic about the idea of lost 'purity' or 'innocence' when encountering something cute in their lives, such as characters like Miffy or Hello Kitty."
With the appeal of cuteness and Japan's design style gaining universal acceptance, the country now challenges the global supremacy of American and European popular culture. The vast creative talent available here is honing its skills as cute manga characters increasingly rule the world.
Many Japanese artists are male and of the 'otaku' (anorak) variety, such as self-confessed geek Radical Suzuki, who produces delightfully impish illustrations for magazines, adverts and book covers. His designs have even appeared on the occasional condom packet.
His cute-meets-sexy approach is arguably the most popular style right now in Japan, where 'gyaru' (gal) culture has caught the imagination - think cabaret girls dressing like dolls in the daytime while chatting up customers at night. In Shinto Japan, sex and cuteness can mean the same thing.
Women's magazines are one of Radical Suzuki's biggest clients. "You have to understand our undeveloped personalities here," he says. "We devour manga and anime as children to an almost insane level. When we mature physically, we cannot let go of our physical obsessions. 'Kawaii' is absolutely essential to us, so we can endure the tough facts of life. Growth is demanded from us in society, but in reality we all stay childlike."
So characters are not just cute in Japan, they are essential. It's no wonder that professional character designers are in high demand here. One of the country's most prolific creative character talents is Hiroshi Yoshii, who has a whole stable of imaginative 3D characters. Starting out as an illustrator for magazines and books, he has now moved on to character design and animation, and is even selling small quantities of 'art toys' as a fine artist.
Yoshii's work falls into what the Japanese call the 'kimi-kawaii' - cute but scary - look, and he's in big demand for client work varying from 2D covers for Amazon to work for Docomo, Japan's biggest mobile operator, for whom he has created a mascot character that's a cross between a butler and a ram.
Like many Japanese people, Yoshii is a workaholic, creating at least one character each day and posting his new creations on his own blog, The Daily Work, after much digital labouring. "I've created over 2,000 since 1999," he says.
One of the most remarkable consequences of working in a society saturated with sweet-looking images is that some creators see them as the norm - to their minds, they may not even fall into the cute category.
A prime example of this is the hugely popular, character-based software, PostPet, which allows users to rear virtual pets that deliver emails on their behalf - soon it will also animate Twitter messages. In an ironic twist that seems lost on most Japanese people, its creator, Kazuhiko Hachiya, was once an underground activist more famous for some rather peculiar art happenings than for cuddly bears. Sony is relying on the animated services of Momo, a pink teddy bear, and seven other PostPet companions, in a bid to make the internet and email more user-friendly and increase email traffic. Spin-offs include merchandising and sponsorship programs.
"Though the characters in PostPet seem to be cute for European people, I had no intention of making them cute," Hachiya says. "I designed them to be rather expressionless. In Japan, there are lots of other 'cute' characters, such as Hello Kitty. I don't feel PostPet belongs there."
So, just as Japan's manga style has been adopted readily by the West, we may find that cute motifs are increasingly creeping into our creative industries and, just like the Japanese, stop seeing these characters as merely being cute. After all, Super Mario is now more readily recognised by American children than Mickey Mouse. Japan subtly influences the way in which we see the world - so be prepared to be softened up further as the world says: goodbye Nike, Hello Kitty.