Undercover Observer: A Personal Essay

Ayano Fukui  (Aichi Shukutoku University)


        My life started with a cursing spell from my mother in my elementary school days. The spell was strong enough to make me feel that I did not have a place to fit in my life—“You are not kawaii [cute].” Kawaii. To be kawaii is the most important lifelong goal for Japanese girls. In my own childhood, I was forced to have this goal also, but I failed to become kawaii.

        I recall one particular day in my junior high school days when I think of the spell cast by kawaii. My classmates at junior high school called me a freak. I was shy. One day, some girls glanced at me and whispered, “She is gross.” I profoundly wondered, “What makes me ‘gross’ and what is the difference between them and me?” Seconds later, I noticed. They were born kawaii or beautiful and I was not, as my mother had indicated before. Since this very moment of realization, my journey started, in search of proof that I would be fearlessly able to lead a life.


The Cursing Spell of Disney Animated Films

        In my childhood as I recall, I dreamed of a life with a “happy ending.” This might be based on such animated films as Disney’s Cinderella (1950), which my mother had me watch. Parents have their children watch Disney animated films, such as Snow White (1937) Sleeping Beauty (1959) and The Little Mermaid (1989). Although it might be said that Disney is popular worldwide, these Disney stories seem to take on special meaning in Japan, the country of kawaii, where animated characters become models for real girls.As the everlasting popularity of Disneyland in Tokyo proves, Japan is a country with an obsession for Disney.

If I keep on waiting, my prince will show up in front of me and I will live happily ever after with him. In my delusive dream, I waited for him to show up in front of me. However, he did not. From my junior high school experience, I realized that my prince would not show up because I was not born beautiful, and I guessed, no matter how long I waited for him, the dream would not come true. I began to think that the prince in the story of the cinder-girl in the Disney films showed up only because she was too beautiful to miss, and he found her. Something inside of me insisted on waking up, but I was somehow unable to give up all the delusive dreams of my prince. What is he like if he truly exists? Is he cute? I fell back deeply into that delusive dream again.

“Princesses” in fictional stories became traumatic for me. No matter how long I waited for my magical moment of transformation into a beautiful princess, it did not happen. I noticed that Disney princess films were unsuitable for me, since the princesses in these films were born beautiful, and their hearts seemed innocent. They patiently believed in the magical moment of their lives, and waited for it without complaining.

Concerning these princesses, feminist art scholar Midori Wakakuwa has observed:

The picture books, fairy tales, animated films, and even the department store and hotels have kept on selling the dream of ‘princesses’ to young girls and they sell ‘princessy clothes’, and hold ‘how to behave like a princess’ seminars at hotels and sell stationery with the illustrated pictures of fairy-tale-princesses. (Wakakuwa 42-43)

Everywhere in the country, the fairy tale princesses that curse and traumatize me are to be found. I have felt wary of this. Standing outside the kawaii culture as someone who has failed to gain entry, I have grown up wondering if there can be a convincing story about a cynical princess, unlike these Disney princesses who innocently believe in the magic moment.


Waking Up from the Spell

Fortunately, I found a convincing film with a cynical princess. The animated film Anastasia (1997) was created by two animators who had left Disney Studios, and it truly is a story about a cynical princess. The princess has a quarrel with her prince at the beginning of the film. She is fearlessly willing to go for her dream, which is not meeting a prince, but a journey to her past, where she confronts the question of her identity, who she really is. The cynical and fearless princess in Anastasia was impressive since I had been thinking the fictional princess could be innocent only. Watching the film, I had the hunch that “fearlessness,” the keyword of Anastasia, would be the key to my life, also. I started to learn about the independence of women and dreamed of being fearless in my campus life.

I became a feminist. However, in Japan, people are wary of feminists and it is not easy to call myself one. Some people said to me, “Feminism consists of the voices from the born-ugly girls. Born-beautiful ones do not become feminists.” I nevertheless kept on dreaming of being fearless. In contrast, girls around me dreamed of being cute or beautiful.



Japan, a Country of Kawaii Culture

Growing up cynical, I have secretly observed girls with the dream of becoming kawaii, a crucial concept in Japanese culture. Now this word kawaii has been exported, extending the cult of cuteness. I have seen Hollywood actresses wearing Hello Kitty T-shirts on television. Hello Kitty, Disney characters (absorbed into indigenous kawaii culture), and Japanese cultural production, such as shojo-manga, Japanese TV series and some Japanese pop [J-pop] songs represent Japanese kawaii culture.  Some would find them harmlessly adorable, but I find them “coquettish” and cynically smirk when I see them. One of the reflections of kawaii culture, “Hello Kitty,” the character with a red big ribbon in her ear looks funny to me, since the character does not have a mouth and it might metaphorically represent a cursing spell for Japanese girls: girls need to stay silent, they must not be talkative if they want to be cute.

According to the research by psychologist Rika Kayama, kawaii culture started in the Meiji Era and is now viewed as “traditional”:

Until Japanese girls married, they had ‘empty’ times, [...] and they were not allowed to have a boyfriend, or become educated while waiting to be married. They were forced to stay pure and they had knowledge of daily life only. […] [T]hey were prohibited from reading anything literal or philosophical. They were only allowed to enjoy color illustrations of young girls, color pictures of them, and make paper dolls of young girls. (Kayama 84)

Coloring pictures and making paper dolls of young girls in the Meiji-Taisho Eras were the beginning of Japanese shojo [girl]-culture, and these were also the beginnings of kawaii culture.

Kawaii culture has now been set in the genes of Japanese girls. Most Japanese women might have had a childhood surrounded by stuffed animals at home, watching Disney Princess stories on video and holding a big stuffed Hello Kitty doll in their arms. They dream about visiting Disneyland in Tokyo. When they become a mother, they will show Disney animated films about princesses to their daughters and buy them stuffed Hello Kitty dolls and take them to Disneyland in Tokyo. Automatically, the cursing kawaii culture will enter Japanese girls’ lives.  It is this replication of a destiny script that concerns me most about kawaii culture and the widespread expectations that it passes on from one generation to the next, from mother to daughter.



Kawaii e-mail

For several years, the most difficult thing for me to endure in terms of gender awareness is the reflection of kawaii culture in e-mail. Most girls I know like to use “emoticons,” called kao-moji in Japanese, and “girly” e-mail, in which facial expressions, such as  (*_*) [puzzled] or (^o^) [joyful] are used at the end of the sentences, instead of periods. Besides these emoticons, recently colorful icons called e-moji, in which the punctuation marks “!” and “?” are colored, and deco-me-i-ru, where the entire e-mail is decorative and colored are all functions found on Japanese cellular phones. With these emoticons and colorful icons, young women users are able to show how “pretty” their writings are. To me, this phenomenon in e-mail looks funny, considering there have been women such as Virginia Woolf who insisted on the importance of writing as the key to a woman’s independence. In contrast to Woolf’s association of women’s ambition with writing, Japanese girls use writing to elaborate a virtual kawaii self. As I carefully look at both wanna-be-kawaii girls and kawaii merchandise, I find this coquettish cuteness linked with appearing helpless or dependent.

Irish writer Mary Morrissy has called coquettish women “calculatingly female” (Mother of Pearl 254). When I apply this term to the Japanese cultural context, I begin to wonder if Japanese girls who are obsessed with kawaisa [cuteness] are “calculating” something. I am unsure of what they, their kawaii selves long for – aside from a handsome prince.

Kayama’s analysis concludes that Japanese women, who once tried to be independent, will compromise and grow tired of seeking independence since the country does not offer them a comfortable social system to do so. They will negatively feel, as Kayama puts it, “No matter how hard I try, with my black outfits which represents independence, that it will not work out, after all. Therefore, it is better to compromise myself with the kawaii stuff (Kayama 91).” The social atmosphere in Japan arguably forces women into kawaii culture. Sometimes I feel paralyzed when I reflect on the overwhelming social and economic power that maintains kawaii culture. I wonder how I can possibly deal with this cursing issue. No matter how hard I struggle with it, the existence of kawaii culture is not movable and I might be pushed into this culture one day.


Kawaii Boys and My Coincidental Walk to Them

I have been presenting kawaii culture as constructing girls’ identities, but it also constructs boys’ identities, as well, and is in the popularity of kawaii boys in the field of J-pop songs and Japanese TV series.

My young brother is a big fan of these kawaii boys, especially the boys from Johnny’s Entertainment Inc, the agency of cute-boy singers and actors for Japanese pop culture. The kawaii boys from this agency are called “Johnny’s boys” and they sing, dance, do back-flips, and perform as actors. Psychologist Chikako Ogura has defined the popularity of boys from Johnny’s Entertainment Inc, as “the greatest invention in Japanese television show business since World War II. Boys from Johnny’s Entertainment Inc are judged by their look in the same way as Japanese girls are judged by boys” (The Weekly Asahi 131). It might be thought that teenager girls only would be obsessed with these kawaii boys, but I would like to show how a very predictable story might shift its priorities.

My brother told me to watch a TV series, Nobuta wo Produce (2005), starring two kawaii boys from Johnny’s Entertainment, and I found a show that could be reviewed in terms of gender awareness. In the story, two kawaii boys [Kazuya Kamenashi and Tomohisa Yamashita] change a girl [Maki Horikita] who suffers from bullying into the most popular girl at high school—that is, it’s a Cinderella story. The two boys as Cinderella’s “fairy godmother” try to make the girl Cinderella at the beginning of the story. While I was watching the first few episodes of this TV series, I was not attracted. As I mentioned earlier, Cinderella stories have been traumatic for me. In my obsessive prejudice, Cinderella stories are always gorgeous and have the same plot – magic and destiny lead her to her prince.  However, as I kept on watching the TV series with my brother’s high recommendation, the plot of the TV series seemed to become different. It started to focus on friendship between the two kawaii boys and the cinder-girl. Also, I noticed that the cinder-girl in Nobuta wo Produce was neither “calculatingly female” nor coquettish to boys. To me, it was surprising to know a Cinderella story could be translated into a story about friendship and it became the moment that melted my rigid prejudice against Cinderella stories.

        This begins my negotiation rather than my utter rejection of kawaii culture. Minako Saitou, who writes essays on Japanese literature, culture and feminism explains how a cynical gaze can transform everything you see:

Once you have your ‘eyes of doubt,’ you will notice that the school, the company, your home, media, the whole world is full of the norms of distinction in terms of gender studies. (Gender ga Wakaru 174)

It has been difficult to accept what surrounds me when I view them from the critical perspective of gender studies. I have become stubborn and smirked at Japanese pop culture and it seemed difficult to find something interesting in Japanese pop cultural productions. However, I have again found my stubborn self nudged, not by a show, but a song.


Beyond Gender Awareness: the New Journey to Myself

My current favorite song is “Seishun Amigo,” the theme song of Nobuta wo Produce. The performers of this song are the two kawaii boys from the TV series. The song recorded sales of over one million copies and became the best-selling song last year. I wondered if the sale of “Seishun Amigo” was the very proof of the popularity of kawaii boys.

In the lyrics of “Seishun Amigo,” [Lyrics by zopp, Music by Shushi, Fredrik Hult, Jonas Engstrand, and Ola Larsson] the two kawaii boys sing about friendship, which is a keyword in Nobuta wo Produce. The lyrics of the song have caught the attention of not only girls but all generations. According to an article in The Asahi Shinbun, “when we have our eyes on the title and the lyrics of this song, […] it impressively reminds us of the retro atmosphere which was seen in our old and golden times of pop-songs in Japan,” and it seems that the very reason why the song is broadly popular must be its “retro” lyrics. However, beyond this, I think the background of the popularity of the kawaii boys cannot be ruled out as significant. If they were not performing the song, would it still be popular? The answer to this question seems to be, “No, it would not.”

Chikako Ogura analyzes the reason why this song became popular: “[T]he two Johnny’s boys have the aura of ‘youthfulness’ […] Youthfulness is what girls are afraid to lose” (The Weekly Asahi 131). At the same time, she has written that “Johnny’s boys give ‘transience’ to audience” (Ibid.). They might be associated with sakura [cherry blossom], and the achingly sweet tragedy of the swift passing of beauty. Transience might be seen in Japanese traditional kawaii culture, also, particularly in the propensity for the delicate pink of the cherry blossom. As mentioned earlier, girls in the Meiji-Taisho Eras needed to stay pure and they were not allowed to become educated. Now, whether they go to university or take on jobs, they are still ultimately waiting for their prince. Japanese girls might feel something in common with Johnny’s boys, innocent Disney princess stories and Hello Kitty without a mouth, as their chances to find happeness (princes) are so fleeting.

I have cynically observed the popularity of Johnny’s boys, and yet I find myself profoundly addicted to “Seishun Amigo.” My feminist self complains that I must not listen to this song and asks me the question, “Do you long for the ‘youthfulness’ that the song represents or is it the ‘cuteness’ that the performers of this song represents?” Strictly speaking, feminists would not listen to the songs that are performed by Johnny’s boys, and therefore my fondness for this song is contradictory.

Sometimes I feel suspended between my cynical feminist self and another self of mine. I suppose this more complicated awareness is the reason for my search for a new self. I am leading a life, observing my own self.




Anastasia. Dir. Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. Perf. Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammer and Angela Lansbury. Phoenix: Twentieth Century Fox Animation Studios (USA), 1997.


Television Programs

Nobuta wo Produce. Based on a novel by Gen Shiraiwa. Screenplay by Izumi Kisara.

Dir. Hitoshi Iwamoto. Prod. Mamoru Koizumi, Hidehiro Kohno, and Jun Shimoyama. Perf. Kazuya Kamenashi, Tomohisa Yamashita, and Maki Horikita.

Tokyo: Nippon Television Network Corporation. Japan.

15 October-17 December. 2005.



Morrissy, Mary. Mother of Pearl. New York: Scriber. 1995.







藤崎昭子「青春アミーゴ 売れた背景は」朝日新聞2005127日朝刊 25(文化総合)


Audio Sources

修二と彰「青春アミーゴ」Lyrics by zopp. Music by Shushi, Fredrik Hult, Jonas Engstrand, and Ola Larsson. ジャニーズエンタテイメント、2005



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