Anime and Japan’s culture of “cuteness”

Something that’s always fascinated me since I’ve been able to follow Japan’s anime fandom in real time thanks to the advancement of the Internet, is the proliferation of “cuteness” in the country – not just in all genres of anime, but in real life Japanese society as well. And what’s even more interesting to me is how this acceptance of cuteness can’t help but carry on to American anime fans…

I discussed Japan’s culture of cuteness briefly in my defense of moe post that I wrote many months ago. To quickly summarize, I mentioned that one reason for the popularity of “moe” characters in anime is simply Japan’s overall acceptance of cuteness for all ages and genders.

The above photo is of a typical Japanese bus ticket. To an American, the cute little bus character would probably make them think it’s a ticket for kids. Certainly they wouldn’t think an adult man should have a bus ticket like that. But while having such a ticket would probably be embarrassing for a typical American man, it’s the norm for Japanese men.

The photo above is another example. To an American, the cute cartoon-style bunnies would mean something for kids. But no, this is just a run-of-the-mill road construction site in Japan.

Even Japanese singers and actresses are more often marketed as “cute” rather than “sexy” or “beautiful.” They may purposely use a high-pitched voice and childish mannerisms to appear as such. To an American, this seems strange and almost demeaning, but such traits are desirable in Japanese society. In fact, calling someone “cute” in Japanese, especially a girl, is practically like calling them “attractive,” “beautiful,” or even “sexy.”

While cuteness is considered a strictly childish or feminine thing in American society, that’s not the case in Japan. As these and other examples show, it’s mainstreamed in society in some form or other for men, women, and children. Of course cute things are more common for children and teenagers, but a Japanese businessman in his 40s wouldn’t feel any qualms about having a cute little bus character on his ticket, or being served in a restaurant by a waitress purposely acting “cutesy,” while an American man probably would. As for why cuteness has become so common in Japan – from what I’ve learned about the country’s history and culture, I think much of it has to do with Japan’s embracing of peace and harmony after it was stricken of its military power after World War II. The emphasis on peace going on in the country during his time fostered things that resembled peace – beauty and cuteness (which can be equated with innocence and harmony). Still a very peaceful country to this day, with ideals of politeness and respect permeating society, something unoffensive like cuteness continues to hold appeal.

So…since cuteness is widespread in real life Japanese society, it’s only natural that it’s a staple theme of anime (which is mostly targeted towards kids and young adults anyway). With the hundreds of cute “moe” girls and bubbly animal mascot characters, cuteness can be found in many forms in all genres of anime.

Macross Frontier is ultimately an action/sci-fi series targeted towards mecha fan boys who love the high-tech atmosphere and “robots versus aliens” battles. But even with such a masculine sounding show targeted at male viewers, cuteness abounds with one of the main characters, Ranka. Is she out of place in such a show? For anime, no. But if this was an American-made sci-fi show, probably yes. An American seeing a Macross F product with Ranka on it would probably think it’s a show for little girls, while a Japanese person might not jump to that conclusion.

The prime moe anime, K-ON, has actually won the hearts of a wider audience in Japan outside of hardcore otaku. Again, cuteness in Japan is considered an acceptable form of entertainment for all ages, and K-ON’s popularity outside otaku fandom can attest to that. Of course there are a handful of very serious, adult-aimed anime that are devoid of cuteness, but for the most part it’s something that can be found in all genres.

So, with anime’s growing popularity in America, especially among American males, I wonder if it’s helping to develop a new mentality for them that says “it’s alright for guys to like cute things rather than strictly masculine things.” I’d like to think that anime, with its many ways of depicting cuteness, beauty, and emotions, is promoting the idea that guys in America don’t have to feel weird or embarrassed for enjoying shows like K-ON and Clannad over more masculine things. In America, cuteness has always been considered something that only kids and girls should like. But I wonder if being into anime is changing this idea for male fans. Will a time ever come where a guy can laugh at K-ON and cry at Clannad without being called “gay,” “wussy,” or any other disrespectful term by those outside the fandom? I doubt the majority of American men will ever find it normal for one of them to enjoy slice-of-life anime over sports and action movies, but I want to believe that the ones who like anime have come to grips with the idea that it’s okay for guys to like cute, at least among their fellow fans ;)

20 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. Tsukaima says:

    I’ve had to deal with this a bit myself. I’m in my 30s, single, anime fan, very male and very straight. However, I feel all the time I have to hide “cute” things. There is no way, for example, that I could go out in public wearing a t-shirt with some of my favorite anime characters or scenes printed on it. I have to “censor” the wallpaper on my phone of cuteness. I had an animated phone wallpaper that was just falling cherry blossoms, and someone commented how that wasn’t very manly.

    So…. what *should* I do as an American male? Put pictures of chainsaw massacres on my phone? I think that’s pathetic – but it would be more acceptable, apparently, than beautiful cherry blossoms falling. And god forbid I put moe girls, why that would make me some sicko perv by American standards. No boys either, that would make me the same thing! No animal mascots either, that would be too “cute”…

    But cuteness really is infectious because it is *so damned cute*… it’s better for you than the ugliness that pervades so much of our culture, and it leaves you HAPPY. Is that so wrong? But, as an American male Japanophile, you end up in the closet for fear that others will confuse you with someone/something less than socially acceptable.

    • Yumeka says:

      That’s a shame that you’re even criticized for liking “beautiful” things like cherry blossoms in addition to cute things. The lack of appreciation for (non-sexual) beauty in this country is really sad -_- If guys don’t like macho and manly things, they have to feel like outcasts, and that’s just not right. We appear to be a very openly accepting people in terms of race and religion, but we also have very strict ideas of what things are masculine and what things are feminine. But it’s easier for girls to openly like boy things than for boys to openly like girl things. Is male peer pressure simply more intense?

      Being a girl, I don’t feel too embarrassed having cute anime characters as key chains and such. But it really depends on who I’m around. When I’m anonymous out in public, I don’t mind wearing anime T-shirts, but I wouldn’t advertise my anime hobby at work or in other uptight situations.

    • Skorpigeist says:

      I think the wall paper choice you made sounds beautiful, but I don’t mind the cute things… If people don’t like it, they don’t have to look at your phone… but I digress.

  2. I think one of the other things that’s interesting to ponder is what brought “outsiders” into this “culture of cuteness” in the first place, other than just having had been exposed to it through anime.

    I mean, I know for me, I grew up spending more time with girls than with guys my age, so I probably spent more time with stuffed animals and “playing house” than I ever spent playing sports. I was also interested in sci-fi and video games, so the path formed that way as well (led me into webcomics, which led me more directly into anime…). I suppose it also helped that my parents were pretty open-minded, and would basically let us pursue whatever interests/hobbies we wanted as long as we were staying out of trouble. Growing up I watched a fair bit of cartoons, but probably the first anime that introduced me to the concept of “cute” were Sailor Moon and later Cardcaptors (the heavily-edited North American TV version of Card Captor Sakura), though at the time I didn’t know that much about anime on its own. Eventually I realized that, even in real life, the girls I was most attracted to were more “cute” than “sexy”… so somehow, it all just clicked with me. Even though it’s very “counter-cultural” where I’m from, the whole “culture of cuteness” always seemed natural to me — sort of like I was finding others “of my kind”. That isn’t to say that I don’t still enjoy a good sci-fi/action movie, and every once in a while there are some sports I can at least enjoy watching, but on the whole “anime culture” is more appealing to my tastes.

    So anyway, even though I can sort of retrace it, I still find it a bit interesting how I ended up here. Partly personality, partly interests, partly what I was exposed to growing up, and so on. In a way it’s sort of hard for me to imagine being “born into” this sort of culture given that I stumbled into it very much as an outsider. I almost wonder, if I had been born in the culture, if I’d even have the same interest in it. It’s hard to say… But yeah, as Tsukaima said above, as it stands, we sort of have to live in hiding because it’s just too much to expect others to understand. Even my sisters think my fondness for cuteness and romance is odd and somewhat unfitting for a guy, though they accept me anyway (my mother thinks that anime figurines are cute, though — she keeps wanted me to lend her some to keep at her house ^^; ).

    Anyway, interesting topic as usual. In the end, life’s too short to worry that much about what other people think. :)

    • Yumeka says:

      I was actually into both boy and girl things when I was younger. I liked stuffed animals and Littlest Pet Shop but I also liked Transformers and Attack Pack toys XD I had a couple of male friends in elementary school but everyone liked the same things back then and there was virtually no peer pressure until middle school. When one of my male friends introduced me to Pokemon at that time and I saw that all the girls at my middle school we’re already into the typical girly teenager things – that’s when I realized how different I was, and it’s been the same since =/

      I still continue to love animation in general and other things I liked when I was younger (like video games), so maybe for it’s partly a personality which refuses to part with my inner child XD My interest in animation as a kid simply matured into a passion for anime when I got older rather than being eliminated all together like most people. But yeah, the phrase “be different and you’ll be lonely” rings true…thankfully however, in this day and age the Internet is allowing us to find other “different” people to share in our unusual hobby, so it’s not as bad as it could be =)

  3. Edward says:

    Very interesting. I knew that World War II gave rise to great anime that have reflected on the war itself, such as Grave of the Fireflies, but cuteness as well? Are there early examples (in the 50′s and 60′s) of moe anime that resulted from World War II? Because I haven’t seen the moe trend rise until just the past decade or two.

    Otherwise, I find it interesting how Japan has taken “cuteness sells” to a whole new level, and for the better. Here’s another great example of cuteness: Pokémon. How else would the franchise be such a big seller (to fans of both genders and numerous countries, no doubt!) if the Pokémon weren’t so cute? It’s another way of saying that cuteness is a human trait that is globally desired and not strictly feminine. Obviously, Japan and America have different social standards on what is considered masculine or feminine, but who knows? I hope that these cultural and social barriers can be broken and anime can earn some more respect in America!

    • Yumeka says:

      If you look at Osamu Tezuka’s style (the guy who practically invented the manga industry in the 1960s), his style is very much “cute,” inspired by Walt Disney actually. The term “moe” didn’t catch on until decades later, but cuteness has always been in anime and manga.

      Yeah, cuteness is definitely a driving factor for Pokemon’s popularity, but I wouldn’t say it’s the only things There’s cute pokemon but also cool ones, scary ones, mysterious ones, funny ones, etc,. In general pokemon are cute but their diverse personalities is what makes them so appealing to such a wide range of people. If someone doesn’t like “cute,” there are plenty of non-cute pokemon to love ^^,,,

      I too hope that anime can help break the social preconceptions that it’s wrong for guys like cute, pretty things. I doubt it can change the majority of people’s minds, but I hope it helps a little =)

  4. Kal says:

    Yeah, that’s definitely one of the more visible cultural differences. And it is one of the things to keep in mind when trying to introduce people to anime. The cuteness and the different sense of humor are what can quickly turn someone off anime if they are not used to it.

    I was lucky though, because I was not brought up with such a strict “toy cars are for boys, dolls are for girls” mentality. I have actually received flowers from girls, and I have a few stuffed animals myself. And I’m male and straight. It’s all just in the way you are brought up.

    So it all depends in the way you are brought up. I have no problem at all with moe anime, but I do understand other people finding it shocking, so I tend to introduce people to anime with the less cute ones like Gundam 00, or Claymore.

    Nice topic, and yeah, I do hope it changes in the future. All this “girls play with dolls and like to cook” comes from ancient past where women were the ones caring for the children and the men out hunting etc. It really does not belong in our era anymore :)

    • Yumeka says:

      Yes, you’re upbringing can be a factor. My mom was very open and let me get interested in anything I wanted (as long as it was nothing immoral or anything). But if she had encouraged me to do only girly things at a young age, then I may have never developed my love for anime.

      I agree that action anime like Gundam and Claymore would be good for introducing Americans to anime, 1) because Americans think cartoons are either comedy or action, and since Japanese humor doesn’t translate well, you should go with action, and 2) the less cuteness the better since Americans already have trouble with guys liking pretty cute things, much less things like moe girls.

      I do believe those strict gender role ideals of the past are changing – it’s becoming more acceptable for women to be independent and men to do what was once women’s chores. And with our generation, I’m seeing more men and women being interested in “different” things like anime rather than what’s typical for their age and gender. We’re still the minority and probably always will be. But at least we don’t have to feel too utterly alone =)

  5. Myna says:

    I like how Japanese people seem to be more open and have bigger soft spots, rather than Americans who seem to be all about invincibility.
    And I think America could possibly embrace that change, but not for a while. But hey, girls do like guys with a sensitive side, right?

    I’m all for cuteness, but I am still unable to enjoy the ‘cute girls doing cute things’ shtick, but that’s probably a sense of taste and preference as well.

    But I think almost every anime/manga has something cute about it…for Deadman Wonderland it would be Shiro, for Air it would be pretty much everything, and it would be Inoue for Bleach.

    The bus ticket and construction bunnies are seriously adorable.

    • Yumeka says:

      Right, it’s not considered “weak” for guys to have a soft spot and accept cuteness and natural beauty in Japan, whereas the typical American dude would be made fun of if he was like that. It’s sad that our society pressures guys to be macho and have very masculine interests (and for women to like them that way). But like I said, the Internet is exposing people to all kinds of things they never even knew about before, thus a chance for people of all ages and genders to develop different “atypical” interests like anime ^^

  6. f0calizer says:

    I think in North America, the line between cuteness and strangeness is drawn when it comes to depictions of human beings, especially if they’re young. Cute animals fine, cute boys/girls not so much: if I have a picture of the Catbus or of Totoro on my desk, people might think it’s a bit silly but still acceptable, but if I had a picture of a catgirl or the K-ON girls that would raise questions of sexual perversion, especially in an adult male like me. On the other hand, a picture of Major Motoko Kusanagi would be slightly more acceptable, since she’s clearly not “cute.” I suppose this stems from the different attitudes towards gender and sexuality in both cultures?

    • Yumeka says:

      That’s a great point. Cute animals are fine because animals are usually thought of as cute in real life anyway. But cute cartoon teenage girls/boys? Americans just can’t wrap their head around the fact that such a thing is anything but creepy and perverted, especially for guys to like.

      Kusanagi would be more acceptable because her design is very “womanly,” which is a trait American guys desire. “Cuteness” and other child-like traits however, are not considered things that guys should find appealing, so if you had a picture of the K-ON girls instead, that would be less acceptable XP

      • I’m going to hop onto this reply, but this is really related to almost all the replies above as well. I think this is really the crux of the matter both in terms of the gender divide and the “weird factor”. There’s already a gender-bias against guys liking cute things even in the more common sense, but when you bring the perception of sexual attraction into the picture (whether that’s even a factor or not), the whole thing really falls apart for most people. I suspect that entire tomes could be (and probably have been) written about this point alone. Someone who had posters of Kusanagi would probably be seen as a bit of a “manchild” for liking cartoons, but someone who had even the slightest of suggestive poster for K-On! or any other “cute” show could be seen as potentially dangerous. That’s the sort of leap people can come to, even when you’re talking about stuff that most anime fans would consider totally normal and innocuous.

        If you consider that all this stems from a culture that has largely embraced “cute” as an attractive trait, then perhaps that is indeed the largest barrier that needs to be breached here. But a lot of the English-speaking anime pundits with public profiles try instead to totally downplay this factor, and shift people’s attention back to the sort of anime that is more socially acceptable to the “average person”. They often choose to mock and marginalize these sorts of shows, which ensures that the sort of cultural shift that’d be needed to change people’s viewpoints will never happen. Perhaps they consider it a battle that can’t be won or isn’t worth fighting (maybe in part because they don’t want to be victimized by this misunderstanding either).

        So anyway, yeah… there really are lots of barriers to acceptance. But I suppose it should be conceded that, even in Japan, not all these shows gain acceptance either. Our sort of anime fandom is a niche anywhere you go, “culture of cuteness” or not.

        • Yumeka says:

          As usual, another great point. When introducing people to anime, I find that most fans do indeed try to shift attention away from “culture of cuteness” shows that the majority of the niche fandom loves, to the more mainstreamed Adult Swim-like shows. I think it’s a good idea to start with such shows that are more universal. Anime like Cowboy Bebop and Naruto are good “first” anime that have many traits American viewers could like. Once this barrier of accepting cartoons as serious entertainment is crossed, then we can move on to increasingly niche titles like moe shows and such. Most American viewers not interested in pursuing anime as a real hobby will not want to go beyond the mainstreamed shows, but I think it’s better to show them what they’d like to see in anime first before going onto the titles with great cultural differences. But again, it depends on the viewer and how open minded they are =)

          Your point about fans themselves being guilty of shifting non-fans perception of anime to the universally appealing shows, like Ghibli and the aforementioned Adult Swim titles, instead of embracing the otaku shows that make up the crux of the fandom, is indeed because they’re afraid of being mocked for liking “cuteness” shows or, if they’re among the anti-moe crowd, they’ve convinced themselves that the only anime worth watching is the intellectually stimulating. But since cuteness is such a huge part of anime and Japanese culture, as I’ve hoped I’ve shown in this post, overcoming this barrier of acceptance of cuteness is, as you’ve said, essential in order for Americans to change their view of anime general.

  7. Inushinde says:

    Eh, I like cute things enough. I have a rather broad definition of cute as well, so that’s not the problem. While I didn’t care for Ranka, she was the perfect level of cute: Somewhat childish appearance balanced with a cheerful and optimistic personality and actual talent to back it up.
    With that said, I don’t like making cuteness a focus of a show. When there’s no conflict and it’s just girls doing cute things *Cough* K-ON *Cough*, it really diminishes the quality. As such, the Yui level of cuteness pisses me off, simply because I don’t see how anybody wouldn’t want to slam her headfirst into a wall to see if that’d increase her intelligence any.

    • Yumeka says:

      Yeah, cuteness at K-ON’s level is an acquired taste. I don’t like K-ON only because it’s cute, but because I enjoy the humor and pretty animation =) Then you have anime like Chi’s Sweet Home which revolves around cuteness even more than K-ON. But again, cuteness has different forms and Chi’s is a different kind than K-ON’s.

      • Inushinde says:

        I actually like Chi’s in that it’s a show that’s not meant to pander to a group of people that previously obsessed over the comparatively intelligent Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, like K-ON was.
        Plus, the legs in K-ON just really freak me out for some reason.

        But hey, a lot of people like it and some don’t, as it is with all things. It’s just one of the few things that I count myself in the ‘don’t’ camp for, and I don’t think less of anybody for liking it.

  8. Tsuki says:

    To be fair, in America there is a growing acceptance of guys that have a “sensitive side”, though it’s still only amongst a vast minority. Because of how American society gives a lot of opportunity to girls, a lot of the “masculine” traits aren’t really deemed as necessary as before. Examples that are very non-anime related would be stuff like stay-home-fathers, and so on.

    However, I think there is an explicit difference between having a “sensitive side”, and liking something that is “cute”. “Japanese” cuteness is considered quite feminine just because of the basic design, bright color usage, and so forth. Perhaps a bit too sugary sweet for American tastes. K-ON would probably be a perfect example.

    In comparison stuff like crying at Clannad, or appreciating complex relationships amongst couples in anime, would probably classify more in the “having a sensitive side”, which I think is more acceptable here in America. Of course, this isn’t limited to anime at all, which is probably why it’s more accepted in general.

  9. Jo says:

    Hi I’ve just stumbled accross wyour blog while researching representations of men and women in popular Japanese culture.

    There are some very valid pro-cute arguments above (or rather, anti anti-cute) and I certainly agree that men shouldn’t be amde to feel embarrased of appreciating beauty/happiuness/harmonya dn all thsoe things ‘cute’ represents.

    Unfortunately I think there is another side to this. The reason why I was put off ‘cute’ in anime was because of the relative abundance of female cuteness to male in terms of their roles and actions. I know there are many male character with cute personalities or appearances but cute females tend to be dependent, subordinate and get rescued a lot. In this case, cuteness isn’t harmless happy youthfulness it’s a reiforcement patriarchy. Anyway this is just another point to consider, I agree with almost everything else that has been said :)

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