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 ;)