In 2009, following the “cultural icon” classification of manga character Doraemon, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) appointed three young women to serve as ambassadors to speak at cultural events and expos throughout the world. These models turned cultural envoys represent Japan’s lolitas, gyaru, and high school girls, caricatures of their country’s now globally popular kawaii (cute) culture. They are part of the government’s “soft power” push to promote “Cool Japan,” to garner amicable interest in their home country by spreading likeable images of their culture abroad. This photo was taken during the women’s debut to foreign press, where the head of the cultural affairs division of the Foreign Ministry declared, “It’s all about mutual understanding, we want people abroad to know these kind of people exist in Japan and to feel close to them” (Reuters 2009).
Products containing elements of kawaisa (cuteness) have become characteristic of Japanese popular culture globally, making the association of Japanese people with childlike images problematic. Despite being likeable to a certain subset of foreign consumers, cuteness is easily blanketed in Western assumptions and stereotypes, fitting snuggly into preexisting notions of Japan’s inferiority to the West. Japanese critics also believe it is has the effect of infantilizing and feminizing Japan, leaving the world less likely to take the country seriously. Equally at stake is the image of Japanese women, whose consumptive practices helped proliferate the fetishization of cute goods in the 1970s and 80s. Only a deeper inquiry into cute as a cultural practice within Japan reveals how it is not only an act of rebellion (Kinsella 1995), but also a contested site of gender performance (Miller 2004). This is lost to foreign media however, as the debut will follow a long line of “bizarre Japan” reporting on such otaku oddities as hentai (animated pornography), maid cafes and life-sized dolls. The “ambassadors of cute” thus serve as a reminder that the dissemination of images and information from producer to consumer is a complex, overlapping, disjunctive order in a global landscape (Appadurai 1996), and it is this dialogue between flows of ideas, products and imagination that simultaneously promotes the mutual understanding that MOFA seeks, while also maintaining the misunderstandings of centuries past.
One question to ponder: Has the country’s “Cool Japan” promotion helped or hurt foreign support during the current crisis?