Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, University of Western Australia
In September 2011, the Japanese television documentary program Jōnetsu tairiku (MBS, 1998–present) aired a story featuring a young fashion model named Kiritani Mirei. The program introduces this “icon of girls’ culture” by using the term yurukawaii or yurukawa, which means cute but in a “relaxed” (or unforced) way. Indeed, yurukawaii is the term with which Kiritani is frequently identified—girlish and perky but not excessively passive, infantile, or sexualized (e.g., Kiritani 2011, 109; Saito 2015). This essay looks at the yurukawaii fashion aesthetic in relation to the cultural construction of women’s fashion and sexuality. Rather than seeing kawaii as a standard that judges and reduces women to vulnerability, submissiveness, and immaturity, yurukawaii—with its emphasis on girlishness and self-control (agency?) rather than sexual objectification—can be defined as a fashion sensibility that sheds a positive light upon our understanding of the disparaged “girlish” look. Kiritani is the epitome of this specific kind of girlish yet autonomous mode of kawaii that can be, even ever so slightly, subversive of stereotyped views of Japanese femininity and cuteness as passive, vulnerable, and sexualized.
Although the concept of kawaii is often translated as “cute,” the application of the word is, however, both broad and complex. As Laura Miller points out, “although literally the word kawaii means ‘cute’ it has a much broader semantic meaning than does the English term ‘cute’” (2011, 24). Likewise, kinds of kawaii can vary from “infantile,” “teen,” “adult,” “sexy,” and “corporate” to even “pornographic” (McVeigh 2000, 135). Kawaii is therefore not only used to describe straightforwardly hyperbolic cuteness but can also combine the elements of cute and seemingly opposing qualities such as grotesque or erotic (e.g., guro-kawaii/kimo-kawaii and ero-kawaii) (Miller 2011, 24). But in simple definitional terms, kawaii refers to an aesthetic that celebrates sweet, adorable, simple, childlike, delicate, and pretty visual, physical, or behavioral qualities (Kinsella 1995, 220). One of the core elements of the kawaii aesthetic is to appreciate “youthfulness,” and one archetype of kawaii fashion is that it is “deliberately designed to make the wearer appear childlike and demure” (ibid., 229). This includes bright-colored clothes for boys and pastel shades with lace for girls (White 1993, 129). The concept of kawaii is applicable to men as much as it is to women (Monden 2015; Koga 2009), though women’s fashion and appearances are where the concept is most conventionally applied.
Women’s fashion styles with contemporary kawaii essences have a history, dating as far back as to around the mid-twentieth century, as evident in the designs of Nakahara Jun’ichi (1913–83). Particularly celebrated for his illustrations and fashion designs in girls’ and young women’s magazines, Nakahara continuously promulgated the sophisticated visual images of elegantly dressed, lady-like young women. His ideal girls are exquisitely dressed, upper-class young ladies with delicately coiffed hair, large eyes, thin waists, and long limbs (Honda 1992, 154–55; Koga 2009, 26). While he designed many clothes, both European style dresses and kimono, Nakahara’s fashion designs are collectively remembered as romantic styles for girls, embellished with ribbons (Heibon-sha 1999, 45), frills, and corolla-like tiered skirts (ibid., 56). Although the concept of kawaii is most prominently ascribed to Japanese culture, these fashion styles often combine some European elements, be they romanticized or realistic. Nakahara has also imposed a notable degree of influence upon Japanese fashion designers. Designers like Hanae Mori, Kenzo Takada, Isao Kaneko, and Keita Maruyama have declared their admiration of—if not influenced by—Nakahara (ibid., 40, 45, 54).
The 1970s is another era that kawaii in fashion culture became visible, particularly via its ties with consumerism (Slade 2017). This is evident in the popularity of the clothing brands such as Hitomi’s Milk (launched 1970), Kaneko’s Pink House (launched 1973), and Yanagikawa Rei’s Shirley Temple (launched 1974), many of which have produced clothes that are eminently romantic and girlish (Monden 2015, 80). Importantly, the birth of the fashion and lifestyle magazine for young women, anan (launched in 1970), along with its follower and competitor non-no (launched in 1971), marked a shift from young women’s main roles as housewives and mothers “towards a focus on women as consumers of fashion and luxury items” (Darling-Wolf 2006, 185). The mid-1970s also saw the vogue of a romantic folklore style among young women, a “Japanized” hippy style that embraced a simple, dreamy aesthetic (Across Editorial Office 1995, 152–53). Even designers known as edgy, such as Kawakubo Rei of Comme des Garçons, designed clothes that were romantic, girlish, and kawaii in this period (Kikuta 2012). Significantly, anan was one of the main advocates of the aforementioned romantic folkloric style (Koga 2009, 49–50). The 1970s was also the time when the Sanrio company created Hello Kitty (1974), which has come to represent, at least partially, the quintessence of both Japanese popular and kawaii cultures (e.g., Yano 2013).
The subculture of Olive in the 1980s and 1990s, and the revival of romantic, floating folkloric dresses of pastel shades around 2010 followed. Olive, a now discontinued subcultural magazine for “romantic” girl culture, in Koga Reiko’s opinion, marks the beginning of kawaii as a mode of fashion in the 1980s (2009, 56). Two of the three main kawaii styles subscribed to by Olive were frill and lace-adorned, “romantic” girlish dresses and a cute “boyish” style with very short hair, embodying the romantic, and almost androgynous, childlike sides of kawaii style respectively (Across Editorial Office 1995, 206).
Olive combined DIY realism and the romantic idealism of shōjo culture—realistic in introducing affordable items for teenagers to purchase in order to create a highly dreamy shōjo-scape governed by laces, ribbons, and other romantic items of pastel shades (Kikuta 2014). Importantly, Yoshimoto Yumi, who did styling for the magazine, mentions the strong influence of Nakahara’s art on her works (Bessatsu Taiyō 1999, 88), thus making a historical link between the early- to mid-twentieth-century shōjo style and our modern kawaii culture. This particular kind of girlish, kawaii fashion style still continues in the twenty-first century. Non-no is known for both representing and marketing mainstream, romantic-casual styles, primarily for women in their late-teens and early twenties. The term kawaii is not always used in the magazine spreads (rather, it is used in conjunction with other, similar terms such as sweet, gentle, girlie, and doll-like). But as recently as in the March 2016 issue, the magazine was filled with flared skirts of tulle, chiffon or cotton fabrics, knit cardigans, laces, floral patterns, and loose-fitting tops of pastel and natural earth shades. One can clearly see the link between the sweet, romantic style in non-no and the girlish kawaii style in Olive.
As already mentioned, kawaii can be broad in its meanings and applications. Particularly when applied to women’s fashion or appearance, it can be entangled with the issues of the (unwanted) sexualization of women, being subjected to the objectifying male gaze, and negative female “infantilization.” This is largely because, in simple definitional terms, kawaii refers to an aesthetic that celebrates sweet, adorable, and childlike qualities (Kinsella 1995, 220). Some authors have pointed out that the concept can endorse asymmetrical gender relations, as women are evaluated and judged within it and are sexually commodified by being reduced to vulnerability, submissiveness, and immaturity (Koga 2009, 206–7; Kan 2007, 202; Akita 2005). These echo a generalized idea, especially common in Euro-American contexts, that the cultural construction of women’s fashion tends to reflect views of women’s sexuality and thereby has led to regulations. This point is especially important since the cultural construction of female appearance tends to be defined according to binaries premised on views of women’s sexuality.
Linda Duits and Liesbet van Zoonen (2006, 111) point out that the schizophrenic demands of the “virgin-whore dichotomy” tend to define young women’s clothing styles at either extreme of the decency continuum (highly revealing/sexualized or too covered/modest). As a result, the cultural construction of young women’s fashion tends to be subject to public debates and institutional regulations (e.g., at work and school). This highlights the established, multiple binaries of sexualization/modesty through which women and girls tend to be represented. Even today, in Anglophone scholarship, the difficulty of locating this liminal space between the given continuum is evident (Laing 2014). While such a liminal mode of youthful femininity (e.g., feminine but not excessively sexualized) is thought to avoid the contradictory interpellations from the “virgin/whore” dichotomy that informs much societal discourse on what it means to be a woman (ibid., 289) by offering an in-between space, it still faces the danger of being stigmatized as “infantile,” “vulnerable,” and hence “unimportant” (ibid., 288). Certain Japanese kawaii fashion, which evokes a sense of “asexuality,” possibly serves as an alternative to such restrictions.
In regards to Hitomi’s Milk—a Japanese fashion label known for its girlish yet edgy styles and a regular of such fashion magazines as non-no—Tiffany Godoy writes that “Milk clothes were—and continue to be—girly, romantic, and feminine but not sexual. All these elements are the base for what would later become kawaii culture” (2007, 38). In this sense, Milk integrated kawaii fashion aesthetics with their emphasis on sweetness, without overly hinting at sexual allure. Many sartorial items that constitute typically romantic, kawaii styles, such as laces, ribbons, and skirts with a flower-like silhouette, which are also closely linked to the concept of shōjo, both practically and symbolically contribute to this construction of “asexuality.” This is because such items can signal “girlish” femininity while actually hiding a woman’s body, thereby allowing “simultaneous denial of womanhood and emphasis of femininity” (Welker 2010, 168; Honda 1992, 179–80). The girlish, romantic kind of kawaii fashion can thus be “one active and dynamic way that Japanese women can control their sexuality” (Nakamura and Matsuo 2002, 69). This is because such a deliberate form of kawaii fashion often shows a process in Japanese girls’ culture where “cuteness often gets modified, parodied, or deliberately inflated in diverse ways,” thus implying the autonomous control of young women (Miller 2011, 24).
It should be noted that in contemporary Japanese culture, women do not necessarily have to emphasize their sexiness or reveal their bodies in order to be heterosexually attractive (Monden 2015, 56, 126; Miller 2006, 78; Ozawa 2012, 236). “Girlish cuteness may be pre-sexual in some respects,” writes Valerie Steele, “but it can easily veer into the sexualized,” irrespective of the intention of the wearer of the kawaii look (2010, 48). Nevertheless, certain kinds of women’s kawaii fashion/appearance can offer “a place somewhere in the middle of [the] decency continuum” where women tend to be framed within the binaries of forced sexualization and passive modesty (or “virgin” and “whore”) (Druits and van Zoonen 2006, 111). One such example is Kiritani Mirei, a fashion model, actress, and news anchor who is considered the embodiment of yurukawaii—a kind of kawaii look that evokes naturalness or relaxedness.
Kiritani was born in 1989 in Chiba prefecture, Japan. As a student of a selective school (shingakkō), she was recruited by an agency near her high school when she was fifteen. After several acting roles, she became an exclusive model for Seventeen (launched in 1968; hereafter abbreviated as ST), one of the most popular fashion magazines for teenage girls (Kiritani 2011, 108). Kiritani “graduated” from ST in August 2011 after five and a half years and moved to non-no, starting with the March 2012 issue, as its exclusive model. Again, Kiritani graduated from non-no with its June 2015 issue. Apart from modeling, Kiritani has joined Nippon TV’s news program News Zero as an anchor, starting in April 2012, and has embarked on an acting career, which has resulted in numerous roles in mainstream movies and television dramas, some of which are based on shōjo manga.
With her exquisitely small face, large, almond-shaped eyes, and lithe, exceptionally long limbs, Kiritani is a paragon of the shōjo figure in Nakahara’s fashion illustrations or the heroines of shōjo manga, whose kawaii art styles were inspired by Nakahara and his successors, like Takahashi Macoto and Naitō Rune. Particularly when she was posing for ST, she was known as embodying yurukawa. In her photobook, Mirei-san no seikatsu, super! (Miss Mirei’s lifestyle, super edition!) (2011), which was produced at the height of her popularity as a “STMo” (ST exclusive model), she often dressed in loose-fitting layered clothes, knit sweaters, overalls, balloon silhouetted minidresses of floral or boho patterns, and sneakers or stilettos. Even in her swimwear shots, Kiritani wears colorful or frilly bikinis. Despite these outfits invoking kawaii and girlishness, or perhaps because of it, they do not, at least explicitly or primarily, seem to foster an objectifying gaze. After all, a yurukawaii is supposed to (but not necessarily in reality) create a kawaii look without much effort, and with senses of ease and naturalness (Kiritani 2011, 109). Therefore, at least on the surface, Kiritani seems to enjoy her kawaii look, which is first and foremost for herself. The cultivation of this kawaii style for her own pleasure and self-satisfaction speaks to a widespread view that women dress primarily to please and attract the objectifying male gaze (e.g., de Beauvoir 1975, 543). Instead, it supports the idea that at different times both women and men dress for different reasons, thus, not only to attract and please admirers but also for one’s own pleasure and self-satisfaction (Steele 1985, 246; Entwistle 2000, 186).
This theoretically differentiates her yurukawa style from the concept of mote-kawa, whose primary purpose is to attract men’s admiration despite the possibility of sharing the same or similar fashion items due to the overlapping aesthetic concepts of desirable heterofemininity and kawaii (Ozawa 2012, 236). This, as well as Kiritani’s sense of autonomy and control, is further emphasized by her use of yurukawa graffiti decorations.
Kiritani is known for customizing her photos with her short comments, which are scribbled over in her own handwriting. Kiritani says that such graffiti decorations have an effect to further “relax” her photos. The use of graffiti-like handwriting on photos is nothing new in Japanese girls’ culture. As Miller has articulated in her study of photo technology in Japanese girls’ culture, it has long been established: “Within girls’ culture a photograph is considered bare and unfinished until it has been marked up with text and decorated with icons and drawings” (2005, 131). Kiritani’s yurukawa decoration therefore evokes a strong link with Japanese girls’ culture where girls would make “photo diaries, scrapbook-like albums documenting everyday episodes and relationships” (ibid., 130). Likewise, her yurukawa style, which is an amalgam of her highly idealistic shōjo figure, the girlish-but-not-so-sexy fashion items she wears, and her association with Japanese girls’ culture, creates a sense of autonomy and control as well as intimacy with (female) readers. Importantly, when such yurukawaii design is applied to swimsuit shots (e.g., Kiritani 2011, 16–21), it has the effect of creating a sense that they are taken for and shared with her female friends, thereby diminishing her overt sexuality. Thereby, her yurukawa style operates by allowing a “simultaneous denial of womanhood and an emphasis on girlish femininity” (Honda 1992, 34).
Kiritani’s wholesomeness, as illustrated by her education and news anchor career (Saito 2015), ensures that she does not transgress compulsory femininity and the emphasis it places on female beauty and cuteness in contemporary Japan, which are predominantly favored by (heterosexual) men. Kiritani’s yurukawaii qualities, as evident by her use of yurukawa handwriting and much of the clothes she wears—loose-fitting, layered clothes of above knee or long length, flared dresses and pants, all coming with pastel and natural earth tones—emphasizes her cuteness as a distinct expression of female-centered innovation (Miller 2005, 128). To put it in other terms, such a kawaii, girlish look can enable women to appear cute and sweet but without being sexually suggestive or submissive. Recently, Kiritani has rebranded herself more as otona-kawaii (literally, adult cute)—a slightly more mature, chic version of yurukawaii. This indicates that women who are long passed the age of shōjo are still able to display a kawaii look, and hence a less sexualized femininity, in contemporary Japan. It is fair to say that Kiritani and her yurukawaii look complicates our understanding of cuteness as merely passive and infantilizing.
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