Saturday 14 April 2018

Disneyland, Kawaii Culture, and the Rejection of Adulthood

This Sunday (April 15th) marks the 35th anniversary of the opening of Tokyo Disneyland in 1983. The popularity of Disneyland (and DisneySea which opened in 2001) in Japan is phenomenal: the number of visitors to the two parks over the past 35 years totals about 720 million. In fiscal 2017 alone there were 30.1 million visitors to the two, around a quarter of the Japanese population! That is not to say that 1 in 4 Japanese have visited though; as well as non-Japanese visitors there are a solid core of repeaters, particularly high-school girls, who buy the annual passport and go as often as once a week!

Many of these teenage (and older) fans will go with groups of friends all dressed up the same, known as "matching coordination" (osoro kōde =おそろコーデ): a recent trend is to all wear the same school uniform (seifuku dizunī =制服ディズニー) a kind of cosplay (complete with Mickey Mouse ears) that even high-school graduates enjoy. This trend reflects the high social capital enjoyed by the female high-school (joshi-kōsei =女子高生) or JK brand whose members have a high degree of pride in their identity as a "JK."

While visiting Disneyland, visitors young and old alike will stock up on cute Disney goods (it is de riguer to have a cute character - usually just one - hanging off your bag in high-school - or even university - see picture). Thus, the whole cute character boom lasts far longer in Japan age-wise and Japanese young adults can strike their Western counterparts as immature and even childish. This is indeed the essential meaning of the Japanese word kawaii which though usually translated as "cute" is rather different from its English equivalent. Sharon Kinsella, in a superb chapter entitled "Cuties in Japan" (1995), defines kawaii as "sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine, gentle, vulnerable, weak, and inexperienced." For her, the Japanese kawaii movement represents a rebellion against or escape from the responsibilities and obligations of adulthood, immersion in a pre-social world that is nothing less than a rejection of Japanese society itself.

The word kawaii first emerged in the 1970s but only reached what Kinsella calls its"peak of saccharine intensity" in the early 1980s - exactly when Disneyland opened. On reflection, Disney is the perfect match for Japanese with its emphasis on (a) cute and (b) customer service. Since Steam Boat Willy in 1928, Disney films have been adored in Japan, perhaps even more so than in America (though as Kinsella points out "Disney cute" tends to romanticise an ideal rural pre-industrial society rather than childhood per se). In fact Japanese comics (manga) - which are read by young and old alike - drew inspiration from Disney: Osamu Tezuka, the "god" of Japanese manga and the father of the cute big-eyed style characteristic of many manga today was strongly influenced by Walt Disney.

In recent years though, competition has emerged for Disneyland, competition which suggests that cute (Minions and Hello Kitty aside) is no longer indispensable for attracting a Japanese audience. Universal Studios Japan (USJ) opened in Osaka in 2001 and topped 100 million visitors by 2012, even before the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in 2014. A look at the Global Attractions Attendance Report for 2016 shows USJ catching up fast and now sitting at number 4 in the worldwide ranking with an annual attendance of 13.9 million, sandwiched between Tokyo Disneyland at number 3 (16 million annual visitors) and Tokyo DisneySea (13.6 million). Is kawaii culture fading? Are Japanese youth ready to re-embrace adulthood? If the queen of kawaii, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, is anything to go by, the answer is yes: Kyary recently dyed her hair black and started wearing natural make-up leaving fans asking whether she had grown up and journalists speculating that the era of Harajuku kawaii Lolita fashion was finally over.