The kawaii craze can be traced back to Lady Murasaki. In her 11th century novel, The Tale of Genji, she used the word to refer to qualities which were pitiable, wretched, servile, wretched and forlorn. During the Shogunate period Japan became greatly influenced by Neo-Confucianism. This philosophy’s view of women was strongly patriarchial – women were to be docile and firmly placed under men, and it quickly consolidated the patriarchy within Japan. Thus women became to be included under the term kawaii as pitiable, weak, servile qualities in women were now admired. It is a shame the kunoichi – the female ninja, couldn’t have served as soldiers for the Feminist resistance, and stopped Confucianism from reaching the shores of the harmonious Japan! The earlier meaning of the word kawaii survives in modern Japanese as the adjective kawaiso – pitious, pitiable, arousing compassion, poor sad and sorry. So kawaii stopped meaning pitious and started to mean cute, adorable and sweet!
Bring in the Sumikko Garashi San-X characters, to take kawaii back to the 11th century! They are old style kawaii piteous combined with neo-Confucian cute. Bear with me here…
Of course, like any Sanrio Character they have their own backstory. See the little green guy there? He is Zassou – a positive weed that likes florists that hate him because he is a weed, and dreams of being in a bouquet some day…but he never will be..it is impossible, he is a weed! About about the little fried shrimp on a bed of rice trying to look appealing…that is poor little Ebifurai no Shippo – left over fried battered shrimp, left half eaten, and now too tough to be edible, no one wants him…little Ebi-chan is trash and absolutely kawaii in the original and modern sense of the word….The big blue lizard? That is Tokage..he isn’t a lizard, he is actually the last living dinosaur, he has to pretend he is a lizard for his survival, he likes the snail that isn’t a snail, just a slug with a shell. Those cute little pink, blue and yellow balls in the sushi roll? They are three left over tapioca balls from boba tea, left unwanted and uneaten after all the delicious tea was drunk, they try to find a use for themselves…I’m guessing they don’t have much luck here on Sushi Desolation Row! And so it goes on, in a sad litany of unwanted, left over, half nibbled on scraps that are trying to be sushi. I know it is not a kawaii sushi cat asking “why am I sushi?”, but there is a cat here too – Neko-chan…botton right corner, covered in salmon and topped with an unwanted weed instead of delicious wasabi! Sanrio inform us that Neko is appropriately shy and timid and worried about her body shape. Way to go, Sanrio!
These little guys are trying to persuade you, in a very cute way, they they are still useful, still edible, still desirable, still “sushi.” A little like how Neo-Confucianism and the Patriarchy in general see women, we gotta be edible, we gotta be cute and pathetique, shy and worried about our body shape. We can’t celebrate being the last surviving dinosaur, instead we have to try and make ourselves appealing. Fuck that. I am happy to be a half eaten old Ebifurai, perhaps now I can live in peace, instead of men’s world trying to take a bite out of me on regular occasions. Sadly the fact of it is, however undesirable we are, men’s world still tries to hurt us. At least we become free to not have to try and make ourselves kawaii!