Thursday, 27 June 2013

Time Out Tokyo

An interview from Kawaii, the culture of Cute is on Time Out Tokyo with Ms Nakamura from the Yayoi Yumeji Museum. I think it is the best interview in the book and the Yayoi Yumeji Museum is a gem, didnt know about it before writing this book but their shows are really great (one on now is on demonic women!)
Thanks to my lovely publishers for letting TTO run it, and thanks to James xxxx
Scroll down to read, enjoy!

A brief history of kawaii
Illustration by Rune Naito. Photo: Geoff Johnson
Anyone with even the slightest interest in modern Japanese culture will probably have stumbled across the term ‘kawaii’ by now. Though it roughly translates as ‘cute’ in English, it's a concept that seems to encapsulate so much more than that: from the fashionable streets of Harajuku to the big-eyed mascots that watch over Tokyo's wards, it's practically inescapable. As Manami Okazaki writes in a new book on the subject: ‘You are just as likely to hear a table, car, building, doughnut or plane referred to as kawaii – and in Japan, quite often, the most banal things are cute.’ In Kawaii! Japan's Culture of Cute (Prestel), Okazaki and photographer Geoff Johnson explore the phenomenon from its simple origins right up to its modern day manifestations of sweet sweets, cutesy cosplay and kimono-wearing cats, stopping along the way for interviews with the likes of FRUiTS editor Shoichi Aoki, Gloomy creator Mori Chack and Goth-loli model Rin Rin. In this exclusive extract, Keiko Nakahara, curator of Tokyo's Yayoi-Yumeji Museum, delves back to when the trend first started a century ago...

Kurumi-chan illustration by manga artist Katsuji Matsumoto.

Keiko Nakamura, curator, Yayoi-Yumeji Museum

In Japan, there are kawaii items everywhere you look. Any product you can think of has a kawaii equivalent waiting coquettishly in its box for a cute-obsessed customer to come along and take it home. Where does this culture come from? The Yayoi-Yumeji Museum, which is made up of two spaces, the Yayoi Museum and Takehisa Yumeji Museum, is dedicated to girls' magazine illustrators. It hosts many exhibitions each year, with the goal of promoting knowledge about kawaii's rich history.

What does kawaii mean exactly?
It is the appeal of adolescence, when one is not yet an adult. Kawaii things are usually soft, bright, round and small. They aren’t aggressive or belligerent, they give you peace of mind and a sense of security. Originally, the word was used to describe people who were beneath you. It was acceptable to use it when referring to objects, but you wouldn't use it for your superiors or schoolmates. But since the mid-'80s girls have generally preferred to be called kawaii rather than pretty.

What are the historical roots of kawaii culture?

I consider 1914 the birth year of kawaii in Japan. That's when illustrator Yumeji Takehisa opened a shop in Nihonbashi that sold numerous goods aimed at schoolgirls – what we now refer to as 'fancy goods'. Items that were desirable at the time included woodblock prints, embroidery, cards, illustrated books, umbrellas, dolls and kimono collars. Up until then, there hadn't really been any shops that were aimed at a particular clientele based on age or gender, but the customers of this store were mostly young women. At the time, of course, they weren’t using the term 'fancy goods', but komamono.

Takehisa was influenced by foreign cultures, and his goods showed an aesthetic meeting of East and West. For example, he designed coloured paper that he decorated with drawings of poisonous mushrooms. At the time, in Japan, that wasn't done, but in the West in the early 1900s poisonous mushrooms appeared on cards or in illustrated books. He also designed chiyogami paper with motifs such as umbrellas and matchsticks (pictured). At the time, chiyogami was usually printed with traditional yuzen patterns, so his thinking was very innovative and a lot of people came to copy him. Takehisa placed importance on the cuteness of his designs and referred to them as kawaii. However, this is a rare example of the word being used at the time, as it wasn't a commonly used word, as it is now.

Takehisa was seen as an innovator: he had a real talent for doing things no one was doing and making them popular. For example, he would embroider strawberries or flowers into kimono collars. The kimono itself was really drab at the time, so haneri collars were really important. Nowadays, these collars are white, but back then they were the focal point of the kimono, and they were made to be as conspicuous as possible. The orthodox motifs were chrysanthemums or sakura – things such as strawberries were totally unheard of and people were astounded.

How have Japanese notions of beauty changed over time?
If you compare the work of Takehisa and the painter Ryushi Kawabata, their notions of what constitutes beauty are very different. Takehisa’s illustrations look cute in comparison to Kawabata’s work because there is a roundness to them – especially the eyes. Kawabata paints eyes in the shape that is common in Japanese classical painting; having small eyes and a slender physique was considered to be the ideal. Round eyes were traditionally seen as vulgar, although the ideal changed with foreign contact. Artists began to follow Takehisa’s style, and one of these was Junichi Nakahara, who drew eyes very large. He introduced the idea that girls on paper didn't have to replicate reality.

The Great Kanto earthquake happened in 1923, and Tokyo was obliterated. From that time, Takehisa’s popularity declined and various designers became prominent, although at the time they weren’t called designers – they were called zuanka, and were all influenced by Takehisa. Kaichi Kobayashi, from Kyoto, who draws quite mature looking images, was one of these designers. He made envelopes and letter paper for schoolgirls.

What were these letter sets used for?

They were becoming increasingly important items for schoolgirls. Before the Taisho era [1912-26], girls went to elementary school and then got married or went to work, but during this period more girls continued their education. They were generally from upper middle-class families and had a lot of spare time, which they spent writing letters. Meeting up with boys was strictly forbidden at girls' schools, so they would play games where they would write love letters to their classmates instead, or to girls they looked up to or thought were cute – almost every day! At the time, of course, there was no internet, so letter sets became very important and were the hit item of the era. 

Playing cards by manga artist Katsuji Matsumoto.
People who followed directly from Takehisa's trend included artists such as Nakahara, who opened a goods shop called Himawariya [sunflower], and Katsuji Matsumoto, who was active from the beginning of the Showa era [1926-89]. Matsumoto is thought to be the originator of shojo manga in Japan, and Kurukuru Kurumi-chan the first example of it. The protagonist, Kurumi-chan, is considered the first character icon. There were Kurumi-chan kisekai dolls [dress-up paper dolls] and stickers, as well as postcards that were meant to encourage troops during the war. The story itself is really quite simple: Kurumi is a five-year-old who is always merry, and hence loveable. It is uncomplicated, and audiences today might wonder why it was so popular.
In the ’50s and ’60s a lot of fancy goods came on the market as Japan’s economy grew. There were improvements in raw materials and technological advances. Directly after the war there was a baby boom, and, as these babies grew up to be teenagers, the market for goods aimed at this age group increased.

Rune Naito’s name comes up a lot in reference to kawaii culture. How influential is his work?
He popularised the word 'kawaii’. When you look at his drawings, the ratio of body length to the size of the head suggests the proportions of a very little girl. The facial features are those of a newborn baby, with a large, round head. The distance from the hairline to the eyebrows is really long, giving the face a large forehead, and the nose and mouth are really small. His work was initially seen as a bit weird, but became very popular.

Prior to this era, Japanese women had to mature and become adults quickly because poverty was rampant, and people were encouraged to have a lot of children to provide a labour force and recruits for the army. In fact, it was common for families to have between seven and ten kids. When the men went to war, the women had to work. In the mid-1950s the guys went back to work and the girls didn't have to grow up so fast.

Handkerchiefs designed by Rune Naito.

When did seminal shojo manga artists come into the picture?
Artists such as Masako Watanabe and Macoto Takahashi, who drew gorgeous, opulent images, became the most influential people in terms of manufacturing goods. Ado Mizumori was also hugely influential, separating her work from its predecessors by adding a touch of eroticism to the cuteness. For example, her characters had large, round bottoms and appeared in kissing scenes. You could say this was the beginning of ero-kawaii [erotic cute]. From there, the notion of kawaii branched off in different directions, including kimo-kawaii, shibu-kawaii, and otona-kawaii. Perhaps it's because of these sub genres that Japan didn’t grow bored of the notion of kawaii and it continues today.

How did Sanrio goods become explosively popular?
From the mid-’60s to the ’70s, manga such as Candy Candy and Sailor Moon were very important, as were dolls such as Licca-chan. In the ’80s, Tokyo Disneyland opened and sold many goods, making it common for everyone to have at least one Disney item in their house. The birth of Hello Kitty in 1974 was a landmark event too. Though Sanrio had been around previously, selling strawberry-themed goods or Ado Mizumori products, nothing came close to the Hello Kitty boom.

Why were so many goods produced during this time?
This was connected to the oil and dollar crisis [due to the 1973 Arab oil embargo]. Up until then, the general goods industry had been aimed at exports to America, but because of the economic climate of the time they had to focus on the domestic market instead. The success of Hello Kitty led to the realisation that if you made something cute, it would sell. As a result, various companies jumped on the goods-manufacturing bandwagon.

When the economic bubble burst, Japanese people had less disposable income and wanted to buy inexpensive things, so 100-yen shops started up. A lot of fancy goods came to be manufactured just for this market, and, because of this, they came to be seen as kitsch and cheap. Before this generation, it was upper-class girls who had bought kawaii, but now everyone could have inexpensive fancy goods. At one point the industry even wanted to rebrand them 'variety goods', but, unsurprisingly, that idea didn't take off. Since then, there has been a stream of hit characters, such as Tarepanda from San-X, and similar companies continue to make more and more kawaii items. 

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Manga cafe and Fashion Days talk

I will be signing Kawaii the culture of Cute at the Manga Cafe on the Sat 6th, 17-18 and Sunday 7th, 16h - 17h.

Manga cafes have existed in Japan since 1979, and are a staple part of any urban environment in Japan. There is usually one next to the train station in most towns, and offer a place to chill out, read manga, use the internet, and is a fairly convenient place to kill time (spent many hours post party waiting for the first train when I first got to Japan).
France is the second largest consumer of manga in the world, with 10 million sales of titles last year and manga cafe is probably the best place to check them out (the French versions). Housing over 10,000 titles, the cafe also has a lot of rare books, as well as titles written by French manga-ka.

They have been gracious enough to host my signings Sat 17-18 and Sunday 16h - 17h at the Japan Expo.

Asides from that I will talking about Harajuku at the Fashion days stage 1240 to 110 on Sunday.
Thanks so much Japan Expo xxxx

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Japan Expo Paris July 4 to 7

Good news: Kawaii, the culture of Cute will be participating in Japan Expo Paris! Actually, I will be wearing a few different hats and participating in a few different things, so I will post info as I get it so it doesn't get confusing.

The first thing is, I will be hosting a seminar on kokeshi, (July 6, 10:15 am) as well as holding a booth on all four days with kokeshi to paint, as well as kokeshi from my new book, Kokeshi from Tohoku with Love on sale (100% proceeds to charity). Kokeshi came up numerous times in the Kawaii, the Culture of Cute book, and several designers suggested that you can find the roots of kawaii culture in the humble kokeshi doll. In any case, they are having a boom at the moment with Japanese girls (kind of the hipster types)  and there are an incredible amount of books and events in places like Koenji (where there are lots of vintage clothing stores) in the past 2 years (also because kokeshi are made in Tohoku, hence the charity angle).

We will have books, blanks for people to paint on thanks to the Naruko Kokeshi Museum, already made kokeshi from over 20 artisans, in total I have over a hundred items.

This is the second time I have participated in Japan Expo, the first being for my book Kicks Japan in 2011, where I gave a seminar at the Fashion Days stand ( I will do this again this year, but more info later).

It was absolutely fantastic!

Not only was the amount of people (over 200,000) mind-boggling,  the wide range of things displayed was incredible, ranging from bonsai to kabuki to famous manga artists to visual kei bands to school uniform brands -- almost every pop cultural luminary has appeared there at some point.

The cosplayers were great, especially the French girls who were dressed like Japanese girls.... who are dressed like the French Rococo girls! When I was interviewing manga-ka Yumiko Igarashi, she was gushing over the couple that came as Candy and Terry, the protagonists of her famous manga, Candy Candy.

Japan Expo is also held with Comic con (it is in the same convention hall) -- if I was in Europe, I would fly out for this event anyways, -- it is really a lot of fun, especially if you are a total manga nut like myself. Almost all the people who appear in Kawaii the culture of Cute have had fashion shows or given seminars there, it is like the real life version of the book.
I really can't wait! More info to come.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Huffington Post UK

There is an article on Huffington Post about Kawaii culture, in which I am quoted.

The journalist, Poorna Bell describes kawaii fashion as "a doll that has met an unfortunate accident with a vat of LSD" Ok, when you see vids like this, I can see her point, but asides from late 90s psy trance raves that used to be on at Yoyogi every week, Harajuku is actually a really quite innocent place -- I think that is something that a lot of visitors are surprised about when they go to Harajuku or check out goth/ industrial clubs, everyone is quite straight, despite the fashion suggesting otherwise.

Thank you for mentioning the book xoxoxo