Ever since this site first covered Sebastian Masuda’s mission to spread his take on Japanese kawaii culture worldwide back in 2010 there have been those on the sidelines unsure whether it would find an audience beyond those already converted to Japanese pop-culture at large. Even as late as 2013 when I interviewed Masuda there were still dissenting voices, albeit mainly from the self-elected ombudsmen of Japanese culture abroad trying to articulate the face of the country abroad instead of just looking at it. Now with the responding success of events like Hyper Japan in London, Japan Expo in Paris, and other events such as Moshi Moshi Nippon on Japan’s own shores, the success of Masuda’s mission or otherwise is not up for debate, kawaii culture has won and even if it is easy for those outside to look askance at the smiling faces of its most extreme acolytes, you don’t even have to look far to see a hint of kawaii glittering in the vast majority of contemporary popular culture, and certainly if you dwell online its synonymity with subcultures at large is hard to deny.
This victory was all the more apparent at this year’s Hyper Japan held in the Olympia in London, where the Hyper Kawaii area and related events is for many the highlight of the current festivities. But more than that even if Hyper Japan reflects the diversity of Japan with more traditional arts and food also proving a draw, it was arguably the core fans of kawaii culture that made the event what it is today, their fashion shows and even general attendance that was a draw for many, offering a chance to step onto the colourful backstreets of Harajuku from a portal in slate-gray London.
This weekend saw the event invite kawaii maestro Sebastian Masuda himself to bring his first global art project “TIME AFTER TIME CAPSULE” to London, as well as hold workshops in the heart of Camden on kawaii culture, all documented by NHK’s Kawaii International program. His activities focused on experiencing kawaii for yourself, rather than seeing it as an outsider, encouraging people of all ages to express what kawaii means to them and in the process define the state of kawaii globally rather than restricted to the streets of Tokyo.
We caught up with Sebastian Masuda to discuss the current state of kawaii culture and to get a little bit closer to that ever-elusive definition of kawaii:
– What is the concept for “TIME AFTER TIME CAPSULE”?
It’s designed to spread kawaii around the world: TIME AFTER TIME CAPSULE is a global participatory art project in which I invite people to share their love of kawaii, a now iconic Japanese cultural movement encompassing entertainment, food and fashion. Collecting thousands of letters and objects from its fans, TIME AFTER TIME CAPSULE will demonstrate how kawaii can be a means of personal expression beyond age, gender, religion or nationality, and as a tool to bring people together.
Travelling to ten cities around the world, this project is also a celebration of the vast and colourful global footprint of kawaii.
– Then would you argue that kawaii is a timeless aesthetic?
Kawaii is a style that is evolving constantly so it changes all the time. It doesn’t stay the same so it’s hard to say it’s timeless.
– What kind of kawaii-themed messages or objects have people created thus far?
People mostly write messages for their future self and decorate it as they want. In the US especially there have been instances when people have brought in what they really liked as a child, something that reminds them of their childhood and put it in the time capsule. They wanted to freeze that feeling they had as children, to protect it and keep it in so that in twenty years’ time, when they are much older, they can see again how they felt as children. That feeling is the message to their future selves. That feeling is valid as a message. When the workshop started, the idea was for people to bring something that they liked to put it in, but people who didn’t bring anything but wanted to participate so we encouraged them to write a letter to themselves. It’s not so much about memorabilia, it’s something they want to send to the future. It’s not about the past but the future message. The objects have different colours according to the countries so each country would be filled with national colours.
– How can kawaii bring people together?
We held a workshop and used the tag word “kawaii” which attracted people. By having that word between each of them they became a group and started to unite people, regardless of where they came from, so I believe kawaii really could be this universal code which brings people together.
– Kawaii clearly unites people regardless of gender, but why do you think some people outside Japan associate it with femininity?
There are lots of guys that participate in Kawaii culture but guys tend to be more conservative and traditional. They have set ideas about what they should wear, eat, and it’s hard to break that shell. But once you get in there they’re more open about experimenting with kawaii. That’s what’s happening in Japan at the moment, men have really started to be a part of the kawaii movement.
– Is kawaii in conflict with masculinity, or part of it?
Not really, because cuteness and kawaii is not really something you bring in from the outside, it’s something inner even for guys, guys already have kawaii inside them. People might say guys shouldn’t wear that or cry but they do cry, outside of that shell they want to cry. There are opportunities and it is an outlet for them to be open. Guys have kawaii in them already. Inside of the shell it is there – kawaii is genderless, it’s transferable.
– How do you explain “kawaii” to people who haven’t been to Japan?
Kawaii’s original definition is that it’s a microcosm that you have for yourself – it’s a small universe that you want to protect from the outside world. It’s a precious thing that you want to protect. That is the philosophy.
– Given that kawaii is such a globally celebrated phenomenon, why do you think it grew out of Japan, and Harajuku in particular?
Japan is liberal in terms of fashion, people wouldn’t really say anything about whatever you’re wearing if you’re walking down the street but maybe in the western culture, after a certain age you’re expected to grow up and dress a certain way. It was more acceptable to grow as a fashion culture in Japan. Possibly in the west people were frustrated and thought they were not ready to dress like that, I don’t want to grow up, I want to stay youthful, so when they found the kawaii culture it was a good outlet. It was definitely a form of rebellion at the beginning of the movement. In the 90s when it started in Harajuku, you felt that rebellion everywhere, like you felt the rebellion in Camden also in the 90s. When I did a street fashion show in Camden, the punks stood and protected the fashion show from the mobs and people trying to disturb it, they had the same kind of spirit there back then.
– What is different about the kawaii culture that grew out of Harajuku in the 90s compared to that which existed in traditional Japanese aesthetics and early shojo manga for example?
The roots of kawaii lies in culture that came out of after WWII, there was a girls’ movement after WWII, it was much smaller and individualised. After WWII, Japan had an economic miracle, a lot of development took place in a very short space of time. There was a young girls’ (teenage) movement, something that they hid inside. It was hidden to protect it from the adults, they didn’t want to be found. The spirit is similar because the girls’ parents were working for long hours and wouldn’t see them so much and they girls were really trying to do something different from them. Shojo manga was part of that movement. The roots are similar. That earlier movement was private, this movement is very much about sharing.
– How do different countries and cultures react to kawaii?
In France and the West Coast in the States there is a big manga and anime following so it’s easier for the kawaii culture as they were more familiar. In the UK, anime and manga didn’t take off in the same way, it was more of a fashion thing which is why it came to Camden. It’s a difficult question because it’s not so much about the country than the people. It’s the people that are part of that movement, there are people passionate about it in each country. After I left each country the people there really tried to protect it which is why it remained a culture in each place. On the West Coast, people are light and bright and the community is very big. In New York and Europe, kawaii culture is linked to the social problems or the socio/economic situation.
– What would a more kawaii society be like?
It would be a society with no war or terrorism, everybody has the freedom and everyone respects each other’s freedom. The root of kawaii is rebellion without violence.
Those wanting to learn more can tune into a special episode of NHK WORLD TV’s monthly Kawaii International show on August the 27th which will be covering all of the London leg of Sebastian Masuda’s trip as well as Hyper Japan itself.
To watch Kawaii International click here and other NHK WORLD TV programs are also available through satellite and cable operators Sky, Freesat and Virgin Media, as well as online and through the dedicated NHK WORLD app where you can watch the show on demand.