Tokyo’s “Ambassadors of Cute”

Three young Japanese women at a press conference table, one dressed in a schoolgirl outfit, one in a "Harajuku" outfit and one in a "Lolita" outfit.

Apparently Tokyo wants to raise its international profile, which seems pretty odd. I think that if you asked people what the best-known cities in the world are, Tokyo would easily land in the top ten. That’s the kaizen ethic for you.

In addition to their work ethic, the Japanese have some other qualities of note, including a fondness for all things cutesy and a commensurate ability to give that cutesiness a slightly creepy twist. This Reuters report says that they’ve got ambassadors for these qualities now:

In a bid to raise its international profile, Tokyo has appointed three young women as cultural envoys because they represent Japan’s long-running craze for all things cute.

Inspired by the characters in Japan’s distinctive "anime" animated films and "manga" cartoon books, one of the new ambassadors dresses as a schoolgirl, another as a Victorian doll in voluminous frilly skirts.

On first glance, it looks like just another tourism board promotion effort. The Reuters article suggests that these “ambassadorships” are part of a larger strategy:

Faced with the prospect of being overtaken in both economic and military might by giant neighbour China, Japan has been making concerted efforts to boost its "soft power", a strategy that analysts see as important.

"You get people to love your culture and use that as a way of gaining power around the world," said Phil Deans, professor of international relations at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.

"America has a lot of soft power, because people like American culture."

So it would seem that one of the strategy’s core assumptions is that the tastemakers and other holders of the levers of power in culture are also the vaguely creepy shut-in type who almost never say the word “legal” without preceding it with the word “barely”.

I wonder if Tokyo is considering ambassadors of subway groping and “upskirt” photos.

3 replies on “Tokyo’s “Ambassadors of Cute””

Yes, these ambassadors of cute are based on cute female characters in anime and manga, but I take a bit of issue with the implication that this is only appealing to “vaguely creepy shut-in type[s] who almost never say the word ‘legal’ without preceding it with the word ‘barely’.”

All sorts of people love anime and manga, including the cute characters that are “represented” by the three ladies above. It’s an extremely popular cultural export for Japan and there are many who think that the Japanese aren’t doing enough to leverage it. There’s something to say for having mindshare and it seems that capitalizing on this culture of “cute” is one way in which Japan is trying to gain more of it.

Personally, though, I will admit that I find the real-life personification of these “cute” qualities to be a little creepy. It’s the kind of thing that I think only works well in anime and manga and translating it to real life models just doesn’t work.

I think the leveraging of cute goes far beyond its associations to anime & manga. The whole kawaii thing is applied to their popstars, their models, their fashion industry and even the porn (AV) industry.

But no matter how old you are, no matter what gender you are and no matter where you come from, you cannot escape the vaguely creepy aspects of Anime & Manga. If your only exposure is giant robot stuff or the americanized Japanimation, then you won’t be exposed to the weirder aspects. Even in the most straightforward and well written anime/manga, the alterna-sexual attitudes are there: young boys in love with their sisters, cute lil girls that turn into sword swinging teenagers wearing barely anything, guys constantly grabbing peeks upskirts. I watch ALOT of anime and I often find myself hard-pressed to find something that is not full of fanservice. Its there, its kinda creepy and its really hard to be used as a general cultural ambassador considering how prudish most of the world is.

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