Kawaii! Japan’s Culture of Cute
Since October of 2015, the Bijutsu-Kan Gallery has housed an exhibit called, “Kawaii: Japan’s Cute Culture.” It’s an incredibly charming display, guiding Guests through a brief history of Japan’s love affair with all things kawaii. The term kawaii literally means, “cuteness,” but that doesn’t entirely capture the idea behind the aesthetic. An article in My Modern Met further defined it as, “the culture of celebrating all things adorable and embracing fictional characters as the embodiment of positivity.” Though it originated in Japan, the trend has gone global, and chances are you’ve seen an example of it. The most obvious is, probaby, Sanrio’s “Hello Kitty” character.
You get a sense of the gallery’s aesthetic before you even step inside. A bright, friendly rainbow stretches over the entrance. A happy looking heart and star are on the rainbow, which ends in a pair of puffy white clouds. The windows outside the gallery are filled with a variety of cute characters: a little green dinosaur, a smiling volcano, a bowl of rice with big, back eyes, and more. It’s a striking contrast to the more refined, elegant architecture of the rest of the pavilion.
Stepping inside the gallery is a study in contrasts. The bulk of the room is bare space, with the majority of the exhibits placed in glass cases along the walls. In the center of the room is a Japanese rock garden, known as a Kare-sansui. The practice of creating rock gardens traces as far back as the Heian period (from 794 to 1185). Despite the sparse nature of the gardens (typically gravel with a few larger rocks), the act of cultivating the rock gardens was rich in symbolism. The larger rocks often represent mountains, boats, or animals. In the context of the Bijutsu-kan Gallery, I like to believe it is the latter. A quick look around will tell you why.
The majority of the “kawaii” figures you’ll see throughout the gallery are animals: Hello Kitty, Doraemon, and Pickachu are likely the best known, though there are plenty of other examples to choose from. There are animal figures everywhere..
A portion of the gallery explores the link between modern kawaii culture and traditional Shinto beliefs. Displaying traditional Japanese art, a small informational sign explains how Japanese art has long embraced delicate charm, as well as the Shinto values of simplicity and harmony.
One of my favorite portions of the gallery features a replica of a modern Tokyo apartment. It’s a crowded explosion of cute, featuring items like a “My Neighbor Totoro” shower curtain, toilet seat cover, bath mat, and sippers, a Pikachu teapot, a refrigerator full of bento boxes holding kawaii rice creations, and even a plush Gelatoni (an original Disney character created as part of the “Duffy Plush Universe,” which has proven particularly popular in Japan.)
The gallery’s pièce de résistance is a large sculpture called “Melty go-round, Harajuku Girl.” It stands on the edge of the rock garden, and was created by famed kawaii artist Sebastian Masuda. The Harajuku style is a form of cos-play created by Japanese youth in the Harajuku district. Masuda’s sculpture features a translucent body stuffed full of kawaii items like candy and toys.
Masuda has also defined kawaii as, “”that personal cosmos filled with the collection of things one madly loves.” It’s why the kawaii aesthetic has gone beyond a simple fashion trend, becoming a way of life that inspires intense devotion in its adherents.
In traditional Japanese architecture, a torii gate was a gate that served as an entrance to a shinto shrine. It functioned as a symbol of passing from the mundane to the sacred. In that sense, the “Kawaii: Japan’s Cute Culture” exhibit in the Bijutsu-kan Gallery in Epcot’s Japan Pavilion, functions as something a torii gate to the way of life that is kawaii.