Between ages 10 through 14, I went to all-girl Catholic middle school in San Francisco. Like most all-girl Catholic middle schools, mine instituted a uniform policy: white polo shirts, navy blue checkered skirts. Pleats. A few days every year we’d get to wear our normal clothes–the “free dress days” were circled calendar dates, waited for with unease and excitement. Those were the days we’d get a glimpse into our peers’ style aesthetics.
On one of said “free dress” days, I took the liberty of wearing leggings that were striped on one leg and polka dots on the other. Leggings purchased over the summer in Japan. Predictably, all the other girls thought it was “wacky” and cool, but what I wasn’t prepared for were the comments I got: “Oh my gosh, you look so Asian today.” Huh? Even at the tender age of 10, I couldn’t help but think “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” That I am dressed in the way Asian people (an ignorant generalization, which I hope my peers have outgrown) are expected to dress based on a superficial stereotype/ image extracted from media depictions of Asian people? This was my first time coming face-to-face with the ugly truth that I was being sized up based on a vaguely Japanese stereotype. It was only the beginning. Earlier this year, the peers of my graduating class assigned me the superlative, “most likely to be made into a doll.” I couldn’t tell if I felt flattered or floored by the blatant generalization of my character as simply “cute.” If anything, it reminded me that people don’t and won’t take me seriously if they get hung up on the fact that I’m Japanese and “cute.” Well, more accurately, they’d invalidate my words by following up any conversational point I make by saying “aw, you’re so cute!” As they’ve done so many times in the past. I know they mean well, but there’s no way for it not to come off as condescending.
I’ve actually been doing a lot of thinking about my Japanese identity lately. Some of it has to do with the fact that I went to a Japanese pop culture festival and I’m seeing a Hiroshima-based girl group by the name of Perfume later this month. But a lot of it has to do with the fact that Kyary Pamyu Pamyu played a show near me and for the first time, I really didn’t care whether I saw her or not. I mean, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is cool. She always has been. For many years I thought of her as one of my favorite Japanese pop artists. I even had a picture of her saved as my desktop background for a year. But as I grow older, I’m beginning to realize, for the sake of my Japanese identity, she might be a problematic fave. I mean I get it, for someone who has constructed an idea of Japan and Japanese girls based on Gwen Stefani’s “Harajuku Girls,” Avril’s “Hello Kitty,” and Katy Perry’s AMA 2013 performance, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that cuteness, wacky style, sushi, and geishas are seemingly all Japan has to offer. And Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, who coincidentally might be the most well known Japan/America cross-over act, is a living embodiment of all of those stereotypes and more.
Some of you may or may not know about Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, the J-Pop princess, kawaii ambassador, Harajuku fashion icon. I saw Kyary play a sold out show in Times Square a few years back, and I’ve seen her on TV dozens of times promoting the same schtick every time. The sickly sweet pastels, wacky prints, grotesque cuteness highlighting the gap between what people expect and what they get. She fully embraces and embodies certain stereotypes that people have about Japan: Japan is cute, but it’s also fucking weird. If you google “Japan weird” or “Japan cute,” you’re guaranteed a plethora of listicles cataloging things that are considered normal in Japan, but not in other parts of the world.
Harajuku is a topic that often gets brought up in conversations about Japan; the neighborhood, the street style, and anything that goes along with it. Ever since Gwen Stefani discovered Harajuku girls and brought them back to the Western world, there were parts of Japan that were locked away behind the Kawaii gates, never to be seen by a foreign eye again. And despite what Avril’s depiction of Japan might make you believe, it’s not like you walk down the street in Japan and every other person is super-Harajuku-kawaii-fun-time. No. That’s not all there is to Japan. Though dear Avril may beg to differ, Japan is not all about sake and sushi either.
I think that maybe there’s a major misconception in the public eye about what Japan is really like. Everyone dreams of going there, of living it and experiencing the “Japanese culture.” But a part of me is a little afraid that though everyone was “offended” by Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty,” it painted a clear picture of the stereotypes that people have about Japan. And every hip boy and girl that has ever asked me if I like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu kind of validates that for me. Especially in America, people will appropriate the style and the music, but won’t take time to understand where it all comes from. That’s nothing new. Gwen Stefani has been quoted saying “everything that I did with the Harajuku Girls was just a pure compliment and being a fan.” I’m not quite sure about that, but then again, having Japanese girls who are willing and able to put themselves in that position can blur the lines a bit.
People seem to be so hung up on the idea of “kawaii” that sometimes it gets hard to remove the rest of Japanese culture from the widely popularized wacky/creepy/cute part. Maybe it’s because Japan is so modernized that people think of it as America 2.0, until people like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu pop up and remind them that Japan is still “exotic.”
But Kyary Pamyu Pamyu fully embraces her doll-like image and not being totally taken seriously. If anything, that’s her selling point. From the funny faces she makes, to the often non-sensical lyrics in her songs, to the outlandish garb that she parades around in, none of it really screams “Take me seriously as an adult woman!” Take, for example, the lyrics to her breakout hit, “PON PON PON”: “Everyday PON/Every time is PON/I want to ride a merry-go-round.” Trust me, that doesn’t make sense in Japanese either. For a lot of people I’ve encountered in my life, she’s less of a cultural icon and more of a vessel through which foreigners can safely fetishize a culture. People strive to emulate Kyary and be like her, not because they relate to her, but because they don’t quite understand her. It all seems to be based on what is comprehended through a lens of stereotypes that Kyary doesn’t quite make strides to invalidate. If anything, she seems to validate these stereotypes in the eyes of her fair-weather fans.
I love Kyary. I really do. But at the end of the day I can’t help but feel like the image she’s selling is a little misguided. If it makes it ok for others to stereotype and borderline mock us, isn’t that just as problematic as the people who pigeon-hole us? “Kawaii” culture isn’t all Japan has to offer, though the Japanese government’s “Cool Japan” might beg to differ (smh). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the popularity of Japanese kawaii culture in America–it’s a really interesting and unique part of Japanese culture that deserves the exposure that it gets. But it’s merely a subculture. More accurately, it’s a part of counterculture, and the fact that it has overshadowed all other parts of Japanese culture as the pervasive image of Japanese popular culture seems problematic, does it not?