Friday, 12 February 2016

Becky, Taeko Kono and Japan's 'Kawaii' Culture

When I was at the Daiwa Foundation in London last week I met for the first time a Facebook friend called Lucy North, who had come up specially from Hastings for the event. Lucy is one of those fascinating people that you feel you need a couple of evenings of conversation to sufficiently navigate your way around: I discovered that she had been raised in Malaysia, had specialized in Japanese Studies at Cambridge, done a PhD in Japanese Literature at Harvard, lived for eight years in the US and another thirteen in Tokyo...

She handed me a copy of a collection of short stories by a writer called Taeko Kono (pictured below) which she had translated some 20 years ago. 'Was I familiar with Kono's work?', she asked, telling me she was passionate about her writings. The book had the distinctly unusual (and to be honest pretty off-putting) title, 'Toddler-Hunting'. It's probably not a book I would I have picked up if left to my own devices, but since it had been expressly handed to me I made it my business to start reading it on the train home the next evening.

I've already had my share of 'unsettling' Japanese books in the last few months, having written a review (forthcoming next month) of Ryu Murakami's 'Tokyo Decadence', a collection of short stories featuring explicit sado-masochistic sex, and Akiyuki Nosaka's 'The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine', in which all manner of gruesome wartime horrors are described (albeit in a beautiful fairy tale format). But I would have to say that by far the most disturbing, stimulating read I've had in a long time is 'Toddler-Hunting', a collection of short stories from the 1960s all featuring female protagonists by one of the most significant, though still relatively obscure, female writers of postwar Japan.

Taeko Kono - who died in January last year at the age of 88 - freely admitted the influence of the writings of Junichiro Tanizaki, who explored in his writings the taboo of perverted desires. Kono's female protagonists too seethe with neuroses and barely suppressed hatreds and desires. Many of them are sexually masochistic: one character despises pre-pubescent girls and wishes to exert power over pre-pubescent boys. Where the stories gain their power and traction however is the way in which Kono describes such complexes as being entirely normalized. Where Ryu Murakami's writes of sado-masochism in graphic, sensationalistic terms, as usually the realm of sex workers, for Kono this is something which is coolly dropped into the narrative almost as an aside.

The stories are more disturbing than anything Tanizaki ever penned because the 'perversions' are not overtly flaunted in front of us, but stoically, internally borne by her female characters and often revealed with biting satire and black humour. There is a strong sense that these are universal conditions that must arise when the characters are forced to live under psychologically oppressive cultural constraints. If a woman in 1960s Japan felt forced to marry and live a sequestered life in support of her husband, as a child-like dependent, and pressured to fulfill the biological destiny of becoming a mother, why would her daily psychological frustration not transmute and vent itself in some perverted form, whether taking pleasure in self-harm or in a visceral hatred for infants of her own gender?

A recurring theme of Kono is that of the 'false parent', in which it either transpires that someone imagined as blood relative turns out to be a stranger or that a step parent entrusted with the child's care secretly hates them but is agonizingly bound to them. In one of her most disturbing stories, 'Snow', the female protagonist is the illegitimate child of her father with a mistress and her upbringing is forcibly imposed upon the father's wife as a stepmother. Overcome with hysteria, the stepmother, Medusa-like, murders her own infant child of the same age by leaving her out to die in the snow. You very strongly sense in all these stories that Kono judges Japan itself as a 'false parent' to its psychologically oppressed female population. seeking to smother their natural identity and replace it with something which is fake and imposed.

At the same time as reading Kono's trenchant if occasionally torturous stories, I've been following the ongoing fallout from the sudden fall from grace of Japanese TV Tarento 'Becky' (pictured top and below) - a pretty, vivacious 31-year-old who was until recently a ubiquitous presence on Japanese television and advertising. An idol and role model to Japanese youth, Becky suddenly found herself frozen out of the Japanese television firmament once a Line conversation supposedly sent to a 27-year-old married pop singer Enon Kawatani implying an illicit affair came to light. (It should be noted the general circumstances were bizarre, with Kawatani's own marriage last summer being made public at the same time.)

There's been quite a brouhaha particularly from the Western media about how this incident illustrates the vice-like grip of managers in the Japanese entertainment world (Becky's own management team even apparently suggested she be dropped from her ten regular TV programmes) and of sexist double standards: Kawatani, who was the alleged 'adulterer' - it all sounds very 19th century - has not had his career similarly affected.

I sympathize with the sentiment but I don't personally think this analysis actually gets to the heart of the matter. Indeed I think there is something far more symptomatic about Japanese expectations of women in general revealed.

Becky was the epitome of Japanese 'kawaii' (meaning 'cute' in a child-like way) culture. I watched her on a show over the Christmas break which starred the seven male members of a popular band called Third Generation J Soul Brothers in a Christmas special. The 'boys' - all in their twenties and thirties - had each been asked to come up with the perfect Christmas gift for a girlfriend. Becky and another female presenter were brought in to judge and rank their choices.

One member of the band chose a gift which he said would be delivered as a surprise to the hotel room he was staying in with his girlfriend. Becky, with her beautiful manga-esque wide eyes, primly chided him for thinking he could take his girlfriend to a hotel room so quickly, even though it's a tradition in Japan for courting couples to spend Christmas eve in a hotel together. Instead, two members of the band chose as their Christmas gifts tickets to Tokyo Disneyland. Becky and the other presenter were in agreement that this was the most 'romantic' gift.

In the West, Disneyland is a place that you generally think of taking pre-teen children and if a man in his thirties were to suggest taking a 31-year-old woman there on a date, it's likely he would be thought either slightly strange or studiously ironic. But in Japan's 'kawaii' culture, where girls are encouraged to remain eternally child-like, a trip to Disneyland is considered not just unobjectionable, but an ideal romantic day out.

The show was of course a piece of artifice from start to finish. We can comfortably assume that the male members of a rock band with a colossal female fan base have a steady stream of young girls at hand to afford pleasure in their hotel rooms. In this fantasy scenario however, Becky was appearing not just as a participant but as the very arbiter of 'kawaii'. It's pretty inevitable therefore that if one is found out to be actually far more worldly - a pretty normal adult woman in fact - then your TV persona is going to be difficult to maintain.

For me though, the Becky incident is not about the methodology of TV management or indeed of sexism and double standards on television. It's more an extraordinarily vivid representation of a usually hidden pressure in Japan for women to play along with the child-like, naive role. Failure to do so, to be one's natural self - an intelligent, independent, occasionally risk-taking woman - threatens, as in Kono's story 'Snow', the female being pushed out to perish in the metaphorical snow while a more compliant substitute takes your place.

I don't want to sound too down on 'kawaii' culture, which of course has its charms, and I don't want to suggest that replacing it with cynical, in-your-face Western attitudes would represent a step forward. But you can't help thinking that for many intelligent Japanese women being trapped in a culture dominated by constant demands for 'kawaii' must solicit a long, intense psychological scream.

What can be done about it? To really empathetically connect with the experience of women in modern Japan, to hear their true inner voices, not the fabricated constraints of 'cutishness' you have I think to turn to the great Japanese female writers and listen carefully to what they have to say. At the top of any reading list in this area I would now place this very oddly named book, a cri de coeur for women to be treated as complex adults not children: 'Toddler-Hunting'.


Henrique said...

Great Post!
Everytime I think about the "psychological scream" of some japanese women trapped into the all-loving pastel-toned kawaii bubble I remember Takashi Miike's 1999 film "Audition". The main female character is the embodiment of this childlike existence, but with a twist in the end that makes us think about the duality the children as a creature both to be cheerished, once it brings joy, and to be feared, once it does not know yet a clear distinction between good and evil.

The asociation with Becky was right on point too, I hope she does not freak out as some idols out there
Just found out your blog but I will be definetly following it now.
Keep up with the good job ^_^

Unknown said...

Right on the mark, I have thought the same for so long. I have lived in Sapporo for 20 years, and have observed this "Kawai" phenomenon. As a woman it makes me sick. There definitely needs to be in the Japanese media more empowering, intelligent role models for young women, in Japan and universally! Great blog, thanks for sharing.