META designer Sue Ellen Zhang sheds light on the irony of Japan’s reputation of animated charm, colloquially coined as the term “kawaii”, which contrasts that of the violent war crimes committed by the nation’s government.
Today, the world’s perception of Japan is centered on heartfelt action-packed animes and the cuteness of Sanrio characters. But, why is our perception of Japan so focused on these kawaii characters?
My design sheds light on Japan’s kawaii culture. The sharp contrast from cuteness to gruesomeness at the hemline exhibit the facade of Japan and their ‘kawaii’ culture mask. What we see on the front are the helpless and adorable characters that we know and love. What we see on the back, however, is their violent history that the media has buried over generations. Hello Kitty and Doraemon act as a veil to conceal the millions of lives that were taken as a result of Japan’s brutality.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Japan had a disturbing presence in Asia and the Pacific. Amongst the plethora of war crimes committed, Japan’s most well-known acts include the Rape of Nanking — where thousands of Chinese soldiers were killed and thousands of civilian women were raped — and Unit 731 — a testing center to weaponize disease and stockpile supplies to deploy these plagues onto civilians. This time period gave Japan an evil international persona. As an attempt to change their identity, Japan decided to spread their ‘kawaii’ culture worldwide with an increased push for Hello Kitty stuffed animals and Doraemon cartoons.
Japan’s attempt at hiding their history of cruelty has been successful. Nobody remembers Japan as a nation that has committed countless war crimes when they see Hello Kitty — they only see the face of a familiar Japanese expressionless cat. It’s important to see how a nation’s international image has evolved, and understand that our collective perception can easily be changed.