Hello Kitty is the undisputed empress of Japanese kitsch. Sporting round black eyes and a cute dot nose, symmetrical whiskers and a fat bow above her ear, this simplest of drawings adorns a thousand treasures. Kitty pencil cases, bandages, notepads, cookie cutters and candies spin billions of yen for Japan’s Sanrio corporation. Their official Kittyography notes that the macrocephalic feline weighs the same as three apples and was born in the suburbs of London in 1974.
Kitty is always already Other: this icon of Japanese childhood speaks only English. Confounding even Shroedinger’s cat, she does this without a mouth. Rorsach Kitty leaps/is leapt upon with the speed of capital: Sanrio’s “social communication business” has branches on four continents. In San Francisco, her chubby visage floats above Union Square (on a giant boutique where Kitty clothes are available in adult sizes). Her unbearable cuteness cannot be constrained by a carefully crafted circle of pleasantries. Gracing Asian pajamas or Occidental mosh pits, she glows phatic communion. Hello Kitty escapes the orbit of corporate control (if not profit) to be re-coded by a cacophony of desires…
Altering the Japanese/Western Subject
New Years Day. Shinto Priests blessing cars are students in costume. A part-time job, arubeito. Arbeit.
Jingle Bells hostess bar. Women flatter men, Honourable Mr. Company President. Light their cigarettes, laugh at their jokes. An evening here is far more expensive than one in a brothel.
Buying affection? How to understand this? A glib separation of our sincerity from their superficial role-playing? I cannot understand. There is no entry.
Radical alterity bites. Seeking mastery, scrambling selves, I ponder artifacts and reified wonders, a smorgasbord of ahistorical kicks unsullied by gender, class and domination. My desires, like many translations of Japan, shuffle free-floating signs. A happy horizon. Reduced to adolescent navel-gazing: who am I? In defiance of a former employer’s company slogan – No Excuse and Conclusion First – I begin with a conclusion: Japanese views of the West and Western views of Japan efface/create subjectivity with barely a nod or bow to the gravity of power. Simulacra City. Weightless. The chips dazzle, always ethereal, never solid, never down. Either way, a colonial thrill, never a threat.
The so-called West seeks effacement of self from an imaginary Japan. A commodified, kitschified Japan. Aside from some atrocious calligraphy, the ceremonies of the Ottawa (Canada) Zen Center glow an ‘authentic’ aura. However, the (Caucasian) monks (raised cutting lawns, not trimming bonsai trees) have taken Japanese names. New names: new selves or no selves? Are they detouring the non-path to Nothingness in pursuit of a Japanese identity, or equating the two?
Does Japan seek effacement of self from an imaginary West? I cannot speak from or for Japanese positions; mocking the Zen Center’s appropriations and parsing white privilege does not absolve me from such projections. Quoting Asian scholars and predic(a)ting my observations as colonial, tentative or invasive is an attempt to listen, but a more sincere approach admits that I do, at some level, wish to understand and speak for Japan. As this is impossible, does abstract theorizing become a ruse to exercise power, if not over, at least around, radical alterity?
Do the Japanese seek provisional identity from an imaginary West? Some Japanese words can be used “for self-reference as well as second-person and third-person reference… boku or temae may mean ‘I’ or ‘you'”1. Irreducible in English, ‘I’ is relational in Japanese2; ‘person’ (ningen) translates into “human between-ness”3. Selves sliding selves, spaces shifting center, identity waiting, indeterminate… between. Lacking notions of fixed individuality, Japanese may flee effacement of self by fetishizing and appropriating Western culture. This argument is a convenient counterpoint to my positioning of the Western gaze upon Japan, but where ‘I’ can mean ‘you’, I am lost; better to pursue a tentative contrivance than to abandon critique to the notion that the Japanese exercise a “complete suppression of self” or have “no sense of self at all”4.
Salarymen requite business cards mid-bow. A glance at a stranger’s title reveals how low to bow and which conventions to act with/in. Situational morality constructed in and by a Confucian communal web, in flux, sans categorical imperative, intractable (inscrutable?). If “the autonomy of the individual is protected and assured not in society but away from it, where one may legitimately indulge in self-reflection and introspection” 5, Japanese fetishization of the West cannot be reduced to an uncomplicated analogue/antipode of “Orientalism.” The Occident tick-talks transcendent morality under a Panopti-God sky: psychoanalysis and psychotropics aside, western selves seem ‘deep’ and stable. Unique agentic FUNky selves blooming eternal Elvis, the Biggest Sur.The Japanese Emperor wore a Mickey Mouse watch; might not Japanese subjects synchronized to/by others seek the re-facements of a cowboy cosmology?
The first Japanese McDonald’s opened with the advertising slogan: “If you keep eating hamburgers, you will become blond!”6
An island of fire reworks paper neighbourhoods, cannibalizes commodity kicks, exhausts all past presents neon. Surfers, bikers, rasta rockers garbed parallel, identity topp(l)ed down, convertible. Unfettered signifiers East and West orbiting credit, honing selves. Shop to Born? Good-Buy space/time: the Postmodern Funhouse! “Japan now appears to intellectuals as the prototypical late-capitalist, postmodern, mass-culture, information-based consumer society”7. Postmodern avant la lettre, our random cannibalization?
In the fall of 1989, promotion for Batman swept Japan. The yellow-black logo glowed on gum wrappers and the backs of gas station employees bowing to cars. Comedians cavorted in lumpy Batman garb, couchi potatos (sic?) munched Batman squid snacks, each pack promising a clear-wrapped Batman ikka snakku collector’s card. However, when Batman arrived, the vampire had no teeth. American urban angst flopped at the box office. But for a few months, an unfettered silhouette ruled: fun(ny), exotic, sovereign. Way cool, sway free.
Post. Pre. Modern. Feudal. Japan resists/invites labels. Karatani Kojin argues that “the postmodern sense of meaninglessness that is considered new and radical in the West is old stuff to the Japanese”8. Postmodernism not squid-snack-snicker but ancient wisdom, essentialized unessentializability, old stuff? Or “a catchword for Western critics last-ditch effort to reclaim the lost hegemony of the West at least in the intellectual field”9? Noting this caveat, and suspicious of the spill-to-power in my own (non-)explanations, I believe postmodernism offers potential bridges to approach the (de-)formation of scattered/fragmenting Japanese and Western (inter-)subjectivities.
Mu. Emptiness. Ground zero. Subjectivity? Chains of empty presence, signifiers seeming signifieds, the Little Gaijin That Could. Juggling meta-theory, careful to reveal a touch of polyglot savvy just this subtle side of arrogance, I contradict my paradigm, seeking not effacement of self from Japan, but mastery, power and identity. Authenticity in/by margins, doodled brighter in foreign script. Yes? And know: I am desperate to understand how one can buy affection, how a student can bless a car. This is my obsession.
What if English incorporated Japanese, might we inhabit different subjectivities? Other languages may not transpose the t/ropes of mother tongue, but might they slip, not to incorporate other identities, but to somewhere… in between… to some alter place? The Japanese language uses three syllabries adapted from the Chinese; phonetic Katakana is exclusively for foreign loanwords. Batman Ikka Snakku could be bought at the Suupa, ditto ais kureem and sutaakee. “Anything in katakana looks fresh and sweet. We bow to it and value it too much”10.
How do we view Japanese writing… botched tattoos, heavy metal headbands and T-shirts of mirror-imaged Japanese characters? Batman logo(s)?
“The average Japanese speaker uses three thousand to five thousand loanwords, which constitutes as much as 10 percent of daily vocabulary items… 94.1% of these borrowed words come from English”11. Passin argues that “the use of the pronoun mai (my) in Japanese expressions such as mai homu [my home], mai ka (my car), and mai puraibashii (my privacy) is indicative of a new social order in Japan that gives ‘priority to one’s family and to one’s private realm'” 12. So-called loanwords may create a non-/less (yet still quint[non]essentially) Japanese s/pace but it does not follow that ‘their’ private realm is identical to ‘ours’.
Japanese was thought to have failed new social realities when priority was first given to industrialization. Mori Arinori “the first minister of education in the new [Meiji Restoration] Japan coined the phrase, Kokugo hashi eigo saiyoron (Abolish Japanese, Adopt English). He argued: ‘Under the circumstances, our meager language, which can never be of any use outside of our islands, is doomed to yield to the domination of the English tongue, especially when the power of steam and electricity have prevaded the land. Our intelligent race… cannot depend upon a weak and uncertain medium of communication ‘”13.
English words, Indian religion, Chinese writing. Shame swirls pride: eclipsed by and eclipsing Middle and Magic kingdoms, Japan’s ‘unique’ collective identity is no more centered than the Confucian subject. ‘Unique’ four seasons and longer we Japanese intestines betray anxiety for an authentic, unrivalled identity (ditto Ottawa Zen Center). Within/because of the panic for a monolithic (we-)Japanese identity, individuality is safer when b(r)ought from abroad. Another (discount California) self. No privacy? Try mai puraiibashii. But the Japanese look-out-to-look-in collectively as well as individually: Kenzaburo Oe accuses Yukio Mishima of living his life as a caricature created by Europeans. What happens when Japan mimics our mimicry? Punks bowing profuse apology look West for self, ditto nation/the collective? An arrogant centering of the West. Snakes and ladders, selves and others, traps and marvels round every Funhouse coroner. Alas, a loss, a koan, again: how to not center the West when they appear to?
Japanese National Railway advertisement: “Japan Now – so thrilling it makes your heart pound: Ah, Exotic Japan!”14.
This 1984 campaign was “in Japanese for a Japanese market.” Dot matrix ‘Ekizochikku Japan’ in katakana, ‘Japan’ suddenly foreign, (from) elsewhere, in place of? I am fettered by a ‘deep’ logocentric inside, lost when ‘traditions’ can be “simulacra, re-creations of a past that never happened”15. One post-war Tokyo community centers collective authenticity “on the political, economic and emotional significance of the lavish mikoshi (the tutelary Shinto shrine) they bought in 1984, which they carry proudly once a year through the streets”16. I ‘understand’ flamenco clubs and reggae bars as sign systems to be manipulated, but shrines, ekizochikku Japan? Uncanny… erasing depth perception reveals my own (abysmal?) ‘truths’ to be merely codes. Japan as effacement: Ekizochikku Canada… dot-matrix more ‘Japanese’ than the forced inkbrush art of the Ottawa Zen Center?
Advertisement: A Victorian doll with pale hair and eyes stands on a beach, looking out at the viewer. At her feet is a shattered mirror, which throws back fragments of her reflection. To the left is written in Japanese Nihon wa gaikoku desu: “Japan is a foreign country”17.
I have heard Japanese compare their ‘island mentality’ to that of the British, and am fascinated by how ‘Britain’ signifies (in) Japan. Primordial ooze, archetypal blond baby, shattered mirrors/ego, regression, re-formation… there is no Going Back. Post-(Meiji deformation?) Lapsarian Return – im/possible through commodity flash and Buddhist cyclical time – projected upon an imaginary Britain?18 Buccolic Hobbit-happy countrysides, the promise of community, William Blake, shrubbery. Mori wanted to use the language of industrialization for ‘progress’: the same language also wove a powerful Romantic resistance to mechanization.
Victorian dolls. The animation of childhood, impossible Osaka, implausible landscapes, self-exoticism, no steam or electricity, ANIMAls prevading the land. Trend argues that pastoral renderings can appear in a number of forms, including tourism and the “fascination with kitsch. Each signifies the translation of cultural otherness into a usable stereotype. Difference is comfortably transmuted into a wrapping for a commodity or a commodity itself”19.
Hello Kitty, the ubiquitous icon in and of a land of icons, transformational object, childhood fetish, ur-emblem of maternity/infancy. Kitty eclipses Sailor Moon. Slippers, pencils, bento boxes, chopsticks, solar powered calculators, nighties, watches, billions of yen, a TV show, mall appearances. In 1994, there were over a thousand Kitty products. Appropriately, the first Kitty product was a purse. Within the official Kittyography of the Sanrio company, the constitutive icon of Japanese girldom was born in 1974 on the outskirts of London. She weighs the same as three apples, loves cookies, tea, and friendship. Mimetic, she has a twin sister, Mimi (the bow is on the other side). She is named after Alice’s cat20.
We’re always delighted to hear from a Hello Kitty fan! The reason Kitty’s mouth is not drawn is so that anyone looking at her can imagine their own expression for her. When you’re happy, you can imagine a smile on her face; when you’re sad, she’s sad with you. Kitty always knows how you feel, and being your friend, she shares your feelings21.
Do they know this in Ottawa?
ALL THAT IS SOLID MELTS INTO KITTY. For westerners – no free-float for Japanese girls? Anamorphoscopic Kitty=Japan=blank screen/saver/saviour: don’t like your name or temple? Ditch it and become Emi Otsuji! Escape dull reality for Zen Kitsch! Ventriloquism: catagmatic Kitty/Japan speak our every desire, kitsch an “escape into the idyll of history where set conventions are still valid”22. Which idyll? Japan? Britain? The other will choose the other? Romanized script on Japanese babies: Kitty, who has no mouth, speaks only English.
Kitsch is the ultimate denial of shit (Kundera). Kitty has no intestines. She is immaculate. Catachrestic Kitty. From gay theatre to unaffected celebrations of the Sanrio pantheon by homesick Asian students, cyberspace purrs Hello(i)o(n) Kitty. The following excerpt from “My Mystical Experience with Hello Kitty & Friends” is worth quoting at length. Psychoanalytic catnip, replace ‘Kitty’ with ‘Japan’: power, sexuality, effacement of self, via the mute (m)Other…
It took 40 days for Tuxedo Sam and I to cross the great burning desert. I was half crazy with thirst, but Tuxedo Sam was eternally cool. At last we reached the Great Palace, a riot of red and grey stone intricately carved 20,000 years ago, the spires reaching to the sky. I hesitantly knocked on the 5 story high mahogany door. A voice inside droned, “Who seeks entrance?”
“A humble pilgrim,” I said.
“And Tuxedo Sam,” added the spiffy one.
A thunderclap struck. I was suddenly whisked a great distance… I couldn’t tell if it was up or down. As soon as my eyes could focus, I found myself next to Tuxedo Sam in an enormous domed room surrounded by great towering round columns, all of black marble.
In front of me was a sight that made every follicle of my hair stand on end, a sight simultaneously by far the most beautiful and the most repulsive I had ever seen. There, on a giant golden throne, was HELLO KITTY herself!! Despite the chill air of the marble hall, I broke into an uncontrollable sweat as I fell to my knees and bowed down. I was unable to take my eyes off her. HELLO KITTY looked different here in her throne room than the images of her I had seen before. She was huge. Her red hair ribbon had been replaced by a bejewelled crown. Her great mouthless head seemed larger, rounder, and more brilliant than the sun. HELLO KITTY had an uncountable number of arms. The mitten-like paws of some held swords, others bowls of blood, others fistfuls of dollars, yen, pesos and deutschemarks. I could not count the number of rapidly writhing short stubby arms which seemed to exist in many more than 3 dimensions. HELLO KITTY wore a necklace of skulls of humans, animals, and Disney characters. Something in the pit of my stomach told me that one of those skulls was my own. Other than this gory jewellery, HELLO KITTY wore nothing from neck to waist, and the sight of her 3 pair of impossibly round feline teats would have immediately impelled me to rush forward to grab and suckle had I not been paralyzed with fear. I had never felt so alive before…and yet at the same time, never so close to, so intimate with, death. As HELLO KITTY uncrossed and recrossed her shapely legs beneath her silk skirt I got a view that made Sharon Stone look like a man in comparison. I immediately went more rigid than I thought possible as I ejaculated blood.
“Hello, Hello Kitty”, said Tuxedo Sam.
A voice answered back, louder than a thousand rock concerts, with words which seemed to stretch from pole to pole, from the lowest hell to the highest heaven: “I AM HELLO KITTY, DESTROYER OF WORLDS!”
…I don’t remember any of what happened for over a year after that. But I have never, not for a second, stopped thinking about HELLO KITTY since.23
A long, long way from Tipperary. Salutary derangement, psychotropic con/quest? Safe, refreshing tingles of erasure bolstering identity and power, the hip stance, the telling of the tale. Not exactly what Adorno meant by kitsch as a “parody of catharsis.”24 Annulment, abandon, Return: from the Nikkei to Patpong and Kali, Frogmore strives to incorporate every Orientalist stereotype. If, by definition, ‘we can’t understand’… what makes an(y) examination of alterity less indulgent? Do footnotes grind the Funhouse grey, or merely restrict entry to those with/seeking the right coupons (academic discourse as ‘chit’-chat) ?
Pure and puerile, Frogmore’s fantasy seeks self-apotheosis through Kitty/the Orient. “What constitutes the essence of kitsch [‘Japan’?] is probably its open-ended indeterminacy, its vague ‘hallucinatory’ power, its spurious dreaminess, its promise of an easy ‘catharsis’.”25 Ersatzen, Batman, Bob, Ekizochikku Japan, Kitty: “Kitsch totalizes.”26 “The need for Kitsch arises when genuine emotion has become rare, when desire lies dormant and needs artificial stimulation. Kitsch is an answer to boredom. When objects cannot elicit desire, man [sic] desires desire.”27
And (borrowing from Trend) we desire usable stereotypes, cozy packaged thrills, the commodification of cultural otherness. We don’t want effacement. Just a tickle. “Kitsch may be viewed as a reaction against the ‘terror’ of change and the meaninglessness of chronological time… spare time-whose quantity is socially increasing – is felt as a strange burden, the burden of emptiness. Kitsch appears as an easy way of ‘killing time,’ as a pleasurable escape from the banality of both work and leisure. The fun of kitsch is just the other side of terrible and incomprehensible boredom.”28 Funhouse. Kitty-cathecism for ersatz hipsters, role model for Japanese children. Frogmore’s leisure, five hundred thousand Yoko chores, all seeking imaginary islands, community, catharsis. Nirvana never-land: killing time. An immor(t)al Kitty for/beyond every/any reason.
…a conclusion: Japanese views of the West and Western views of Japan efface/create subjectivity with barely a nod or bow to the gravity of power. Simulacra City. Weightless. The chips dazzle, always ethereal, never solid, never down. Either way, a colonial thrill, never a threat.
A beginning. Lacunae/further work: pursue threats, not thrills. Trend: “the appropriation of the pastoral is thought to be a function of the broader process through which material objects are elaborated as signs and identity becomes a matter of representation…”29 Ditto the appropriation and kitschification of Japan, Britain, Kitty, Zen. “Although such a view can be helpful in unpacking certain functions of signification, it can also lead to adapting uncritically the superficial ‘culture as signifier’ approach to materiality.”30 Easily (glibly?) critical of ‘my’ culture, I mock (with) Frogmore among Japanese signs, dazzled.31
Teeter, totter. Paral(terit)ysis? Textual mediation vs. economism, the only alternative free-floating leap-frog? Why the fear – so serious, so puritan! – of ‘appropriation’? Gravity sucks. Must an analysis not foregrounding power be degraded to/as a Funhouse? Blind to its own devising, is this position not rigid, ultimately reinscribing a barely camouflaged agentic, integral, essential (albeit skittish) self?
Teeter, totter. Overdetermined, underdetermined. Identity fixed, rented, abandoned. Deployed, re-played. Why not? Fear of appropriating, textual gesture, token (of) respect costing nothing, drafting subjectivity as impervious, constitutive, impenetrable. Airtight. Reduced, essential, seal in freshness, keep out germs: protect my privilege. Theoretical ghetto and touristic free-for-all, same-same. Blond doll blond burg(h)er, uncanny mirror islands, fragment/ing, the search for Kitty’s mouth: in every detection, questions/an(d)swer(ve)s revealing/concealing/cancelling assumptions, privilege. Skirting relations of power, vanguardism, teasing my own center – (k)not ‘my’ ‘own’ – liquidated, no more given or heimlich than blessing cars, buying affection.
1. Smith, Robert J. Japanese Society: Tradition, Self and the Social Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983 p.81.
2. Smith, p. 79.
3. Gavin, Joseph William. Cuttin’ The Body Loose: Historical, Biological, and Personal Approaches to Death and Dying. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995 p. 36.
4. Smith, p. 87.
5. Smith, p. 87.
6. Creighton, Millie R. “The Depaato: Merchandising the West While Selling Japaneseness” in Re-Made in Japan: Everyday Life and Consumer Taste in a Changing Society, ed. Joseph J. Tobin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992 p. 46.
7. Tobin, Joseph J. “Introduction” in Re-Made in Japan: Everyday Life and Consumer Taste in a Changing Society, ed. Joseph J. Tobin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992 p.6.
8. Karatani Kojin cited in Tobin, p. 7.
9. Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro cited in Tobin, p. 8.
10. Asahi Shimbun article cited in Stanslaw, James. “‘For Beautiful Human Life’: The Use of English in Japan” in Re-Made in Japan: Everyday Life and Consumer Taste in a Changing Society, ed. joesph J. Tobin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992 p. 68.
11. Stanslaw, p. 61.
12. Tobin, p. 23.
13. Stanslaw, p. 60.
14. Ivy, Marilyn. Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995 p. 50.
15. Tobin, p. 29.
16. Tobin, p. 29.
17. Tobin, p. 53.
18. Gwynne Dyer’s Millennium dedicates an episode to Japan. “The Scrutable Samurai” pits global culture against “the hardest case…the culture that seems to have modernized without becoming like everyone else” (Dyer, Gwynne “The Scrutable Samurai” episode of Millennium. CBC Ideas Transcript, 1996. p. 31). Dyer equates the Meiji Restoration with Richard the Lionheart industrializing England (35). Yoyogi park’s rockers evoke the “tribes of London” who changed a Britain that was “repressed, inward looking, class ridden” (39). Dyer sees Japan on the cusp of such change (anglicization? Watership Up? What Newfoundlack informs this fantasy?). The reductionism continues: the English in Shakespeare’s plays were “spontaneous, emotional people. They’re practically Italians” but empire turned them into “disciplined, repressed, conformist English of Victorian times” (ibid). Once they lost economic power, they were “freed to be themselves again. They’re a lot less serious than they used to be and a lot less obedient. And I think the same thing’s about to happen here Japan.” (ibid).
19. Trend, David. The Crisis of Meaning in Culture and Education. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995. p. 39-40.
20. This information is from a Japanese article translated by Kaori Nakatani at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, the original Japanese source is not noted. This Kitty bibliography litters Sanrio web pages.
21. Personal correspondence with Sanrio Co., Ltd. Internet Home Page Staff.
22. Broch cited in Calinescu, Matei. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1987. p. 239.
24. Adorno cited in Calinescu, p. 241.
25. Calinescu, p. 228.
26. Higgins, Kathleen Marie. “Bad Faith and Kitsch as Models for Self-Deception” in Self and Deception: A Cross-Cultural Philosophical Enquiry, ed. Roger T. Ames and Wimal Dissanayake. Albany: State University Press of New York, 1996. p. 134.
27. Harris cited in Higgins, p. 134.
28. Calinescu, p. 248 (italics mine).
29. Trend, p.40.
30. Trend, p. 40.
31. Politeness, industry, mysticism: losing Western stereotypes did not de-mystify Japan. Au contraire, with no cognitive markers, alterity screamed for resolution. Buying affection, blessing cars, the way I understand my culture, useless (?) for their’s (and mine ? Q.E.D.). A refusal to essentialize, or a desire to keep Japan different, postmodern/feudal… mystical? A self-deprecating ‘we can’t explain it y’know’ can be condescending or respectful, but it always empowers me, the Great White Hunter. Striving to understand (conquer?) does Kitty/Japan become a trophy?