Why Jpop? Part Four: Kawaii Sexy Kakoi

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

One of the things I like most about Jpop is that someone can be sexy, cool and cute all at the same time. Do you realize how special that is, especially for someone immersed in American culture?

The best examples of the kawaii (cute) / sexy / kakoi (cool) combination right now is probably Otsuka Ai: she manages to seem adorable and insane and lust-worthy while delivering high energy pop songs, then reins it in and is subdued in a wide-eyed optimistic manner for her ballads. She has the wild spirit of an artistic soul as well as the charming naivete of someone who refuses to grow up. And then there’s the Love Jam cover: with jam spattered on her face, it should be mildly childish, but by some accounts it looks like a sort of fruit-flavored bukkake.

A considerably less extreme example is Hello! Project’s Ishikawa Rika, whose ultra-cute Charmy persona is as accepted by fans as her sultrier performances with Sexy 8 and Romans. Or SweetS, whose early singles and PVs knowingly played with a rorikon image that seemed to defy attempts at propriety, often riffing mercilessly with their group name’s candy theme. Along with Dream and Fruit Punch, SweetS also made a topless Christmas music video a couple years ago which fits the kawaii / sexy / kakoi bill to a very strange tee.

Talent agencies that handle young up-and-coming Jpop idols – perhaps best exemplified by the boy-band machine Johnny’s Jimusho – aren’t afraid to use sex appeal in trying to promote their talento, even if they’re underage. (Or, for the less ethical, especially if they’re underage.) Talentos are marketed based not only on how cute they are, but also how sexy they are – the two often going together hand in hand to form a special brand of kakoi, as youthful sexuality doesn’t inhabit the same cultural blindspot it does in the United States.

Irie Saaya is the instructive case study I’ve been tracking for a while now, but most Jpop idol photobooks have at least a few bikini shots, even if the girl’s no more than fifteen or sixteen. (Eleven with F-cup breasts seems to be something of a welcome anomaly, though.) There isn’t anything out of the ordinary with most of this, it’s just part of the marketing of a pop idol. Though there usually are limits: SweetS haven’t appeared in anything too revealing, not even in their recent Hawaii footage; and Berryz Koubo released their first photobook without a single bikini shot.

The audience for such talentos isn’t limited to teenagers, either. In Japan, groups like the now-defunct Minimoni and Berryz Koubo are directed at younger crowds but also have faithful adult audiences. Jpop has a history of performers barely in their teens appealing to an audience well beyond their own age group, most notably SMAP, Speed and post-“Love Machine” Morning Musume. Despite being so young, these groups were superstars with a wide demographic. They were also able to grow up and do more mature work with an ease that American teen performers would envy. At least part of the reason is that these groups had an older audience that had no problem with watching them grow up. Hiro was barely twelve when she started with Speed and now does jazz standards as Coco d’Or at the ripe old age of 21. Based on Speed’s popularity, I’d bet her audience hasn’t changed all that much from the beginning to the present.

We don’t see anything like that in American media: performers are either sexy and cool or they’re cute and faux cool. This is further cemented by choice of venues: if you’re cute, you’re part of the Nickelodeon crowd; if you’re sexy, you’re on MTV. It’s often difficult for teen-targeted sensations to shed their squeaky clean images and be taken as serious adult performers because their audience has been solely children until that point. From the eighties, teen divas Debbie Gibson and Tiffany had to struggle for years to buck their bopper images, both eventually posing for Playboy to “prove” their womanhood and shed their pasts.

In the States, underage girl groups haven’t fared well in breakthrough appeal. I can only think of Destiny’s Child and the Donnas: Destiny’s Child never aimed for the teen market primarily, while the Donnas had punk cachet instead of pop aspirations. Underage boy bands have done better – Another Bad Creation, New Kids on the Block, Hanson – but I’d argue it’s because underage male sexuality is less scary to American culture (unless it’s homosexual, then we’re off the Richter scale). Besides, most of those boy groups get dismissed as kid stuff or teenybopper crap, no matter how much they try to buck that image later in their careers. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the biggest boy bands – Backstreet Boys and N’Sync – were composed primarily of over-eighteen singers, and even they get saddled with the teenbybopper stigma.

There’s a boundary you have to observe, kid stuff is for kids and most often performed by kids. Adults have no place there, except to produce the crap and collect the profits from it. As for underage sexuality – you can’t make any admiring comments about how sexy an underage actress / actor or singer can be, at least not without risking a lot of strange looks and accusations of being a child molester. (We’re talking only admiration, by the way – not actually going to bed with children, like a certain former King of Pop.) All the nervous laughter about the Olsen twins as they approached eighteen seemed to reach a sigh of relief when they crossed into legality and people could lust after them in the open. (Why, I don’t know – they always looked kind of freakish to me.) But the long and short of it is, teen sexuality doesn’t officially exist for much of the mainstream media in America.

Japan doesn’t seem to have this problem – at the very least, they can concede that somebody on the wrong side of eighteen can be attractive to adults, even as they refuse to condone anything more suggestive and harmful. Both my mother-in-law and one of my wife’s friends had the same reaction when they found out how I’d become a Morning Musume disciple: not shock that I’d be so interested in a collective of teenage girls. They laughed and said, “He’s become an otaku!” I tell any American friend about my attachment to Tsunku’s girls and all I get are very strange or bemused looks, affirmation of my Humbert-esque impulses.

Previously, I’ve theorized that this comes from very different cultural attitudes on the relationship between imagination and reality. Sure, a kind of America Puritanism factors into this – but where does the Puritanism come from? Or rather, how does it fit into the modern version of American pop culture?

Japanese culture traditionally emphasizes community over the individual: the wishes of the group are to be respected, sometimes at the expense of the individual’s wishes. The valorization of self-denial combines with a Confucian / Shinto fatalism to create a perspective where you can’t always get what you want… and you know it. This also accounts for the seeming amorality Westerners note in anime, where good doesn’t always triumph over evil and the good guys sometimes suffer horrible fates one couldn’t imagine for a Western hero. One does one’s best in life and if something doesn’t go as planned, sho ga nai. (One of my mother-in-law’s favorite phrases.)

Popular culture becomes a way to express and contain individual wishes that would run against community wishes. However, it isn’t a fulfillment of those individual wishes – rather, it inhabits an imaginative space that’s very distinct from reality and reality-based aspirations. As a result, pop culture often indulges some very extreme perspectives, exploring aspects of human desire that have no place in the real world but which Japanese are very comfortable having for entertainment purposes. There’s a reason Japanese horror is often more deeply disturbing than simple gorefests, and why Japanese pornography is driven by fetishes that seem odd but tickle the undersides of the collective id. (Though I’m not going to hazard how the roach-eating girl figures into that.)

So that’s on the one hand.

On the other hand, Americans are notorious for willful individualism and instant gratification: as a result, imagination isn’t simply what a person desires, but what a person will try to get. It’s the notion of willing one’s desire into reality: “If you build it, they will come.” The unbounded ambition of American life emphasizes that anything is possible, anything can be achieved if you try hard enough. (A fiction less applicable when you go further and further down the economic ladder, by the way.)

Believing this optimism of avarice, we then become aware of the logical conclusion: a fear that people may imagine the wrong things and act on them. Often enough, some atrocity makes the news and proves this fear right – Enron and other corporate scandals, various child abductions and murders. Do we blame our boundless cultural ambition? Not nearly enough. We condemn the individual for wanting something they shouldn’t have wanted – but only after inculcating an “anything is possible” attitude all their lives. There’s a reason self-help gurus and serial killers are more plentiful in the United States than anywhere else.

Even more loathsome is the American proclivity to make the imaginative space of popular culture the source of unwanted desires. If you play Doom and later go on a killing spree, of course the game is the reason you did it – it made you want to kill. If you watch pornography and commit rape, it was the porn that planted the idea in the first place. Never mind the hundreds upon thousands who don’t act out such impulses but have played these games or seen those vidoes.

It’s blaming the symptom for the disease, another example of America denying the dark side of its dream. (It’s highly selective, too. The most common cultural artifact responsible for murders and violence isn’t Catcher in the Rye or Doom or Grand Theft Auto or pornography – it’s the Bible, a book practically soaked in bloodlust in certain parts, much of it justified by a higher power. Nobody tries to ban the Bible, however, the way they try to ban other supposed “sources” of bad behavior.)

I’m not claiming that American culture is more depraved and despicable than other cultures – if anything, we’ve succeeded on the world stage by attractive idealism as well as superior firepower. And while the military presence of the United States is often used to show how America’s forced the world under its thumb, the prevalence of cultural exports from the States is a wonderful measure of how the ideals of America are desired by much of the world – not forced down their collective throat but bought and marketed and bootlegged with a global enthusiasm. (Whether or not this is a good thing is highly debatable, but I’ll leave that for a whole other debate.)

In America, cute is for children, a telegenic kind of juvenile behavior; and by definition, cute can’t be sexy, which is associated with (physical) maturity and adult behavior. Why can’t cute also be sexy? Because cute is associated with being underage, and in America if you even imagine that the underage are sexy, then you’ll want to commit sexual acts with the underage – and it’ll only be a matter of time before you act upon those impulses and become a pedophile.

To even raise the question, “Why is it wrong to market the sex appeal of someone under eighteen?” will earn you condemnation. And the further you lower the age, the closer you come to being reported to the police. The fact that this goes unquestioned as simply being wrong, that it’s so obvious that there’s no need to think this out and explain it in detail – that is, by definition, a cultural blindspot. Something we take for granted because if we didn’t take it for granted, we’d be asking even more questions that would unsettle our cultural and moral values.

This is a simplification – but you hear its effect all the time. Men practically jump back in horror if told they’ve been saying lascivious things about someone under eighteen – things they’d have no problem repeating ad nauseam as long as the person under discussion is over eighteen. That magic line between seventeen and eighteen is memorialized in such magazines as Barely Legal and Just 18. Try to imagine an American magazine called Not Yet Eighteen – and let’s stack the decks, there’s no nudity and definitely no hardcore, just shots of sexy clothed teens. Is this even conceivable in the United States? Of course not. The very title would raise a shitstorm.

And while the sexy / cute dichotomy has been the focus of my attention, let’s take a moment to consider how cute is almost never cool in the States. The subversion of cute can be cool, but that’s denigrating cuteness instead of praising it. Because cute is definitively juvenile in American culture and because cool is associated with the individualism that comes with adulthood (if not maturity), the best you can come up with is a kind of faux cool in American teen culture. It’s fake rebellion and insubstantial irony, obvious enough to adults and thus worthy of derision. Watching a Nickelodeon comedy try to be edgy is pathetic, since there’s no way any real edge will be allowed – not by parent watch groups, not by the corporations behind the shows.

In contrast, the schoolgirls of Japan are often seen as the cutting edge of what’s cool in Japanese culture – technology, fashion, and entertainment often caters to them and their quirks. They become cultural pacesetters in unexpected ways. (Enough that Wire has a Japanese Schoolgirl Watch to keep track of trends.) Much of it remains a mystery to me, though certainly the whole ko-gal phenomenon could speak volumes on this. But at least part of it has to be with Japanese culture admitting that teenage girls are a force to be reckoned with – not just for their spending power, but for their nascent sexuality and often unflinching (if narcissistic) honesty about the adult world. The compensated dating trend has as much to do about exploiting the weakness of the adult male in the face of teenage sexuality as it is about the adult male financially exploiting teenage girls for sexual purposes.

The honesty works in other ways, as well: unlike America, Japanese entertainment doesn’t flinch about including sex and violence for their younger audiences. The Japanese Sailor Moon anime ends with a winged, naked Sailor Moon being beaten nearly to death while wielding a very phallic sword. Trust me, this won’t make it to broadcast television in America – and yet, it was perfectly acceptable for little Japanese girls as weekend morning viewing. For Japanese culture, such brutalities are a fact of life – again, that non-Christian fatalism rears its head – as opposed to the candy-ass protection forced upon American children by misguided but well-meaning watch groups.

And ironically, this has made Japanese pop culture – manga and anime, most prominently – more appealing to American youths. There’s a frankness and honesty that can be sensed and appreciated, a sense of the real world that much of American teen and kiddie entertainment can’t approximate. Maybe Jpop will follow – but can you imagine American kids showing the Otsuka Ai CD to their parents? There’d be a whole new cultural witch hunt on our hands, an otaku’s nightmare PMRC.

So. Why do I like Jpop? It doesn’t want me to feel guilty about their stars being too young and too cute and too sexy for my own good. It’s all a step removed from reality, as long as I keep my head about me. Jpop also knows that being cute and sexy aren’t mutually exclusive, thus giving cute a cachet of hipness and cool energy that makes their idols even more engaging. I also know this combination is not something I can find in American pop culture, which has issues about teen sexuality and the compartmentalization of entertainment markets by age cohorts – something that is baffling for both its lack of imagination and resulting mediocrity.

Besides, I hate the Olsen twins.

Having gone the macro route and flaying American pop culture for not being as open-minded as Japanese pop culture – or perhaps too open-minded in its ambition – I haven’t done enough with the micro. Who are the most kakoi of Jpop talento, or the sexiest, or the most kawaii? And how do they combine in unique ways for certain performers, making them attractive in a way an American entertainer rarely attempts? That’ll have to wait. There’s still some bigger fish to fry…

Next Time: The Cult of Authenticity