Shades of Cool, Degrees of Kawaii

By Thorsten Botz-BornsteinNovember 12, 2013

Shades of Cool, Degrees of Kawaii

I WOULD NOT have started a comparative study of cool and kawaii had I not been teaching at a historically black university in Alabama right after a three-year research stint in Japan. I don’t know if anybody else before me has had a similar experience, but the juxtaposition would be striking even for someone without any trace of hermeneutic imagination. Academically, I am an “aesthetician,” and I have always been drawn to the fleeting, dreamlike, and virtual atmospheres of East Asian artistic expressions. Here in down-to-earth Alabama, the words of the day are slavery, segregation, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and spare ribs. A different world indeed. And yet, not so different if you are looking for the fleeting, the dreamlike, the virtual.

There are many things for me to discover at the beginning: black speech patterns, walking with a limp, handshakes, donks (cars with large wheels), putting sheets over people in the Africanist Spiritual Church. We are in a dysfunctional small town in the Deep South, where 97 percent of the population is black. From the next “white” city we are separated by a kudzu-covered national forest. I am sitting in a café that has recently been launched by some enthusiastic California-based alumni; it seems to be the only functioning business around. As I look onto the town square with its nailed-up shop windows, a cool black guy with shades and swag takes a close look at the inside of my vintage Cadillac.

I return to my notebook. As I open it, my eyes land on the last written page, the same one on which I had scribbled some notes just the week before, while still in Tokyo:

A group of high-heeled Japanese girls wobble towards a group of Japanese young men who are sitting at a restaurant table. The girls’ faces are made up with thick layers of cream foundation and powder and all of them wear sparkly things in their hair. As they listen to the men, their outlined mouths are permanently smiling. Their shaded eyes, emerging under heavy fake eyelashes, adopt the shape of golf balls and convey the impression of astonishment as well as the vague feeling that whatever the males are saying will not be fully understood. The perpetual look of embarrassment, an effect of a sophisticated application of rouge, contributes to this impression. While they clap their hands whenever one of the males makes a joke, the few words that the girls occasionally breathe into the conversation come across as squeaky, high-pitched singsong sounds modeled on “cute” anime voices. Finally, one girl takes out her cell phone from which six plush animals dangle and shows off a recently added glittery toy. In unison the other girls scream: kawaii!

Here they are: African-American cool and Japanese kawaii. What exactly do they have in common? At first sight not much; they can even appear as opposites. The former is masculine, the latter feminine; cool is based on a dissimulation of emotion, while kawaii is focused on an ostentatious display of sentiment. Cool will be chosen by the gang’s leader, while kawaii is the option of women — that is, of women who have decided not to grow up.

Kawaii means “cute” in Japanese, but it’s different from the Western “cute” precisely because it can also mean “cool.” This is not easy to understand, since things kawaii are usually small, round, warm, soft, and fluffy, and radiate something childlike, sweet, innocent, pure, and weak. In Japan, the relationships and interactions between cuteness and coolness are complex. While in the “white” European and American cultures, cool and cute are usually defined as opposites, kawaii unites them. This is possible because kawaii — like cool — is not entirely serious, but ironical. Both cool and kawaii are elastic; they are able to reunite contradictory elements and thus cover a large field of aesthetic expressions. “Kawaii” is the most frequently used word in Japan and “cool” the most popular word of approval in the US.

Looking closer, they also have some very specific things in common. First, both are “non-white” cultural phenomena. Though a tradition of the “white cool” (principally the male loner) has an established place in American culture, the African-American cool dominates the field since cool has been brought back into the black community through hip-hop culture. Second, both cool and kawaii express a certain group identity through style, and can function as established social values. As such, both invite social interaction and involve the spectator’s imagination. A further commonality: both cool and kawaii “hold back” and operate within the realm of possibilities rather than coming across as overtly threatening or melodramatic behaviors. The coaxing style of the kawaii girl is a controlled style: she will not simply break out in tears — that would be uncool. Cool and kawaii are more like performing arts: they are both poses that are constantly aware of being watched.

Also, the motivations of cool and kawaii behavior are similar. There is the search for security in the desire to be cool, which becomes most obvious when one thinks of the origin of African-American cool as a behavioral attitude practiced during slavery. To be cool during residential segregation was a defense mechanism, which involved emotional detachment as well as irony. A cool attitude helped slaves or former slaves to cope with exploitation or simply made it possible to walk the streets at night. As long as you are cool you are relatively safe.

Similarly, for kawaii the security theme is of great importance. The Japanese who surround themselves with kawaii items suffuse their lives with a sense of mental comfort. You might live in an Osaka Newtown apartment, without a single tree in the neighborhood and an overpass only inches away from your window — but at least you have your Hello Kitty on the fridge. Kawaii makes modern life more humane — more bearable, in any case. Like cool, kawaii is a nonconfrontational social technique meant to absorb stress symptoms caused by tensioned power relations. Frequently, kawaii and cool behavior arises in reaction to barely repressed violence, so prevalent in overly hierarchical societies.

Another common point is narcissism as a motivation. There is a certain self-referentiality in both cool and kawaii expressions. The shôjo (literally “young girl”) is the typical kawaii hero of girls’ manga; she is said to have a narcissistically invested self-image. The same thing can be said about the cool male whose detached posing seems to denote a potential self-referentiality of signification: all he wants is to be “cool.” Cool is the means and the end, which is often problematic.

Last but not least, there is the sexuality theme. Both cool and kawaii engage in a consistent aestheticization of sexuality: as they hold back, they don’t come across as explicitly sexual, yet they are potentially sexual. This is clear for cool but less clear for kawaii. However, while kawaii might look innocent, in many cases it insinuates an intrinsic quality of the “real” woman, of sexuality and seduction. There is an entire category of “sexual kawaii” in Japan, which Westerners often find intriguing, if not disturbing. In general, the Japanese have a more innocent approach toward pornography, which has cultural foundations. (In Japan even the smallest neighborhood bookshops are well stocked with porno­graphic magazines.) In manga, kawaii gets quite commonly combined with an element of mature glamour or evidently grotesque elements, which are incompatible with cuteness in a Western sense. In “hentai manga” (pornographic manga) kawaii girls are involved in pornographic actions including lesbianism and pedophilia. The aesthetic of kawaii creates here a unique social space, almost unknown to the West, where it would be barely legal or overtly illegal.

Submission or Protest?

Dick Pountain and David Robins, in their book Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude, identify cool as the “passive resistance to the work ethic through personal style.” The driving force of cool is a “defense mechanism against the depression and anxiety induced by a highly competitive society.” It would not be difficult to find this force behind Japan’s kawaii culture as well. The situation of the Japanese woman is rather one of submission. Equal opportunities were fully analyzed and implemented here only in the 1980s; workplace equality is often still a dream. Traditional Confucianism teaches women to be humble and reverential in relation to men; and the traditional notions of submissive women and firmly assigned gendered roles in families still dominate. Many Japanese men still wish women to stay home; in the Japanese corporate culture, women are often still seen as a source of comfort for the “company warrior.”

It might look as if the traditional, male-centric Japanese culture has kept women dependent, immature, simpering — in other words, kawaii. However, while this might be true in many cases, kawaii cannot be reduced to mere submissiveness. It is also a form of protest against traditional society. Kawaii thus functions as a liberation project, with effects on the real world. “Cute is a virtue and, in an oddly paradoxical way, [it is] strength,” says Kanako Shiokawa in her essay “Cute but Deadly: Women and Violence in Japanese Comics.” Just like cool, kawaii brings together, within a frozen, imperturbable state, such antagonistic qualities as participation and nonparticipation, submission and subversion.

Kawaii is by definition a contradiction: it is not merely the aesthetic of the powerless, but an enfant terrible that can actively shape social relations. In other words, kawaii is not necessarily a method of escaping reality; it can also be a means of establishing a new type of reality. Just like cool, kawaii does not simply elude the work ethics of its society. Girls can work on it: they can make themselves kawaii. This is not possible when it comes to the beautiful (kirei, utsukushii). You either have beauty or you don’t, while kawaii can be obtained.

The Western Cute

The above observations have shown that kawaii is different from the Western cute. This is why there is no real equivalent of kawaii in the Western cultures unless we decide that cool can also mean something like kawaii. Western cuteness is “teddy bears frozen mid-embrace, the stubs of their pawless arms groping for hugs,” as Daniel Harris puts it in his book Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic.

First, this kind of cuteness is typically white. In the West, cuteness becomes a distinct cultural bourgeois style in late-19th-century America and as such it will quickly be saturated with racial meanings. In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye the “high-yellow dream child” Maureen Peal screams at her darker friends across the street, “I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos. I am cute!”

At some point, therefore, in the United States, cuteness — to a very large extent popularized through the Shirley Temple films — comes indeed close to a standard of racial identification. The late 19th and early 20th centuries know periods of massive immigration, which sparks a new wave of nativist concern with racial purity. It is in this context that cuteness becomes a symbolic feature of a white supremacist culture, to which Morrison’s resisting African-American females are trying to find an alternative.

A bourgeois concept of cuteness emerges most clearly when it becomes possible to see the “bubbling enthusiasm of the child” as charming and even desirable. Gary Cross describes this in The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children’s Culture. Here the cute entirely loses its connotations of “shrewd” and becomes the look of innocence par excellence. However, while cuteness continues to thrive for years, heavily propelled by American consumer culture, at some point it moves away from the adorable, cuddly, angelic, and delightful, and shifts toward the cool. Cross points out that this happens first for boys (in the 1930s) and then for girls (in the 1960s and 1970s), when Barbie becomes the visible symbol of a new American female psychological framework. The main purpose of Cross’s analysis is to demonstrate a decline of the cute in the American culture, which will be followed by the rise of the cool. Of course, this view assumes that the cute and the cool are clearly distinct. The difference between a 1912 Campbell Kid doll and Barbie cannot be spelled out more clearly than by saying that the former is cute and the latter cool. Further, within this oppositional logic, Lolitas can be equated with (cool) street toughs, while cute kids are simply naughty yet nice. Shirley Temple remains the most typical example. Her brilliant emulations of mannerisms of extreme childhood represent an outstanding case of cuteness, but they are never cool.

James Snead finds that Shirley, with her “squeaky voice; dimples; curls; feigned innocence; [and] over-idealism,” managed to bridge the world of youth and adulthood. This cuteness could appear as the adorable or charming supplemented by toughness and thus be labeled “kawaii” — if there wasn’t one essential difference. Shirley is cute only because she is a child — in other words, naive and dependent. In the end, Shirley cannot come out as an example of kawaii because her cuteness remains that of a child imitating the image that adults have of children. Therefore, she is cute but never cool. Shirley’s strategy is different from that of an adult woman who, wanting to be cute, pursues cool strategies. Shirley’s cuteness is never exuberant and not at all at odds with Puritan traditions, but it actively reinstates them. No wonder that Claudia from Morrison’s The Bluest Eye says that she hates Shirley Temple.

In conclusion, in the West you cannot be against Puritan traditions and still pretend to be cute. The Simpsons are definitely anti-cute, which confirms the hypothesis. Shirley, or the Cabbage Patch doll, represents merely an adult idealization of childlike cuteness. It is important to retain that Shirley’s behavior has never been designed as a liberation project: her cuteness is not linked to any values but appears as no more than a childish form of play within which cuteness remains mere stylization. This cuteness is rather naughtiness with a good measure of goodness.

Kawaii, on the other hand, strives to be a self-referential style based neither on goodness nor on badness; it attempts to represent a value in itself. On the one hand, this means that kawaii and cool have their own virtue ethics, which is positive. On the other, kawaii and cool have no deep belief in anything except themselves, which can be negative. Aggressive tempers and violent tendencies, increasingly commonplace for female kawaii anime heroes, do not contradict the kawaii style, even though they would be incompatible with Western cute. Cool and kawaii have designed their own cultural dream language that does not proceed from reality to simulation, but produces itself spontaneously. They have created a new culture made out of a chain of endlessly floating signs.

As already mentioned, the danger lies here. Kawaii women, even the most violent ones or the chô-shôjo (hyper-shôjo), are never really threatening because they are only kawaii. The really threatening element is — for manga readers as much as for many Japanese men — the beautiful (utsukushii) woman, who has real feminine power. The conclusion that radical critics of kawaii would draw is that in cool and kawaii nothing is real and everything is merely a matter of simulation.

In reality things are more complex. True, posing as strong, the cool black man becomes an object of desire. He might objectify himself by bluntly reasserting the cliché of black coolness, for example in hip-hop culture. Yet, his strategy also gives him the freedom that uncool men will never have. In parallel, by posing as weak, kawaii women speak the language Japanese men want to hear, thus gaining a quantity of freedom that perhaps no open feminist confrontation could have obtained. Like the recent Girl Power movement in Western countries, kawaii culture challenges established, old-school feminists, who appear out of touch with contemporary girl culture since they still believe that oppressive female roles are being pushed upon vulnerable females. It is the “vulnerable female” who develops a kawaii style and behavior as a feminist weapon.

Kawaii culture is much more than a rebellion against the adult world by deliberately adopting a childish style. If this were the case, females would be rescued from oppression without ever attaining the status of womanhood. While this interpretation of kawaii is true in many cases, it restricts kawaii to its “negative,” escapist component. Initially, kawaii, just like cool, was supposed to represent concrete values. Kawaii and cool contain virtues that can lead to real empowerment.


The black guy is done inspecting my car. As he enters the café he asks in a snarling voice, with the thickest of Alabama accents:

“Whose car is that outside?”

“It’s mine.”

“You left the keys inside and locked the door.”

“Oh,” is all I can say.

“That not cool,” he adds with a barely perceptible smile, before moving on.


Thorsten Botz-Bornstein is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait.

LARB Contributor

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait. He is the author of Films and Dreams: Tarkovsky, Bergman, Sokurov, Kubrick, Wong Kar-wai (2007) and has written a number of books on topics ranging from intercultural aesthetics to the philosophy of architecture.


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