Hello from Tokyo!

Pipo-kun (prounounced "peepoh coon"), the Tokyo police mascot.

Research has been off to an eventful start! Apologies for not introducing myself sooner. As I mentioned in my project description, I’m doing anthropology research on how cute things in Japan affect public space, and, interestingly, World War II memory. A lot of researchers have already commented on the prevalence of Japanese cuteness, or “kawaisa,” in how people think about Japan from abroad (I say Japan, you say anime/Pokemon), as well as on its saturation of public space. Almost every institution – the police, the firemen, prefectural governments – have their own “cute” mascot to gain popularity and, in the last case, to appeal to potential tourists.

Lately, I’ve become interested in the Japanese “pop idol phenomenon,” which has been trending for probably a few decades now. Right now, my roommates tell me there probably isn’t a single person in Japan who doesn’t know about the latest idol group, AKB 48. There are actually 58 girls in the group, making them the largest pop band in the world. Besides singing and dancing (not particularly well), they act in dramas, are featured in fashion magazines, and otherwise promote themselves through various media.

So far so good – like any other pop band. There’s a slight tweak, though. Every time a fan buys an AKB 48 CD, they can vote for one member. Whoever ranks the highest by the time they announce the results of their “general elections” – the accumulation of those votes – gets to be front and center onstage. Those who make it into the top 10 or 20 get to actually sing the songs, be in promotional videos, be featured in magazines, etc. Which means those who don’t make it into that select group have fewer chances to gain popularity or connect with their fans. Accordingly, there is undoubtedly vicious competition between the members surging under their veneer of innocent cuteness.

AKB 48 Elections

Luckily for me, their general elections were held a few days ago, just a 20-minute walk away from where I live. I grabbed my housemate and went to snag some interviews. As the glowing, ideal representations of cuteness, I wanted to know what made them so popular, what about their cuteness appealed to people, why their fans defined as “cute,” and how this might inform my current understanding of the term, “kawaii” (which, though translated as “cute,” can also be used to describe a wide range of small, pathetic things like E.T. or even old people).

My friend K and I pass through the Edo–period wooden gate after overhearing a conversation between a ticket scalper and a high school girl. “You have a ticket?” “No …” “How much money you got?” Our feet carry us steadily away as K catches the last bit of their negotiation: “… well the bank’s still open.” We had also passed a number of desperate fans with cardboard signs asking those lucky enough to have tickets to give them theirs. For a second, I felt like I was at a football game – though the stakes here seem a tad bit higher.

Though the interviews went well, I’m still working out what exactly to make of them – if you are interested, please see my “research blog,” which will drone on ad nauseum about my various thoughts and theories about cuteness and the like. Until next time –

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