Ian Sansom

Why are the Japanese so obsessed with the cute?

Some see it as a way of appearing harmless after the second world war – but an infantile delight in frolicking animals dates back to at least the 12th century

The Scroll of Frolicking Animals (detail; Japan, 12th-13th century). [Getty Images]

Joshua Paul Dale is a professor of American literature and culture at Chuo University in Tokyo and a pioneer in what is apparently a burgeoning academic field called ‘Cute Studies’ – or what Damon Runyon might have called ‘Pretty Cute’ Studies, as in ‘“Are You Kidding Me? You Study This?” Studies.’

In fairness, Dale makes a strong case for his subject to be taken seriously. Irresistible is packed with references to all sorts of neuroscientific studies and cultural studies and studies about theories of animal domestication and the evolution of ‘affiliative social behaviour’, which lead Dale to posit that cuteness is a ‘species-wide emotion’.

Is it an emotion? I don’t think so. But one can only admire the breadth and range of his cute examples, from Pokémon  and Hello Kitty to the rise of cupid art, P.T. Barnum’s baby shows, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Konrad Lorenz’s ‘child schema’ (Kindcherschema), Shirley Temple, and the more recent phenomena of VTubers (I had to look this up, but it is, as you might expect, a virtual YouTuber, i.e. a computer-generated avatar YouTuber) and ‘furries’. I also had to look this up, but if you’d like to do the same I would suggest taking care, since furries turn out to be people who like to adopt a ‘fursona’ and dress up in fancy animal costumes, with some of them displaying distinct proclivities towards, shall we say, animal mating behaviours. I used to think I was down with the kids but in my understanding of cute subcultures I am about as naive, it seems, as an old-fashioned High Court judge.

The book swells to a conclusion in which Dale claims that ‘cuteness breaks down barriers and gives us an opportunity to experience another sort of existence – one in which we guard ourselves a little less and invite others in a little more.

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