Sunday, August 22, 2010

Pink Toasters, Can Openers, and "Shoulder Massagers"

Cuties In Japan explores the popularity of kawaii culture. In 1971, Sanrio began to sell cute culture, by making fancy goods with cartoon characters. These cute characters were found on a variety of products, ranging from pink toasters to a can-opener. Kinsella describes cute culture consumption as an escape from adulthood - “cute culture has provided an escape exit into childhood memories…the overwhelming desires of young Japanese people in the 1980’s, reflected in cute culture, were to escape from real life as completely as possible” (252). Therefore, Sanrio was able to benefit from the disillusionment of young adults. They took the youth’s desire for their childhood and exploited it for profit.

Furthermore, Kinsella states that the “consumption of lots of cute style goods…disguise and compensate for the very alienation of individuals from other people in contemporary society” (228). Today, Sanrio still sells it’s wholesome cuteness through adult products. A couple of years ago, Lesportsac/Tokidoki collaborated with Sanrio to create purses with Hello Kitty on it, and they were quite trendy among adults. Another example, MAC Cosmetics teamed up with Sanrio to release makeup with Hello Kitty’s image and it was an international hit. It makes me wonder, are these adult consumers compensating for a lack of emotional connection with other real adults? Is Kinsella correct?

However, I think that the most interesting example of cute consumption is the Hello Kitty vibrator. According to the New York Times, “in 1997, Sanrio…introduced the Hello Kitty shoulder massager…unknown to Sanrio, the product soon made its way into adult sex stores as a sex toy.” After a few years, Sanrio discontinued the item, because it was controversial for their reputation. Later, in 2007, the “shoulder massager” was reintroduced into the Japanese market, but there were no intentions to distribute it in the USA. Interestingly, the article states that adult sex stores hope that it will be distributed in the United States again one day, because it was one of their best-selling items.

I think that the product was a best-seller for several reasons. Firstly, it matches Kinsella’s argument on consuming as compensation - these customers could be buying the Hello Kitty vibrator as an attempt to make up for their “alienation” from others in society. Or maybe, consumers were purchasing it simply because it was “cute." Yet, on the other hand, it’s popularity could have been because the product subverts the wholesome image of Sanrio. By selling a shoulder massager as a vibrator, adult sex stores were inadvertently demonstrating the ridiculousness of purchasing random items just because Hello Kitty is on it. It shows that you can’t consume your way back into your childhood, and that innocence does eventually fade away.

In the end, no matter what the reasons are, I still think that this is a very compelling example of cute/kawaii cultural consumption.

30-Day Challenge Update: Well, things have not really changed. I still haven't purchased anything and I don't plan to. After last week's discussions on sweatshop labor, I've decided that I want to really make an effort to become a better and smarter consumer. In the future, after this challenge is over and I've started shopping again, I'm definitely going to pay attention to the product's origins. Also, I am going to make a bigger effort to support local designers, such as by shopping on - which is kind of like ebay, but for originally designed/crafted/sewn products (as well as vintage) by small designers from all over the world.

Alison Wu
Blog #4
Inside Source:
Sharon Kinsella. "Cutes in Japan." Reader.
Outside Source: