Kawaee!! That’s what Japanese schoolgirls shriek when they see something irresistibly cute. They make “funny face”, squirm their eyes and hide their giggles behind their hands. Their mothers and fathers find a lot of things kawaii, too. They may not giggle, but they will probably buy the same stuff. Cuteness is everywhere in Japan, from political party mascots to the dangling things people carry on their mobile phones.
Hello Kitty has been for decades famous for being the poster kitten of kawaii. Everything about her and her friends, her scented rubbers and notepads, her stickers and even the silly English she speaks through her ears is kawaii. She has always been excessively, compulsively kawaii. That’s what I wanted to find at the 42nd Street Sanrio shop this afternoon. This was the New York home of Hello Kitty, right in the middle of Manhattan’s district of sensorial overload. I wanted to experience an overwhelming sensation of kawaii, as if somehow I would enter and everything would be bright and colored and scented and cheap and throwaway. I wanted to find the katagana and kenji characters I can’t read and the English sentences I can’t make sense of.
But instead I found myself in this sad excuse of a “flagship store”, surrounded by Ibiza lounge music, too much patent lather and red velvet pumps. This store is like a cheap, downgraded version of Victoria’s Secret for people with too much money and very little cuteness. There were too many semi-kinky pieces of clothing, too much fake fur and not enough kawaii. Then I found the Hello Kitty charm bracelet, all diamonds and sapphires and other pretty shiny stones and a 2800-dollar price tag. Since when did Hello Kitty grow up, when did kawaii turn bling, when did petite Japanese girl in short plait skirt become Imelda Marcos!? This bracelet made me think that all this stuff wasn’t even designed in Japan – it couldn’t have been. Maybe it was just a weird derivation of Hello Kitty’s “brand values” for the American market (whatever that means in 42nd Street), maybe something was lost from Tokyo to New York when the store reopened recently – I thought, as I left it with a sense of disappointment and disbelief.
Two blocks down, I regained my faith in Japanese design or esthetic values. Or rather, the little I know about them and what they mean to me. MUJI is my safe haven of “enough”. Nothing is colorful, loud or kawaii here. It’s all about good materials, textures, proportions, finishing. On my second visit to the MUJI flagship store I could hear some kind of Icelandic choir. I could instead be listening to Junichiro Tanizaki’s famous “In Praise of Shadows” lecture on a loop: there aren’t any gold or lacquered surfaces there, but I feel his presence. “Even the greatest masterpiece,” Tanizaki wrote in 1933, “will lose its worth as a scroll if it fails to blend with the alcove, while a work of no particular distinction may blend beautifully with the room and set off to unexpected advantage both itself and its surroundings.” One does then understand the ethos of this Japanese super-non-brand: the whole is not more than the sum of all products. The whole is that sum. Nothing is more important, nothing stands out. It’s all about a haptic experience of our home and surroundings; we are compelled to touch things, hold them, appreciate them in their relation to each other. Everything matches, nothing shouts. It’s as if the thousands of items on display are whispering, rather than shouting at you.
A good example of that is the wall-mounted CD player by Naoto Fukasawa. When I want to play a CD in my bedroom, I pull the player’s power cord. The disk spins until it becomes pure movement and blends with the room. I won’t be able to tell what I’m playing, or even know the track number – there is no display for that. If I want to switch it off, I pull the cord again and the CD stops. There are only two buttons: back and forward. It also has a volume dial on top, but there isn’t much use in turning up the volume too much, as the player’s sound quality doesn’t go that high. This really is a perfect illustration of the “enoughness” I appreciate in my version of Japanese design. Even if I didn’t buy anything at MUJI today, I still know I can always come home and press play.
This text was written for Karrie Jacobs‘ Urban Curation course. For this assignment, titled Scavenger Hunt #4: Muji v. Hello Kitty, Jacobs had us read “I Have No Mouth and I Must Purr” by Charlie Haas, in “New West Magazine”, December 1980 and “Modern Boys and Mobile Girls” by William Gibson, The Observer April 1, 2001. We were also told to visit the Hello Kitty store on 42nd Street and the Muji Store in the New York Times building, pick an object that exemplifies the best aspects of Japanese design and one that exemplifies the worst, then write a brief essay, 750 words, to contrast and compare.