You don’t have to be an ardent Japanophile to know kawaii - its trademark vibrant palette and infantilized characterization can be found in much of the nation’s contemporary cultural exports: Most noticeably in the commodity cuteness of Hello Kitty, Pokemon, Line lovebirds Brown and Cony and the countless yurukyara mascots that blight our TV screens.
International early adopters of the style, such as Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, have re-imagined kawaii through a Western lens and contributed significantly to its popularization abroad. Now, one company, Asobisystem, is looking to shine the spotlight back on its birthplace - the Harajuku district in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward - by opening a new building that sets out to be a one-stop shop offering all the essentials demanded by international visitors.
The Moshi Moshi Box, which had its public inauguration on Christmas Day, is a tourist information center with a twist. Oriented primarily toward English-speaking visitors, the building offers standard facilities - free Wi-Fi, ATMs, currency exchange, souvenirs and bilingual information - all while dressing them up in cutesy visuals befitting the surroundings. Situated in prime location on Meiji Dori, the building is unmissable to pedestrian traffic exiting Takeshita Dori, the district’s iconic shopping mecca. Complementing Asobisystem’s multimedia output - spread across the Web, TV and events - the Moshi Moshi Box is the latest addition to the company’s Moshi Moshi Nippon initiative to transmit Japanese pop culture across the globe.
“Rather than people coming to Japan for a holiday, or on a whim, we thought it would be beneficial if visitors could be informed about our local culture and then use that as their reason to travel here”, says Asobisystem President Yusuke Nakagawa. “Harajuku is a place that has given birth to so much culture over the years - it’s a place that has no conventions, no rules.”
A fitting home for kawaii culture then, itself a rebellion of sorts, albeit less overtly so than punk or other contemporaneous styles (kawaii emerged in the early 1970s, peaking - for the first time - in popularity in the early ’80s along with “cute idol” Seiko Matsuda). As Sharon Kinsella writes in “Cuties in Japan” (1995), “cute style is anti-social; it idolizes the pre-social … cute fashion blithely ignores or outrightly contradicts values central to the organization of Japanese society and the maintenance of the work ethic.”
Anti-social though it may be, the economic importance of cute style proves its worth as more than simply cultural capital. In the post-bubble recession, children’s entertainment was one of the few businesses within Japan that not only survived, but actually grew.
Harajuku is synonymous with subcultural movements - the throngs of cosplayers by the station on Sundays were a veritable tourist attraction for long periods - but Nakagawa insists it doesn’t end there.
“There’s more to Harajuku than just gothic lolitas,” he says, referring to the portmanteau fashion style born in late-’90s Harajuku that combines the intricate elegance of the Lolita look with darker, gothic flourishes. “We want visitors to be able to ask about the Harajuku they have yet to discover, so they can check out new shops and places that might interest them.”