January/February 2011

The Cool-Kawaii: Afro-Japanese Aesthetics and New World Modernity

A review of The Cool-Kawaii: Afro-Japanese Aesthetics and New World Modernity by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein

Example one: "A young black man strolls down the street in Oakland, California's African American community. He is wearing a Chicago Bulls athletic suit with expensive matching sneakers. The sneakers are untied and he walks with a light limp, leaning just a bit to one side. His arms take turns trailing behind him as he ambles on his way. He knows he is cool and looks good. He follows the popular rap groups and knows all the latest dance steps. Since he lost his job as a stock clerk six months ago, he has been unable to contribute to the support of his two children, who live with his former girlfriend and her mother. Halfway down the block, he runs into a good friend who is similarly dressed. They exchange a variety of low-five and highfive handshakes. Using a combination of Black speech patterns and street terminology, they discuss the latest happenings and exchange ideas about generating some income."

Example two: "Tokyo. A group of extremely high-heeled Japanese girls wobble towards a group of Japanese young men who are sitting at a restaurant table. The girls' faces are made up with thick layers of cream foundation and powder and all of them wear sparkly things in their hair. As they listen to the men, their outlined mouths are permanently smiling. Their shaded eyes, emerging under heavy fake eyelashes, adopt the shape of golf balls and convey the impression of astonishment as well as the vague feeling that whatever the males are saying will not be fully understood. The perpetual look of embarrassment, an effect of a sophisticated application of rouge, contributes to this impression. While they clap their hands whenever one of the males makes a joke, the few words that the girls occasionally breathe into the conversation come across as squeaky and "cute" sounds modeled on anime voices. Finally, one girl takes out her telephone from which six plush animals dangle and shows off a recently added glittery toy. In unison the other girls scream: kawaii!"

What do these two examples – the one African American cool, the other Japanese cute or kawaii– have in common?
At first sight not much. The one is masculine and preoccupied with the dissimulation of emotion, the other is feminine and engaged in the ostentatious display of sentimentality. Cool produces an aesthetic of the emotionally restrained and the detached while kawaii excels in attachment to creations with resonances in childhood. Cool appears as an aesthetic used by the leader of the gang while kawaii seems to remain the option of women who have decided to become children. In spite of these exterior oppositions, both phenomena have important conceptual structures in common: both act against the plainness of official societies (the blandness of white America and the uniformity of Japan). In a more global context, they are even linked: they combat, both in its own way, the American "uncool" aesthetics.

Afro-Japanese Aesthetics
Cool and kawaii are expressions set against the oppressive homogenizations that occur within official modern cultures but are also catalysts of modernity. Cool and kawaii do not refer us back to a pre-modern ethnic past. Just like the cool African American man has almost no relationship with traditional African ideas about masculinity, the kawaii shojo is not the personification of the traditional Japanese ideal of the feminine, but signifies an ideological institution of women based on Japanese modernity in the Meiji period, that is, a feminine image based on westernization. At the same time, cool and kawaii do not transport us into a futuristic, impersonal world of hyper-modernity based on assumptions of constant modernization. Cool and kawaii stand for another type of modernity, which is not the technocratic one, but a "Dandyist" one that is closely related to the search for human dignity and liberation.