The Death of Manga: Failure to Adapt

Like all print media, Japanese manga might just be a victim of the times we live in. Manga, or Japanese comic book, sales peaked in 1995, at the end of the Dragon Ball saga in

Shounen Jump, and haven’t risen to comparable levels since [1]. For a short while, although domestic manga sales were falling, the manga market was able to find new life in the West, especially in American markets, but that well of consumers has dried up since its peak in 2007 [2]. Until about 2012, Western manga sales dropped 43% among consumers [3][4]; this decline in sales wasn’t helped by the collapse of Borders, one of the biggest manga selling chains in the US, or by the financial crisis of 2008. Manga is in a unique situation, both at home and abroad, where it is a form of print media suffering the same ailments as most print media, but is having difficulties adapting to a digital form.

Cause of Death

What was once manga’s greatest strength, is now perhaps one of its greatest weaknesses: its young audience. The population decline in Japan is slowly draining the pool of potential readers for manga, and youngsters abroad can’t afford the higher prices of manga when it’s easy to find for free on the internet. While some publishers have taken to targeting older and older audiences, such as with Weekly Comic Bunch’s publication of the Fist of the North Star sequel, it’s simply unsustainable as the readers begin to die off [2]. It’s also impractical and



environmentally irresponsible to spend money on physical copies of manga, often printed with cheap ink on cheaper paper, when living spaces are becoming smaller and smaller. Some consumers complain that many manga are all the same, and that few new artists dare to break the mold of a genre [1], but it’s difficult to hire talents you aren’t sure are going to do well in such a tight market. The current magazine model itself is outdated and broken, relying on people to buy 400-500 page magazines every week or month just to read one or two currently running manga that they like so that less popular authors will receive spillover readership. But perhaps, this isn’t the death of manga, just the death of manga as we know it.

Cellphone Manga

While print manga sales are declining, the cellphone manga industry is booming. Sales hit ¥4.6 billion in 2005, doubled in 2006 [5], and reached sales totals of ¥42.8 billion in 2009 [6]. Part of the boom can be explained using the usual reasons digital media is outgrowing print media in the West: convenience and price, but another huge reason is its discretion. The most popular genres of cellphone manga are pornography, romance and comedy [6], and there’s an obvious gender imbalance in who’s buying these manga. Keitai Shueisha reports a readership of 70% women, 30% men [6], and one of the biggest selling genres in cellphone manga is the boys’ love genre. Cellphone manga cuts out the embarrassment of having to buy the manga in store, as well as the risk that someone might catch you reading it in public. Of course, there are drawbacks to cellphone manga, such as the difficulty of printing full manga pages on small cellphone screens, and it still doesn’t solve one fundamental problem in manga publishing: how to showcase new talents.


While many traditional publishers are stagnating, the self-publishing or doujinshi industry is booming. While a great many doujinshi are pornographic in nature, there have been several mega-hits, such as Hetalia and One Punch Man, and many less-popular web comics are finding their own loyal readerships. Some popular comics, such as Kyo no Nekomura-san, Boku OtarymanTonari no 801-chan and the two mega-hits stated above have all received anime adaptations or have one planned for the near future.

New Wave: 4-panel Manga

One of the fastest growing genres in manga is the yon-koma or 4-panel style manga. Chapters tend to be a series of four panel long stories that play off gags, geekiness and fanservice. They’re popular among more casual readers, since they have no long, drawn out plot like Dragon Ball or One Piece, and the reader can start reading from any point in the story.

Shounen Jump begs fans not to upload scans of their manga online

Shounen Jump begs fans not to upload scans of their manga online

They also have the benefit of being easy to read on computer screens and smartphones. While many critics have doubted the ability of 4-panel comics to be a hit abroad, due to their difficult to translate jokes that often rely on cultural context [2], this is reputed by the popularity of Azumanga Daioh, K-ON!, Lucky Star, Sunshine Sketch, and Hetalia, both domestically and internationally.

Legitimizing Fan Translators


It’s no surprise that manga publishers hate fan translators, but one solution to the stagnation of the manga market is to try and reincorporate its former Western audience by integrating fan translators. Several attempts have been made, specifically by Ken Akamatsu, creator of j-comi, a website devoted to legally digitizing out of print manga by encouraging Japanese pirates to upload their scans. The most ambitious project, Digital Manga Publishing’s Digital Manga Guild, invites fan translators and typesetters to localize titles in a profit-sharing agreement, but they lack the draw of big name publishers.


 The problem is that most publishers lack any kind of digital strategy, and one or two websites with mid-tier obscure titles isn’t going to have the draw that huge aggregate scanlation sites have. Manga isn’t going to disappear—despite its stagnation, it’s still a much larger industry than the American comics industry, it just might have to learn to adapt or face a far smaller variety of titles in publication in the future.



Discussion Questions:

1. Two concurrent trends are happening in manga: the growing popularity of four-panel slice of life comics and increased nostalgia for 70’s and 80’s sci-fi manga. Overall, do trends in the manga industry point to a move towards or away from Azuma’s database model?

2. Due to the drop in sales abroad and domestically, is Japan losing some of its “National Cool”?

Related Links:

“The Anime Economy” by Justin Sevakis:

Kentaro Takekuma and Ken Akamatsu: “The role manga editors should take in the e-publishing era”


[1] Wiseman, Paul. “Manga comics losing longtime hold on Japan.” USA Today. 18 October 2007. Web. 26 April 2015.

[2] Thompson, Jason. “Why manga publishing is dying (and how it could get better).” io9. 23 January 2012. Web. 26 April 2015.

[3] ICv2. “A second bad year in a row for manga.” ICv2. 16 April 2010. Web. 26 April 2015.

[4] Hudson, Laura. “ICV2 projects graphic novel sales down 20%, digital comics up over 1000% in 2010.” Comics Alliance. 7 October 2010. Web. 26 April 2015.

[5] Hall, Kenji. “Mobil-phone manga storms Japan.” Bloomberg Business. 9 April 2007. Web. 26 April 2015.

[6] Akimoto, Akky. “Possibilities are endless as Japan’s manga fans turn cell phones into libraries.” Japan Times. 17 November 2010. Web. 26 April 2015.

Hybridization: Japan’s Presence in American Cartoons

Japanese Anime’s presence in western cartoons has been prevalent for years, exemplified in the drawing and animation style in shows such as Teen Titans and Avatar: The Last Airbender. But in recent years, a number of American-looking cartoons utilizing anime-like elements have come into the foreground of popularity. Rather than discussing anime’s influence on Western media through the anime-looking western cartoons of the early 2000’s, I will be discussing these recent “hybridized” cartoons to exhibit Japan’s influence on America.

Japanese Cartoons versus American Cartoons

Before introducing the anime influenced American cartoons, it is important to establish definitions for anime and American cartoons.

Anime, from a western perspective, is linked to aesthetically pleasing details that are not present in American cartoons, be it in music, art style, or animation. As one interviewer notes on perceived anime style, “Anime focuses a lot on the eyes,” which is seen as unique to American audiences. [1] But this attention to detail expands beyond the eyes in anime. Take the transformation sequence from Sailor Moon: The character is designed as an attractive young woman with detailed, “shiny” eyes; the animation pans over the girl’s body from various angles, with flowing animation from the hair and skirt; the cooing background music accentuates the excitement and beauty of the transformation, but does not interact with the cartoon beyond adding mood. All of these elements in music and animation are not typically present in American cartoons—possibly because the features, while attractive, do not provide any real content to the episode.

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On the other hand, American cartoons focus on simple function in exchange for detail. The function-based nature of American cartoons can be seen in The Fairly OddParents: the characters are designed in a simple—yet functional—cartoon style rather than modeled after more realistic human anatomy; animations consist of the necessities including speaking animations and animations when picking up/using objects; and the music occurs only when something relevant in the scene occurs (for instance, a flourish when a scene begins, or brief celebratory music for positive occurrences). Thus, each element has its purpose in moving the episode’s plot along.

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Put simply, anime tends to focus on aesthetically attractive details regardless of purpose, while American cartoons favor functional simplicity in exchange for detail.

The Japanese-American Hybrid Cartoon

Hybridization occurs when a cartoon—in this case, an American cartoon—is able to execute both American cartoon features (simplicity and functionality) and anime features (aesthetic detail) simultaneously. While there are a number of recent hybrid cartoons, I will use Steven Universe to exemplify hybridization.

Steven Universe, created by Rebecca Sugar, is a sci-fi mixed with slice of life cartoon starring Steve, a half-magical half-human boy, and his female alien companions Pearl, Amethyst, and Garnet. Together, these characters are known as “The Crystal Gems.” The influence in the show taken from anime is evident: the creator claims that she is a fan of many anime series and often makes references to outside anime and cartoons, but aims to use these elements to “make something really new.” [2] Sugar’s account of anime influence differs from how older creators account for the anime influence in their cartoons. For instance, the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender explicitly reference Japan inspiration, stating that their “love for Japanese Anime… [and] Eastern philosophies led to the initial inspiration for Avatar.” [3] In this way, Steven Universe can be set apart from explicitly anime-like western creations. While Steven Universe uses anime elements, is not meant to make explicit its anime elements—rather, it is indeed a true hybrid, leaning closer toward neither anime nor American cartoon.

(left to right) Cast of Steven Universe, cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Sailor Moon

(left to right) Cast of Steven Universe, cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Sailor Moon

One of the major ways in which Steven Universe exhibits its hybrid identity is through the detail in character design. Characters are fairly diverse in general shape; character outfits each have their own individual style (delicate for Pearl, rebellious for Amethyst, etc.); and the designs incorporate certain “moe elements” usually associated with anime, such as purple or spiked hair. But despite this detail, the designs still retain a certain simplicity to them reminiscent of American-style cartoons—namely in the simplicity of the character eyes, and utilization of simple shapes to create the characters rather than modeling directly off of human anatomy.

Using these hybrid characters, Steven Universe is able to execute aesthetic-driven scenes without awkwardness, while also smoothly presenting more American style narratives. This utilization of both spheres is exemplified in the episode “Steven the Sword Fighter.” The episode’s beginning contains comedic American-style banter between Steven and the Crystal Gems, lacking background music and serving the purpose of introducing the topic of the episode. Subsequently, the episode features a swordfight between Pearl and “Holo-Pearl” (a clone hologram of Pearl). The battle exhibits various camera angles and complex fighting animations, backed by delicate piano and synth music to frame the mood. The battle scene would be difficult to picture with more traditional American characters such as Timmy Turner, while the comedic banter earlier in the episode would be equally peculiar with anime-style characters. But through the hybridization of the series characters, Steven Universe is able to perform both anime-style and American cartoon-style scenes and features.
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Implications of Hybrid Cartoons

Hybridizations illustrates the way an essence of J-cool has penetrated American popular culture: individuals can consume J-cool features even without direct exposure to Japanese material. An American cartoon fan cannot consume anime features watching, say, The Fairly OddParents; further, such a fan cannot consume anime features directly from watching anime, as anime would be outside of their scope of consumable material. Yet if the American cartoon fan watches a hybrid cartoon such as Steven Universe, he can indirectly consume anime features present in the show. Furthermore, the detailed anime elements such as camera angles and background music can be consumed by the fan, and subsequently perceived as regular for American cartoons.

hybrid diagram

Cartoon fans consuming anime features without watching anime, and vise versa

The normalization of J-cool aspects in American media through hybrid cartoons suggests that J-cool elements have potential to become integral aspects of American pop culture. Thus, these new cartoons provide evidence of the increasing pop culture power Japan harbors over the west.


Discussion Questions
1. What is the relationship between early 2000’s anime-like American cartoons and J-cool’s presence in America? Do they differ significantly from hybrid cartoons?

2. The existence of anime-looking American cartoons such as Avatar: The Last Airbender illustrate that Anime has had a presence in American animation more than decade a go. Why is the hybridization of Anime and American cartoons occurring now, rather than earlier?

3. Steven Universe is a hybrid cartoon created in America. Can hybrid cartoons be created in Japan? If so, how? In what ways would Japanese hybrid cartoons differ from American hybrid cartoons?

[1] “Bee and PuppyCat Creator Natasha Allegri Is Very…” Interview by Frederator Times. Frederator Times. N.p., 14 Nov. 2014. Web. <>.

[2] “Our Interview With the Cast and Creator of Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe!” Interview by Susana Polo. The Mary Sue. Dan Abrams, 15 Oct. 2014. Web. <>.


4. Sugar, Rebecca. “Steven the Sword Fighter.” Steven Universe. Cartoon Network. 19 Apr. 2014. Television.

5. Hartman, Butch. “Hail to the Chief.” The Fairly OddParents. Nickelodeon. 27 Sept. 2002. Television.

6. Satou, Junichi, Kunihiko Ikuhara, and Takuya Igarashi, dirs. Sailor Moon. TV Asahi. 1992. Television.

7. DiMartino, Michael D., and Bryan Konietzko. Avatar: The Last Airbender. Nickelodeon. 2005. Television.

The Complex Role of Women in Japanese Media

When looking at representation of women in modern media, it is easy to default to the paragons and the villains. Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away is often lauded for its fantastic main female character Chirio, and the incredibly popular Death Note is often criticized for its one dimensional stereotypes of women. In a country that still retains conservative social ideals, much of its media reflects the complexity of gender relations in the modern world. I wanted to dissect two noteworthy examples: the anime Kill la Kill, from renowned director Hiroyuki Imaishi, and the manga series Bakuman, from writer Ohba Tsugumi and artist Takeshi Obata. Both tackle two elements of women in different ways: women in relation to their sex, and women in relation to societal expectations.

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When Kill la Kill had its initial run in the fall of 2013, it ignited a firestorm of debate across the internet. The anime received both harsh condemnation and extreme praise for its portrayal of women, mostly through its main protagonist Ryuko Matoi and its main antagonist Satsuki Kiryuin. The story is set in a world where a school is run as a quasi-fascist state by Satsuki, who uses school uniforms infused with power to keep the student body in a rigid hierarchy. Ryuko arrives at the school, swearing vengeance against Satsuki for the death of her father. Both use incredibly powerful seifuku (traditional Japanese school uniforms) called kamui to battle it out over the fate of the school.

One thing that immediately stands out to the viewer is the astounding amount of “fanservice”, nudity intended to please a largely male demographic. The uniforms transform into what can barely be recognized as clothing, and the various poses the two characters strike as they battle could easily belong to a soft core pornagraphic catalogue. Many of the beginning scenes can be incredibly uncomfortable to many viewers, and some are borderline rapey. The case against Kill la Kill is incredibly easy to make.

The longer the series went, the more holes began to form in the case against Kill la Kill. A variety of blogs began to comment on the deeper meanings behind Kill la Kill, and the commentary related to the female perspective seemed to fall into two general categories: self-confidence in sexualization and weaponized femininity. Both ideas play of off and strengthen the other. At the onset of the series, Ryuko is incredibly embarrassed and ashamed of her kamui. Many of the characters go out of their way to comment on how shameful and indecent it is (Atelier). This is in contrast to Satsuki, who views the kamui as a necessary and powerful tool to help achieve her ambitions. Satsuki exclaims “Exhibitionist? Nonsense… the fact that you are embarrassed by the values of the masses only proves how small you are!” (Atelier). Satsuki sees the traditional views of the “pure” woman as something only valued by the hive mind of society. If something empowers women, why should they care what others have to say about it? At the beginning of the series, the sex appeal of Ryuko’s outfit comes not for her “confidence or ownership of the outfit”, but rather “from her being overpowered or ashamed by it”(Atelier). Following the declaration from Satsuki, Ryuko embraces the the outfit and the power that comes with it. She rejects the conservative view of the “purity” of women for the power that comes with self-confidence in yourself and your body.

The various outfits Ryuko wears throughout the series. Created by barfingprince/Tumblr

The power that comes from these school uniforms expresses the idea of “weaponized femininity”. The title of the anime, Kiru la Kiru, is actually a pun on キル, the Japanese writing for the English word “kill”, 切る, to cut, and 着る, to wear (Romano). To quote Romano, “Perhaps the strongest way in which the narrative actively resists being slotted into a box marked ‘gratuitous fanservice’ is the way in which it actively focuses its plot on the way its female characters react to and contend with the experience of being looked at and forced to strip down in order to fight.” Ryuko’s and Satsuki’s femininity is represented by what they wear (or lack there of), and their appearance expresses the power they possess. Navigating the world of female fashion successfully empowers the women of Kill la Kill (Romano).

While Kill la Kill focuses on female empowerment through embracing sexuality and femininity, Bakuman stands in a different corner of the gender relations spectrum. It focuses on the societal expectations of women, and breaks some of these expectations while supporting others.

Bakuman follows the quest of two young men Akito Takagi and Moritaka Mashiro as they devote themselves to becoming the best manga artists in Japan. The pair are not only motivated by the various rivals they encounter, but also by their respective love interests, a clumsy but cheerful Kaya Miyoshi and the pure, beautiful Miho Azuki. Much of the story revolves around a promise Miho and Moritaka have between each other: when each achieve their dreams (Miho as a voice actress and Moritaka as a manga artist), they will get married. Much like Kill la Kill, the beginning of the series does not seem promising: much like the “damsel in distress” archetype, both Kaya and Miho are seen as goals that drive the plot of the male characters Akito and Moritaka. Both of the characters make comments that support conservative views of gender relations: women are best as wives and caretakers. Kaya remains in this expected role, spending most of the series supporting the main male characters in their endeavors. But many other women appear in a variety of roles, some even as direct competitors to Akito and Moritaka. Later on in the series, after Akito and Moritaka have become successful manga artists, it is up to Miho to win a competition to achieve her and Moritaka’s promise from the beginning, while the male protagonists can only helplessly watch. This reverses the traditional “damsel in distress” narrative, where a woman serves as an object that requires rescuing from a male protagonist. Instead, it is Miho who must use her skills and abilities to fulfil her end of the promise, a modern and egalitarian end to an otherwise conservative narrative arc.



Romano, Aja. “Kill La Kill: How the Year’s Most Polarizing Anime Became a Smash Hit.” The Daily Dot. 3 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2015. <>.

Atelier, Emily. “What (Not) to Wear: Undressing Kill La Kill’s Wardrobe [NSFW].” Atelier Emily. 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2015. <>.


Discussion questions:

  1. Both of these examples were Japanese media mainly targeted toward young men. How are gender relationships portrayed in Japanese media primarily targeted towards women? Do romantic stories rely on classic gender roles? Do any dramas or shojo manga break these trends?

  2. Much of the criticism against Kill la Kill stems from its use of gratuitous nudity and from what many see is the sexual exploitation of its main characters. Could Kill la Kill have the same themes without the use of nudity? Could it have been toned down or eliminated while still having the same effect?

Mark Zuschlag

I’m Mark Zuschlag, a computer science major and senior here at William and Mary. I’ve always had a love of a variety of cultures, but Japan has been of special interest since I’ve entered university. I hope to continue my study of Japanese after graduation, where I’ll be teaching English in the JET program somewhere in Japan.1383477_1081940785154116_632082206340257621_n

Cute: To Be or Not to Be…..That is the question.

By: Alice An


かわいい。귀여워. Cute.

There are so many different words that the world uses to describe the concept of cute.So what exactly does it mean? According to Sharon Kinsella, kawaii is a style in Japanese pop culture that essentially means childlike and “celebrates sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine, gentle vulnerable, weak, and inexperienced social behavior and physical appearances” (Kinsella 220). According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, cute is defined to be “ attractive or pretty especially in a childish, youthful, or delicate way” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). But what does cute actually look like in these countries?

Cute in Japan 

In Japan, cute embodies itself in many different forms- from handwriting and stuffed animals to mannerisms, clothing, and makeup. In 1974, a growing number of teenagers, especially women, began to write using a new extremely stylized set of rounded characters with English, katakana, and little cartoon pictures like hearts, faces, and stars. In 1971, Sanrio, said to be the Japanese equivalent of Hallmark Cards, started to produce cute designs on stationary and fancy diaries for students to write in everyday with their cute handwriting. In the creation of these fanshi guzzu (fancy goods), Sanrio started to produce different merchandise such as stationary, toiletries, lunch boxes, bags, towels, stuffed animals, and other paraphernalia.

During the first half of the 1980s, the most fashionable design house in Tokyo, Pink House Ltd., started to produce cute outfits that were designed to make the wearer appear childlike and prim. Cute clothes started out as “simple white, pink and pastel shades for women and more sort of bright and rainbow-colored for men…often fluffy and frilly with puffed sleeves and lots of ribbons” (Kinsella 229). As Kinsella mentions in her article concerning the concept of cute in Japan, the demanding model of cute fashion created a desire towards the consumption of goods that would be able to transform a person to look and feel like a child. Cute fashion originally started as one that idolized childhood and depicted “playfulness, individual emotional expression, and naiveté…. not consistent with traditional social values” (Kinsella 250). However, cute took many different forms throughout the world.



Cute in South Korea

In South Korea, there are even different versions of the word cute to apply to different situations to describe different attributes. For example, 귀여워(gwiyuhwuh), can be used broadly to describe a child that is cute, an animal, a stuffed animal or anything that has cute attributes such as big eyes, round features, and/ or child-like characteristics. 애교 (aegyo) is a term that is used when describing a bubbly personality one may have that very much resembles a child. Women who have more aegyo are seen to be more attractive by many Asian men and are perceived to have a more innocent and attractive look to them because of their mannerisms.  In addition, cute clothing has been made to appeal to mainstream culture and has become more acceptable in South Korea as well as many other Asian countries. The steady incorporation of bright color, ribbons, lace, and peter-pan collars are just a few characteristics of this gradual transition and acceptance of the cute style.

Effects of Cute Around the World 

Venus Angelic

Venus Angelic

The influence of the notion of cute in Asia has seen its effects all over the world. Although cute may have started off in the form of more material goods, the transition across transnational borders has had an interesting impact on the aesthetics of beauty and what it means to be cute. Venus Isabelle Palermo, a popular YouTube star, was born and raised in Brugg, Switzerland and later moved to Spain where she started to upload videos of herself made up to look like a living doll and teaching viewers how to achieve this look. The videos gained attention worldwide and her video, “How to look like a doll” went viral in March 2012. From circle lenses and whitening skin products to lacy dresses and bows, Venus taught her viewers how to not only look cute but act cute as well. In the eyes of Venus and her avid fans and viewers, looking and acting cute is beautiful.

Commodification of Cute

Cute-Korean-makeup-beauty-products-300x300The perception of beauty is commodified- through not only its consumers but also those consumers who choose to advertise items such as circle lenses, lace dresses, ribbons, and various makeup items such as whitening creams. Cute has not only embodied itself in merchandise such as stuffed animals and stationary but has also entered into a realm of affecting the aesthetics of beauty and what it means to be beautiful. The emergence of cute culture was seen as an escape from reality- an escape into “childhood memories; nostalgia has been a door to people’s collective past” (Kinsella 252). But what can this imply about its transition to an aesthetic of beauty? As more and more women started to use this childlike escape, the innocence, purity, and naiveté associated with cute characteristics started to become more and more attractive to not only these women but also to men as well.


According to a popular blog post on the notion of cute, the author describes beauty as requiring “willpower, mastery, and effort” but the simplified image of cute does not have these qualities. Instead of challenging these notions, the author notes the cute has the purpose of soothing. This author argues that Japan loves cute because with the culture based on humility, being cute and helpless is not boasting your authority but rather being able to be whatever you want to be without repercussions- without “hiding….acting as free as if you were a child.” Cute style, she argues is an “anti-social style, because it is a pre-social style”, because it reverts back to a time when it was okay to be socially awkward and carries the connotation of not carrying social responsibility.

Perhaps it is the idea that not carrying social responsibility in turn connotes a young and innocent mind that is not tainted by the negative vibes of society. Perhaps it is for this exact reason that the perception of thinking younger means looking younger and that has carried over transnational borders to become a measure of beauty.

Discussion Questions 

1. Do you think the definition of cute changes as it crosses transnational borders? Why or why not?

2. Do you think that the consumption of cute is seen primarily marked as Japanese? Or culturally odorless concept that could just be mass consumed by a wide audience?

3. Would you say that the notion of cute can also be reflected into Orientalist terms? That is to say, do you think that the Occident’s perception of cute is seen as “better” than the other? Why or why not?

4. Why do you think that the cute has become an aesthetic of beauty? Is it more of an attainable escapism from current reality, or a nostalgic turn toward the child-like innocent past, or just a fad?


“Beauty, and What It Means: Thoughts on a Word: Cute.” Beauty, and What It Means: Thoughts on a Word: Cute. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.

Kinsella, Sharon. “Cuties in Japan.” Women, Media and Consumption. Ed. Brian Moeran, Hawaii: Hawaii University Press, 1995. 220-254. Print.

“Fifteen Theses on the Cute.” CABINET //. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.

“How Cute Korean Girls Get What They Want – 애교 (egyo).” Seoulistic. N.p., 18 June 2012. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.

“On Being Cute in Japan.” This Japanese Life. N.p., 30 Nov. 2011. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.

Related Links:

My name is Khauri (Ka-Ha-Ri) McClain and I am a Freshman at The College of William and Mary with a passion for computer science and sleeping past noon on weekdays. “But why would a hopeful computer science major be interested in Japanese culture?”, no one in particular asks. Well, my interest perhaps stems from a love of learning new languages, whether that be programming languages like Java and C++, or spoken and written ones such as Japanese and Spanish. Though, I won’t claim to be good, or even proficient at any of these, I will say that I am focused on finding a way to synthesize all that I’ve learned so far into a way to make money the world a better place.

Pic unrelated: Me out of focus

Pic unrelated: me when I’m not focused

Tidying Consultant Marie Kondo: Continuing Trends of Western Interest in Japanese Aesthetics

They say that cleanliness is next to godliness, a phrase that originally referred to the importance of personal hygiene to stave infection. But it has since become a mantra for the well organized. The obsessively spotless. The neat freaks whose sensibilities I sometimes envy but could never possess – is there not comfort in a nest of clutter? However, there is something to be said for Marie Kondo’s growing international success as a cleaning consultant. Since its first printing in 2011, her compact guide to cleanliness The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing has been published in over 30 countries, gaining immense popularity in Japan, Europe, and the United States. Recognition spans multiple bestseller lists including 22 weeks on the NPR Hardcover Nonfiction Bestseller List and is currently Amazon’s 15th popular book since it’s U.S. release in 2014.

Kondo proclaims in the introduction of her book that she has devoted 80 percent of her life studying the transformative qualities of tidiness. From a young age, she took charge of her family’s cleaning, following tips from home decorating magazines and learning from classical feng shui techniques. In high school she would be elected the class official for cleaning duties and later worked part-time at a Shinto Shrine cleaning the grounds and selling charms. Once in university, she would start her own lifestyle consultant business at age 19 and now has a steady clientele with a 3-month waiting list (not to mention a waiting list for the waiting list), 4 publications, and a television movie dramatizing her life. It’s obvious Kondo has achieved a level of explosive success that few can mimic – I mean, her name has become popularized as a verb that means to tidy. But what exactly warrants such rapid and international growth?

Kondo InterviewAt a national level, Kondo’s book came during a time of unprecedented necessity. In her article “Gurus: Marie Kondo Will Change Your Life or at Least Your Living Space,” Molly Young of New York Magazine interviews Kondo and her editor Tomohiro Takahashi. Takahashi attributes her success to the 3.11 earthquake as a catastrophic event that forced the Japanese to confront existential questions. He observes, “The Japanese people suddenly had to ask themselves what was important in their lives? What was the true value of sentimental items? What was the meaning of the items they lost? What was the meaning of life?” Supposedly, Kondo’s book offered an answer. Sales boomed in the aftermath with over 1.5 million copies sold in Japan alone.

Kondo BookAt an international level, particularly in relation to the US, Kondo’s business savvy style compliments current U.S. economic conditions. As Jennifer Maloney and Megumi Fujikawa of The Wall Street Journal write in their article “Marie Kondo and the Cult of Tiding Up,” Kondo’s success is part of a larger context of U.S. trends, including changing trends in the self-help genre as well as a recovering economy that promotes both a frugal sense of “downsizing” and increased donations. They reference self-help editor Jessica Sindler who notes a new audience of younger, mindful men and women participating in the genre: “It’s the Ted Talk audience […] It’s about changing your life and self-improvement but it’s sort of a happier, smarter approach.” The genre layout is changing, too. Maloney and Fujikawa cite a Publisher Weekly data analysis, which show that the self-help category has the “fastest growth in print-book unit sales among young adult segments in 2014,” a 15% increase from the previous year.

Both The Wall Street Journal and Elizabeth O’Brien of the Market Watch comment on the recent economic trend of “downsizing.” In her article “Cutting the Clutter for a Better Retirement,” O’Brien acknowledges the baby boomers in addition to the younger generation, stating that boomers are starting to move into smaller homes and radically discarding unnecessary goods to start new lives. Maloney and Fujikawa continue to say, “Ms. Kondo’s book arrived in the U.S. as donations of clothes and household items were growing. Across the U.S., Goodwill Industries International saw 4% more in-kind donations in 2014 than the previous year.” This increasing willingness to donate coincides with Kondo’s methods of tidiness, which emphasis identifying and keeping the things we want and radically throwing out everything that has served its purpose. Essentially, Kondo’s philosophy in conjunction with current U.S. conditions and the changing self-help landscape allowed for Kondo’s success.

However, I argue that there are larger Orientalist and consumerist trends at play in which the West consistently consumes Japanese aesthetics in hopes of reaffirming some lost sense of purpose or spiritual meaning. Kondo’s technique for organizing involved taking all of one’s items, holding them one by one, and asking if the item brings joy – if it sparks tokimeku. Yet O’Brien writes, “[T]his approach might come less naturally to a Westerner than to the Japanese, whose culture has a stronger tradition of anthropomorphism.” O’Brien continues to reason that the Japanese knack for tidiness stems from their homes being smaller than American ones and lacking attics and basements. The Guardian’s article “Top Tips to Joyfully Declutter Your Home, from Marie Kondo” likens this sensibility to a Japanese minimalism and feng shui. In an article for Slate, Kondo herself explains her approach to clutter as one that is rooted in the ego, writing, “[W]hen we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear of the future.” For Kondo, to radically change and organize one’s space is a process that reflects the organization of the self and is by no means a superficial process.

This connection between possessions and identity and Japanese aesthetics and philosophy in the U.S. extends back to post Civil War times. Scholar Chistopher Benfey observes in his book The Great Wave that the U.S. turned to Japan to find and reaffirm lost pre-war values such as “[a] longing for a more rooted connection to the soil, and for the aesthetic and spiritual satisfactions of a simpler life” (xiii). He continues to state, “[I]n Zen austerity and reserve, they found confirmation of their own recoil from Victorian excess and ostentation” (xiv). Though I’ve run out of space, I plan to continue looking at the trend of Japanese consumption using Okakura Kakuzo as a case study and argue for the uneven power dynamics between the two nations.



Discussion Questions:

While Marie Kondo mentions she is Japanese and alludes to her nationality when relevant, it is her foreign publicity that markets her “Japanese-ness.” Is her service, and indeed her celebrity status, marked as Japanese, or do we perceive her to be culturally odorless?

Going along Said’s theory of Orientalism, can we view Kondo’s international popularity as an uneven power struggle or a reflective other to the Occident?


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