Sufficiently feminine chocolates

06Jan09

Kawaii is Japanese for cute, or charming. The stereotypical Japanese young woman likes fluffy things and Disney characters (and fluffy Disney characters most of all), and likes to squeal “Kawaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!” when faced with any objects (or small animals, or children) that vaguely fit this description.

There are of course women that veer in the direction of this description. My friend Y has covered the dashboard of her car in pale pink fake fur, on top of which sit Minnie and Mickey Mouse dolls in matching pink outfits. But it’s by no means the standard, and lots of women don’t even use the word at all.

Men, in this language of sharply defined gender-specific vocabulary, don’t often use the word.

So I was a little bemused when my male colleagues described the chocolates I brought for the office as “kawaii”.

They were quite nice chocolates. And came lined up in a box with an arty black and white picture, showing the Houses of Parliament with a red bus picked out in the foreground. Pretty, perhaps. But not kawaii.

I don’t think it was the red London bus that did it (they’re famous in Japan, but not widely regarded as cute and fluffy). And I don’t think my chocolates drove my male colleagues to new extremes of showing their femininity. I think they thought the picture was attractive (it was). I think they wanted to reassure me that the souvenirs I had brought were kawaii.

Every time I’ve brought souvenirs from my travels before, they have been in a big brightly-coloured box (because that’s how you buy them; there’s a well-developed trade, both domestically and abroad in Asia, in omiyage, edible souvenirs that you bring back for your office). I think the men in my office thought I felt bad about bringing souvenirs in black and white. To reassure me, they told me that my souvenirs were acceptably, appropriately, feminine. They were kawaii.

The gendered language in this country will never cease to bemuse me.

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