Argument

What Pokémon, Japanese Schoolgirl Punks, and Cocaine Have in Common

There wouldn’t be Pikachu without kawaii, Japan’s highly addictive cult of cuteness.

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There’s a simple answer to the question of why the Pokémon Go mobile game has proved so addictive: It’s that Pokémon are designed to be addictively cute. The millions of people running around trying to catch animated critters are the latest victims of a cult of cute — a cult that, like Pokémon itself, has its origins in Japan. And it’s to Japan that we must look if we want to understand the cult’s darker undercurrents.

Pokémon is a franchise of the Pokémon Company, which is partially owned by the Japanese multinational Nintendo. It is also part of a long tradition of the “kawaii,” or “cute,” aesthetic in modern Japanese culture that has given birth to things like the emojis on your phone and the animal onesies you might have considered wearing to a costume party.

An embodiment of everything endearingly childlike, kawaii has been embraced by the Japanese government as one of its main cultural exports and the linchpin of its “soft power” strategy. With Pokémon Go, kawaii is continuing its relentless incursion into American culture.

What makes Pikachu and his friends so irresistible? The most basic answer is found in evolutionary psychology. When humans see something that resembles a baby ― big eyes, large head, floppy or shortened limbs, a clumsy walk ― it triggers a feeling of euphoria in the pleasure center of the brain (the same part of the brain, incidentally, that is stimulated by food, sex, and drugs like cocaine). This feeling motivates humans to get closer to and interact with the cute object. In the past, that instinct ensured that humans nurtured and protected babies, helping to perpetuate the species.

Today, of course, it is also imploring us to play with the big-eyed, round-bodied creatures of Pokémon. Every time we do so, we’re pressing the brain’s “cute” receptors and being rewarded with a relaxing hit of opioid-like happy hormones. It’s the same flood of happy hormones that explains why, at times of stress, you might turn for relief to online images of kittens or stumbling baby pandas on YouTube.

But, brain chemistry and GIF coding aside, it’s impossible to explain the rise of cute culture without Japan. Pokemon’s kawaii aesthetic is itself a reaction to traditional Japanese culture, which emphasizes responsibility, fortitude and self-restraint. For Japanese people in search of an alternative culture – or unconsciously in need of one — kawaii represents a form of indulgent escapism. Those who feel stressed by brutally long working hours, uncaring bosses, or an unhappy home life can receive brief mental respite from kawaii credit cardsbento, and even dish sponges. In recognition of its appeal, the Japanese government has appointed kawaii ambassadors to spread the trend around the world.

Kawaii culture was not always so mainstream, however. It emerged as a schoolgirl rebellion in the 1970s, Japan’s corollary to British punk culture. Teenage girls adopted childish handwriting and baby-speak and wore cutesy clothing as a way of disobeying their teachers’ ― and wider societys ― will to mold them into responsible, mature, and serious adults, according to anthropologist Sharon Kinsella.

Unlike Western teenagers, who usually rebel by adopting attitudes and habits beyond their years ― smoking, drinking, piercings, and tattoos ― to try to break away from parental and societal authority, Japanese teenagers acted like children to postpone the bleakness of adulthood and its accompanying stresses and remain in a Peter Pan-like idyll forever.

What started as rebellion, however, has now become the status quo. Japan has come a long way from the early tentative efforts by companies like Sanrio, the maker of Hello Kitty, to sell pencil cases decorated with bug-eyed frogs. Kawaii has turned into a society-wide embrace of the cute aesthetic in practically all situations. Japan now even prints cartoon bunnies on reminders for cancer screenings, tsunami warnings, and insurance brochures.

To a foreigner’s eye, this might seem to inject a disconcerting levity into serious issues. But in Japan, it’s now believed that cuteness is entirely practical; kawaii is used to make somber topics more approachable and easier to digest. Adults are thought to be far more likely to get a Pap smear or renew an insurance policy if an animated rabbit is imploring them to do it.

Companies outside of Japan have also cottoned on to the psychological effects of kawaii. In recent years, international car companies have started putting out cute cars, such as BMW’s Mini marque, with rounder bodies and circular headlights that look like friendly eyes. And Google, which “dumbed down” its serif logo into a more childlike font last year, released a prototype self-driving car that looks like a baby koala, perhaps to disguise the fact it is a potentially lethal robotic device.

Automakers may have made a calculated decision based on studies that show people become more attentive and cautious around cute things — meaning other drivers would be less likely to ram into the back of their car. The protective emotions triggered by its anthropomorphized face may also prevent others from suffering fits of road rage when the driver is slow or clumsy.

These are the positive effects of kawaii or cute objects: They can make us gentler, neutralize our anger, and boost our focus and productivity. Cute objects are increasingly used for therapeutic applications, such as a fluffy robotic seal called Paro, which has been shown to improve mood and stimulate social interaction in dementia patients.

It’s therefore no surprise that some people suffering from depression or anxiety are reporting psychological relief from playing Pokémon Go. In addition to motivating them to go outside, exercise, and interact with other people playing, the cuteness of the Pokémon characters has a psychologically uplifting effect that, say, an adult-looking figurine would not.

But there are negative aspects of kawaii, too. The feel-good, happy hormones cute things trigger can overwhelm other, more rational thoughts and feelings. In the case of Pokémon Go, rather than increasing feelings of empathy and caution for traffic, many players seem to acquire a kind of tunnel vision, plowing down streets and through private buildings in a frenzied hunt for rarer monsters like Vaporeon and Ivysaur. If anything, the cuteness of the characters is making players oblivious to everything except the little critters they are hunting and those they are competing against, making them more hazardous to everyone else as a result.

The other problem with kawaii is that it has a tendency to dumb things down, obscuring serious issues and threats. Much like the Puss in Boots character from the Shrek films, a hired assassin who lulls his enemies into a false sense of security by adopting an innocent, wide-eyed expression, kawaii can obscure or neutralize dangerous and upsetting elements of reality. In Tokyo, for example, the police force’s kawaii mascot, Pipo-kun, masks the menacing aspect of law enforcement. A cutesy cartoon of lung cancer hides the ugly reality of blackened organs, reducing motivations to quit. At the strange historical juncture we find ourselves at, Pokémon Go may be a glorious escapist trip into a layer beyond the reality of race politics, the prospect of increasing terrorism overseas, and a tense presidential race, but it may also steal us away from actual problems that require our attention.

Scared at what a Donald Trump presidency and Brexit and nukes and police brutality might mean for tomorrow? Well, no worries; just play Pokémon Go and feel those worries sink away. Much like the Japanese teenagers who kicked off this whole kawaii trend, sinking yourself into the visual massage that is Pokémon Go is a distraction from the reality at hand.

Photo credit: FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images; YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images; Foreign Policy illustration

Sophie Knight is a writer and ethnographer based in Amsterdam.

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