The Kawaii That’s Supposed To Make You Feel Gross: Kimo-Kawaii

There’s no doubt there are an abundance of cute characters in Japan. Japanese people love cute things, and will buy mountains merchandise to show off in their homes, use as supplies, or hang them as keychains to dangle from their phones or bags. And because there are so many characters and fads that come in and out of style, one can pick their favorites to show off their interests and personality in an individuality-through-conformity based society like Japan’s.

You already know what I’m talking about: Hello Kitty, Pikachu, Rilakkuma, and Doraemon (to name a few). They are, after all, the characters that have made Japan the “Nation Of Cute.” While these characters are definitely “the mainstream” (so much so that even outside of Japan you probably will recognize them all), there is another group of “cute” characters out there that you probably have not heard of. Does Kobitodukan, Lerch-san, or Gloomy Bear ring any bells?

Kimochi Warui + Kawaii = KimoKawaii

img_1477049_61443344_0

When I was in Japan last summer, I noticed some really strange characters mixed in with the usual flurry of fluffy alpacas and Pokemon. These strange creatures had the outside skins of mushrooms, peaches, and plants, but on the inside they looked like old men in a perpetual state of shock. When I asked my friend about them, she replied that they were called Kobitodukan (こびとづかん) and were really popular, especially among high school girls who think that they’re cute

Cute? Cute?! How can something this strange be considered cute, I thought. “They’re supposed to be gross, and that’s what makes them cute. It’s called kimo-kawaii, or gross-cute,” my friend explained.

0

At first I was bewildered by the concept, but just as it took me three painful tries to go from hating the fermented soybean dish natto to loving it, the more that I saw Kobitodukan, the more I began to tolerate them. Before I knew it, I had a Kobitodukan pencil case, keychain, card game, guidebook, candy holder, and assorted stickers. Kimo-kawaii had won me over just like it had won over the rest of Japan.

Kobitodukan themselves were created by Toshitaka Nabata in his children’s picture book, Kobitodukan (which translates roughly to “dwarf encyclopedia”). These Kobito dwarves are explained in a poetic fashion, saying that:

“They are the ones who perform the actions that fill us with mystery. They are the ones that make the grass rustle when there is no wind and who fold the edges of toilet paper into triangles.”

20100710_1217537-scaled1000

But it’s not just the Kobitodukan that are considered kimo-kawaii. There’s a whole slurry of other characters out there that fall within this increasingly popular category.

Nameko – He’s A “Fun Guy!”

wk_120208nameko01

Have you ever heard of a mushroom acting as a detective’s assistant? Nameko (marketed in English as “Funghi”), a talking mushroom, started off in a video game and now embellishes many apps, keychains, and folders galore.
In fact, you can hardly walk a block in Japan without walking into a Nameko UFO catcher (most likely Viet will be cursing while putting in another 1000 yen into the machine… “last time… last time…” he’ll mutter under his breath).

Funghi’s official website says “His lovable expressions and unpredictable behavior make him super popular!” If a talking mushroom wasn’t kimochi warui enough, his skin is described as “slippery, soft, and shiny” and instead of talking, he can express emotions by saying “nnf nnf”

[yframe url='https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2mFDFUTKzQ']

He even has a whole music video about him! There’s nothing like watching a mushroom sing and dance to a catchy tune!

Kimo-Kawaii City Mascots

sentokun

If you’re traveling in Japan, you’ll see plenty of mascots, and not just for sports teams. In Japan, many cities have their own own mascots, or yuru kyara. There are so many (over a thousand) that they cover a wide spectrum of cute.  A while back, Hashi wrote an article about his favorite mascots, which includes some that are kimo-kawaii (or maybe just kimoi) enough to be mentioned here.

Manbe-kun

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKKRoPn19SU']

Manbe-kun is the mascot for the town of Oshamanbe located in Hokkaido. His physical mix of sea-creatures that make up his body and his silent disposition combine to make something that’s just plain weird.

Funasshi

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5waRRLnQTA']

Funashi represents Funabashi city and vaguely resembles a pear. Although he doesn’t seem very gross standing by himself, when he jumps around (which is very often) you can understand why he might fit into this category.

Sento-kun

sentokun-1

Nara’s city mascot, Sento-kun represents his town through his Buddhist monk appearance, reindeer horns and “amiable disposition.” He has not been completely well-received throughout his life, but has continued to thrive due to that those who love him, really love him.

Lerch-san

171623_1720237239056_1491093_o

Lerch-san (pronounced reruhi-san) represents the snowy areas of Niigata prefecture, and is in fact based off of  real-life guy Theodor Edler von Lerch, who supposedly first brought skiing to Japan. I had the pleasure of meeting the mascot at a shopping center a few years ago. (Kimo-)Kawaii!

Blood and Guts- Grotesque Kawaii

scarybaby

Although kimo-kawaii has been a recent fad, Japan has always had a relationship with creating strange things. Similar to the kimo-kawaii is the grotesque-cute or “guro-kawaii”, which is a step more extreme. Those who know Gloomy Bear know guro-kawaii. Gloomy Bear, which has had a surge of popularity overseas, is a teddy bear character who brutally murders his child owner- but he’s so cute while he does it! Although more than a little disturbing, I can see why it would be popular with kids going through a goth-phase. Gloomy bear seems like just the thing embrace if you want to be edgy, but still cute.

022781

Speaking of edgy, if you “look” around Harajuku (and the rest of Japan) you may “see” something called “eyeball decorations.” Japanese girls are ripping out the eyeballs of their friends and are sewing them on their bags and jackets (just kidding.) But eyeballs are embellishing many fashion accessories, and are considered cute by many. Accompanying the eyeballs can be bones or other blood-splattered body parts parts. Adorable!

gDvdcdhNSNL0cK-nVZkI46tyiUaoXikzlY6oHmllQhHDYurxPK0euFt7K520ywwTN2jlRPm_R9FvqWueLjAit2TIHmC2VrdW3YjcwzawNBrErPfVdIIGOQKEd3Y1YrVmXw

While this sort of fashion can be seen in Japan it also exists overseas, even in America, in fact! A lot of times it seems like there’s some inspiration going on, one way or another.

Guro-Kawaii Outside Of Japan?

Happy-Tree-Friends-happy-tree-friends-175505_1280_1024

Take for example the American animation Happy Tree Friends, which if you do not know, is a cartoon where cute fluffy animals inflict horrifying levels of violence and gore upon each other. It’s not Japanese, but I have heard various Japanese high school girls tell me that they love the show. Why? I honestly do not know. Personally, I can’t watch a whole video without cringing and looking away. Seriously, watch at your own discretion. Meccha kawaii~!

[yframe url='http://www.google.com/url?q=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3D165VjNKRNdw']

The idea of something being both aesthetically unpleasing yet cute at the same time is being accepted both in Japan and outside of it, whether it is for shock factor or for remembrance, and shows around the English-speaking world have also used bursts of gross and grotesque in the mainstream. (Spongebob or Ren and Stimpy, anyone?)

Guro and Kimo Kawaii in the flesh

mbZyUDpVHS2jpgDBpbRTvkUjK-FLiWjA3-5iXLsssESGd2aNbM-zWQzNdNowunKCB7qpJsOHIOtHgHP35mLa8gAKSdz9NmAtrDwgnJRlcrnUGhjgSwiN25eX

If we’re going to talk about guro-kawaii, we have to talk about her. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, the supreme overlord of Harajuku, is responsible for earworms such as PONPONPON, Candy Candy, and Tsukematsukeru, definitely embraces the concepts of kimo-kawaii and guro-kawaii.

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzC4hFK5P3g']

Kyary is responsible for many strange (often kimo/guro-kawaii) fads, the perpetuation of eyeball fashions (“see” above), as well as a recent fashion idea of using makeup to emphasize the bags under your eyes to make them look bigger- which is strange to some and cute to others.

Kyary herself states that her image is one of the main focuses of her musical career. She said in an interview once that “I love grotesque things. My concept is scary things that become traumatic with their cuteness. There are so many “just cute” things in the world, so I add grotesque, scary and even shocking materials like eyeballs and brains to balance out the cuteness.”

Almost Zen like with that balance. Wash on… wash off… Ommmmm.

But… Why?

SH380440

So why are Kobitodukan, eyeball accessories, and Kyary so popular? Is it  the Japanese love of the strange in a society where most are not strange? Are people getting bored of the traditional soft vanilla-type Sanrio cute? The strange is what initially shocks the consumer, and is more interesting than the plain cute. And once they get past the initial shock, they become more open to the idea of it being “cute”, especially when the media and their peers are also calling these things cute. Japanese society is what gives these things the names “kimo-kawaii” and “guro-kawaii”, and once a name is given, the concept comes along with it.

So go forth, Japanese schoolgirls! Bring more kimo-guro-kawaii into the world for the rest of us to enjoy! We will continue your legend by calling these things cute as well, though maybe it’ll take a little getting used to. Although guro-kawaii has been accepted more outside of Japan with things such as Happy Tree Friends, kimo-kawaii still has a ways to go, I think, as I am reminded almost daily when people see my Kobito keychain. “What the hell is that?” or “That’s kind of creepy,” are things I hear a lot. I’m sure the more that I tell people that my kakuremomojiri Kobitodukan keychain is cute, the more it will rub off on someone at some point.

So let’s see, did it work? Let me know how you’re feeling about all of this in the comments. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder? (That is, unless said eye is on your handbag)

Time To Coloring Book!

For those of you who still love coloring books (or have kids) our (not) kimo-kawaii artist Aya made you a coloring book page out of the header. How fun is that? Just click the image below to get to a full size.

kimo-kawaii-coloring

Also, if you want this image as your very own desktop background, you can do so by clicking below:

2560 x 1600

  • Henro

    You literally just don’t know anything about culture.

    The fact that EVERY culture to one degree or another has conformity does not mean that Japanese conformity is unique to Japan. Every culture has marriage, too, but guess what: it is different in almost each and every one. THAT’s how culture works, and the thing is that people who are actually educated and know the most basic fundamentals of culture and anthropology? We understand that YES, ALL cultures share these basic things – but THIS particular culture does it MORE or LESS than the others.

    In other words: anyone who isn’t a complete idiot understands that YES, we do this too. We conform in our societies, too. We have social problems, too. But JAPAN’s culture, and JAPAN’s social issues are the topic at hand, and they are different from others. They conform MORE than we do, and not in the same WAY that we do.

    It is seriously not that f-ing complicated, and all your BS about how anyone who critiques Japanese culture is having “in-group/out-group issues” is just idiotic trolling. The longer you rant, the more you reveal how LITTLE you know about culture. By the way – the word you want isn’t “in-group/out-group.” It’s “ethnocentrism” you ignorant troll. AND GUESS WHAT: it isn’t inherently ethnocentric to discuss another culture, nor to critique what you do-and-do-not like about it.

  • Henro

    F-ing typo: ” does not mean that Japanese conformity isN’T unique to Japan.”

    In other words: Japanese conformity not only is different than US conformity – it plays a DIFFERENT social role in Japanese culture and is viewed differently by Japanese people. The fact that we share a cultural concept doesn’t mean that we USE it the same way or that we VIEW it the same way, and if you knew the first basic f-ing thing about culture, you would know that.

  • Henro

    I like your article, but my gut response is that you are…off. Not wrong, exactly, but off. Funasshi, for example, is less kimo-kawaii and more a troll. My feelings towards him is that he is formally a yuru-kyara – he fulfills all the criteria of being one – but he is in no way a proper yuru-kyara. He is a post-modern parody of a yuru-kyara, and I think he is absolute genius.

    I think kimo-kawaii is linked to Japanese formalism. A lot of Japanese culture I encounter is that X=X regardless of context or circumstances. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is like this, I think: formalistically, she is a cute girl: she has the voice, the frills, the funny dance. But she sneaks that creepy stuff in, just like Funasshi. She’s technically cute – formally, she fulfills all the necessary criteria – but she’s playing with it.

    In fact, I think that may be EXACTLY what “individuality through conformity” means: Funasshi and Kyary are playing the system. They are fulfilling all the technical rules, but in practice, they are breaking all of them. A LOT of Japanese culture works this way. You follow the rules to the T, but then you sneak in this crazy thing that’s not IN the rules – you’ve got your school uniform, you’ve got your proper school bag, you’ve got the appropriate shoes – but there’s NO RULE that says you can’t put your necktie on your head – and you ARE still technically wearing it. Funasshi is a yuru-kyara in every technical way – but no one ever said a yuru-kyara had to be SANE. He’s still a yuru-kyara.

    Which isn’t to say this is a bad article, I just don’t think you fully considered the cultural context in which it exists.

  • Henro

    Oh, man, I have the same thing. I can literally just sit and giggle to myself thinking about Funasshi. He is the best thing I’ve seen in Japan in the past few years. Absolute. Best.

    Watch this video:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5qeg39jgvsg

    He just doesn’t care!

  • Applesauce 21

    Wow, the comments on this article are so serious o_O I feel sorry for the intern! To cheer your guys up, here is a kobitodukan lolly pop :D http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Xo8-bDn9ic

  • Lourdes

    I am new to the Tofugu/Textfugu world so I wanted to congratulate Rachel on a great article. It’s sad one can’t read (or write) anything on the Internet anymore without generating some of the responses below. Please continue to provide great content for those of us that wouldn’t have a way to find out about what’s going on in Japan otherwise!

  • Cassandra

    See also:

  • SamuraiAvenger

    “Who Killed Cock Robin?”

  • noisyninja

    *Violence

  • Jan Kowalewski

    I like Hello Kitty. That’s good for me. Keep your kimokawaii for yourself if you like it ;p

  • Dyna1

    LMFAO!!! OMG LOOOL!

  • Mwani

    Ahahah

  • CoffinUnicorn

    i have always had an interest in things like this, and well now i know that it has a name! I’ve always loved Kyary, her video for Fashion Monster kind of fits this trend! This is a fantastic first post though,good job.

  • ninjamitsuki

    Even though most people think he is horrifying, as intended, I always thought that Salad Fingers was cute in a dark, twisted way. After learning about kimo kawaii though, I actually looked up a Japanese subtitled upload of Salad Fingers on Nico Nico Douga and I saw a lot of comments about how “cute” he was. At least 15 comments said “かわいい”

    So I guess Salad Fingers would be an example.