The “kawaii” factor

The phone in my landlords’ house can be heard by every tenant in the building. It’s currently rung just over 60 times, with no fewer than 2 hang-up-and-try-again pauses. Something tells me they aren’t home–I wish someone would tell the caller!

On my way in to school, I noticed a brightly colored tarp in the genkan under a planter, and some familiar looking character designs. It was a tarp of the Wacky Racers! There were four characters on it, and I could immediately make out Dick Dastardly, Penelope Pittstop, and Muttley, who’s my mom’s favorite. Ahh, 1960s Hanna Barbera animation…natsukashii. It reminded me of when I would watch that when I was younger.

Amazingly, that isn’t the only example of anachronistic American animation I’ve seen in Japan–one of my 3rd-year girls last year had a pencil case with Magilla Gorilla on it! There was no way she could have known what that show was about. Another one had a case with the Flintstones on it; I really don’t know how widespread that sort of thing is over here, and whether they would have watched the Flintstones when they were young. As far as I know, it hasn’t been on any major TV station in the US in at least 10-15 years (not counting Boomerang, Cartoon Network’s “classics” spinoff network), and none of them are older than 15 years old…

Spongebob is another one. Each of the homerooms has a blackboard in the back where the students write some kind of witty or inspirational message representing the class, or where they draw fun pictures. Spongebob was up there in homeroom 3-B last year (and the expression they drew on him was his “I have to go to the bathroom” look), but as far as I know, Spongebob Squarepants has never been shown on TV here! Now sketches of Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory and Bart Simpson are on the board in one of this year’s homerooms. There’s a chance they know what The Simpsons is, since there have been plenty of pop culture references to Japan in the show and since I believe it’s available over here in at least a limited capacity–but I have no idea how they would know about Dexter’s Lab.

My only guess? The “kawaii” factor. Pencil cases and other school-supply-related charms feature these sorts of characters a lot, regardless of whether they’ve made appearances in the mass media here or not. It’s similar to how the Playboy Bunny is big among junior high and high school girls (there’s a store in the basement of the HEP-5 in Osaka that sells a ton of clothes with Playboy emblems all over them), but they have no idea what it actually means. We had a discussion about it over a year ago on our JET messageboard. I definitely was stunned to receive a thank-you notecard with a Playboy Bunny on it from my speech contest girls my first fall here, but time has essentially explained this phenomenon.

(Yes, I do seem to be writing long entries on a daily basis these days, why do you ask? Oh, and the caller so desperate to reach my landlords finally gave up.)

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