Toward my “Japanese Barbie,” I felt mostly indifferent.
When I first visited Japan as a seven-year-old in the 1990s, my mother took me to the toy section of a department store, where she let me choose from a pink wall of plastic fashion dolls all standing at attention in their boxes. The dolls had big, sparkly, anime-style eyes that looked shyly askance. They wore frilly, whimsical dresses in pastel colors decorated with ribbons. I had never before seen fashion dolls so adorable. American Barbies of the ’90s had the cool, unapproachable sexiness of supermodels. Instead, these dolls were cute and friendly, asking to be cherished. I chose one called リカちゃん, Licca-chan, and took her home with me to California, where she lived with my Barbies in an old cardboard box, among a tangle of yellow hair, skinny limbs, and neon Velcro outfits.
Looking back, I wish I could write that I loved my Licca-chan doll more than I loved my Barbies, but I cannot say that is true. As a half-Japanese, half-white child who always felt like a racial outsider, it seems that I should have either adored or resented this representation of normative feminine beauty, whether Japanese or white American. But Licca-chan was neither an object of identification nor one of racial self-loathing. Toward my “Japanese Barbie,” I felt mostly indifferent.
The reason is that Licca-chan, with her fair skin, honey-blonde hair, and big doe eyes, did not appear Japanese to me at all. At least not aside from the fact that she embodied the ideals of the Japanese かわいい, kawaii, or “cute,” aesthetic: girlish, innocent, demure. When I played with Licca-chan, I pretended that she was Barbie’s younger sister. In my imagination, the two dolls could easily belong to the same white family.
As many women of color who grew up in the US during or before the ’90s probably recall, it used to be difficult, if not impossible, to find attractive dolls of color. Dolls back then were not just blue-eyed and blonde, but aggressively so in the cumulative effect of their whiteness. I accepted this whiteness as normal and desirable without undue feeling.
Nevertheless, when my non-Japanese friends came over to play, I introduced Licca-chan as an exotic new doll. Licca-chan appeared unique because her cuteness seemed so different from Barbie’s busty glamor. “Look,” I would say, stripping off Licca-chan’s clothes to reveal her naked plastic body. “She has small boobs.”
These memories are strange to think back on now that I am a researcher studying the globalization of Japanese children’s culture. I have since discovered that Licca-chan was designed to be a mixed-race girl like me. According to the backstory provided by the company that created her, Takara Tomy, Licca-chan is half-Japanese and half-white. Her mother is a Japanese fashion designer, and her father is a French orchestra conductor. She is a multiracial child of the global elite.
It seems strange to me now that I in fact did have a doll who was supposed to be “just like me”—a doll with her own line of pretty clothing, pink accessories, and castle-like dollhouses similar to Barbie’s—and I never knew it.
Over the past few decades, I have watched Japanese popular culture become trendy in the US, and then eventually mundane. The other day, while waiting for the bus, I noticed an anime sticker affixed to a pole and reflected on how unremarkable it probably seemed to almost everyone who walked by it. Back in the ’90s, the average American had limited exposure to Japanese toys and media, and it might have seemed noteworthy or even strange.
These memories are strange to think back on now that I am a researcher studying the globalization of Japanese children’s culture.
Although Japanese popular culture became mainstream in the US by the early 2000s, the racial fantasies that appear in kawaii continue to confuse American spectators. Many Americans see Licca-chan or anime characters like Sailor Moon, with their blonde hair and big eyes, and wonder why they do not appear more Japanese. I remember my white high school classmates laughing at how funny Sailor Moon’slive-action reinterpretation looked with a Japanese cast. “But Asian girls have short legs!” they said, referring to the anime characters’ long, slender limbs, which they perceived as a white feature. Such responses to kawaii’s racial ambiguity trouble me because they can endorse the truthfulness of racist caricatures. Underlying the question of why anime characters have such big, adorable eyes, I sometimes hear the unspoken assumption that Asian eyes must be small and squinty.
In this way, stereotyped ideas of Asian people still lurk behind America’s newfound love of cute Japan. Orientalism stays fixed in place even as kawaii’s globalization has replaced racist cartoon images of slant-eyed, bucktoothed Japanese men with lovely, starry-eyed Japanese girls.
At the same time, there is some truth to the idea that kawaii favors white aesthetics. Kawaii’s rise after World War II is linked to Japan’s defeat and disarmament, reflecting the nation’s forced embrace of a childlike and feminine role in global politics. During this time, kawaii became an aesthetic ideal in Japanese society that centered around the innocence and playfulness of girls and young women. Concurrently, Western children’s fantasies—from classic storybooks to Disney movies—became popular with Japanese audiences due to the authority of American power. Their pretty blonde heroines shone bright in the fantasy lives of Japanese children, as they eventually would in my own ’90s American childhood, and influenced the development of today’s kawaii aesthetics.
Take, for example, Hello Kitty, Sanrio’s cute white cat character, created in 1974, who evinces kawaii’s Western influences. According to Sanrio, Hello Kitty is not a cat, but a British schoolgirl “born in the suburbs of London.” Her last name is “White.”
Licca-chan, too, reflects the desire for Westernization in the postwar period. First produced in 1967, Licca-chan was the most popular girls’ doll in Japan for over a quarter of a century. She represented Japan’s dreams of postwar reconstruction, and the nation’s ability to heal and move forward to a future in which Japan might become integrated with Western powers.
The term given to this mixture of Japanese and Western aesthetics is 無国籍, mukokuseki, meaning “without a nationality.” It is a common aspect of kawaii. By combining racial and cultural elements, kawaii characters are thought to be able to float freely across national borders. Their lack of what the scholar Koichi Iwabuchi calls “cultural odor” supposedly enables them to be embraced by people around the world. Softened by a white filter, Japanese cuteness becomes “universal,” promising a naïve post-racial future much like multiracial children do.
As many times as I have relayed these stories of kawaii’s “mixing” in my own research, I did not until very recently connect the concept to my mixed-race identity. This is odd since, as a Japanese/white multiracial woman, I have experienced both the privilege and the violence attached to this highly fetishized and stigmatized racial positioning. So, too, I know the cost of having cuteness serve as your main point of access into acceptance and belonging.
My Japanese mother married a white American man and moved to the US in the late 1980s, and I was born shortly after. Although my father was not in the military—he was a hippie, a pacifist, and world traveler—my mother’s family disapproved of the marriage. It still carried the stigma of wartime traumas, and she became cut off from them when she rebelled.
Unlike the cosmopolitan elitism of Licca-chan’s family, my family was lower-middle-class during my childhood. We lived in beige or brown apartments, then small houses, that were usually a bit untidy. Lacking funds, we did not return to Japan until the trip when I was seven and my mother purchased Licca-chan for me. I recognize now that my mother had likely wanted me to identify with the doll.
During my mother’s youth in postwar Japan, ハーフ, haafu, or “half-Japanese,” stars rose to fame alongside Western-inspired anime and manga, such as the popular series The Rose of Versailles, which imagines Marie Antoinette as a kawaii heroine. While many haafu born after the war were outcast as “war babies,” especially haafu with Black fathers, being Japanese/white multiracial assumed a kawaii charm in media and consumer culture. Licca-chan was modeled in part after one of these haafu stars, a model named Emiri Takami.
I do not think that my mother consciously thought of Licca-chan in this way, as haafu, when she bought the doll for me. To my mother, Licca-chan was likely just Japanese, and I was supposed to love her in the same way that I was supposed to love my Japanese half.
While Licca-chan might look white to many Americans, including to my young self, her kawaii appearance identifies her as Japanese to many people in Japan. According to a public relations officer at Takara Tomy, Barbie’s voluptuousness and relationship with her boyfriend, Ken, make her “a bit too much” for Japanese consumers. In contrast, Licca-chan’s petite stature and girlish looks fit perfectly with kawaii ideals. Her sideways glance is supposed to suggest not Barbie’s flirtatiousness, but an open, vulnerable expression that invites emotional connection, much like Hello Kitty’s blank stare. For some, these cute qualities evoke positive feelings attached to Japanese social and cultural values, such as harmony and interdependence.
So, too, I know the cost of having cuteness serve as your main point of access into acceptance and belonging.
If I failed to identify with Licca-chan as a child, other kawaii objects did serve as my amulets of connection to Japan and to Asian America. My mother was too busy working and learning English during my childhood to have time to instill a deep love of her homeland in me, but she often tried to do so in smaller ways. Her gestures typically came in the form of kawaii mementos sent from friends in Japan or purchased at the Japanese market: Hello Kitty trinkets, Hi-Chew candies, cute socks with ruffled edges.
Because kawaii was not yet mainstream in the US, these small treasures felt rare and private, just for me and other Japanese and Asian American girls. I dreamed of fuzzy panda stickers and pens with dangling heart-shaped charms. I carefully folded up and saved the Hello Kitty paper bags in which these gifts came tucked. Sometimes ashamed of my racial difference at school and in public, my private enjoyment of kawaii culture took on a special, intimate importance.
When I eventually grew up out of the world of dolls and into the Y2K teenage world of sexy celebrities like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, cuteness became an aesthetic ideal I felt I could strive to inhabit. From a young age, I had already felt shut out from white feminine beauty. Although my father is white, I have never passed as white myself. My features tend to be interpreted as mostly, if imprecisely, East Asian. When I was little, my father called me a “snow bunny,” because my skin would tan in the summer and turn lighter in the winter.
Growing up with few models of multiracial feminine beauty, I used to believe I was ugly. In this time before Asian American beauty YouTubers, I tried unsuccessfully to mimic the makeup and hair tips designed for white girls that I found in American fashion magazines. I would search for my cheekbones, the folds of my eyelids, only to find that the image I saw in the mirror could not possibly be made to match the magazine page.
Eventually, I realized that although I would never be beautiful according to white standards, cuteness was at least marginally available to me. As a shy person by nature, I found it was much easier to conform to the kawaii expectations placed on my Japanese heritage. From middle school through college, I wore my hair in pigtails, sometimes in a style modeled after Sailor Moon, encircled with two buns at the top. If I would never fit in with the popular white kids at school, my kawaii self-fashioning at least ensured the safety of their indifference. As time went on and kawaii culture spread, I discovered that it even occasionally earned me approval. Well into adulthood, I happily performed this role desired of Asian femininity: cute, sweet, and nonthreatening.
Among Japanese people, too, I found that cuteness was the easiest role for me to play. I hoped it might help compensate for my foreignness and broken Japanese. “How do you keep your skin so white?” a young Japanese woman asked me one time during a visit to Japan in my early twenties. “I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess because I am half-white?” I was too thrown off by the question to come up with a good answer. I am, in fact, not very fair. I would say that we had similar skin tones. I think she simply saw what she wanted to see given her awareness of my racial background.
While it would be wrong to claim that Japanese people aspire to be white, it is hard for me as a Japanese/white multiracial woman not to notice how kawaii’s privileging of fair skin and large eyes often contains an implicit admiration for white femininity. I will always be in favor of play and self-fashioning—I enjoy wearing circle contact lenses, which make your eyes appear cuter and rounder, myself—but I think something is lost when the possibilities for Asian feminine beauty narrow too closely around white-inflected kawaii aspirations. I recognize this loss not just because of the uncomfortable ways that my multiracial appearance has sometimes been ascribed the prestige of cuteness, but because I know the difficulty of navigating beauty across racial difference.
Buried under what might seem to be merely vain and frivolous matters, our experiences of beauty and cuteness conceal wounded feelings associated with racism, war, and empire, with Asian girls and women’s fetishization and abuse. In this context, Asian/white multiracial femininity is especially charged with fetishized meanings. We have been fashioned into plastic figures representing a kawaii future, while still being treated in the everyday as objects of hatred and shame.
In Japanese, there exists a word, 残念ハーフ, zannen haafu, meaning “unfortunate half-Japanese,” which is often used to refer to half-Japanese women who fail to live up to kawaii ideals, who fail to represent the best of both worlds. When I first learned of this word, it captured for me how limited the terms of our belonging truly are.
I understand now that performing cuteness was my attempt to become the “right” kind of half-Japanese woman: universally loveable and attractive, the perfect, fluid cosmopolitan subject.
Licca-chan is fluently bilingual and lives in a big house in Japan, while her father owns a castle in France. She attends private school and has many friends and a happy family. She possesses Asian/white multiracial feminine beauty in its most idealized form, glossed over with kawaii aesthetics.
Licca-chan is also eternally a child on the cusp of puberty, forever eleven years old and in the fifth grade. She will always be innocent and hopeful. She will never put on weight or get acne or wrinkles, will never have a partner who mistreats her, or an exploitative, low-paying job.
Because we represent fantasies of a peaceful, post-racial future, multiracial people are often imagined as children. But, unless we are dolls, we cannot stay young forever. I have become painfully aware of this, as I am soon entering my late thirties. Growing older has forced me to search for a new relationship to my kawaii love, one less dependent on making myself small and childlike in a plea for racial acceptance.
It hurts to realize that you will never truly belong, that other people’s acceptance of and desire for you will always be mixed up in racism and a hundred other contingencies. Under these conditions, you may need to take refuge wherever you can find it, even if that happens to be in a doll’s dream life. A plastic fantasy of eternal cuteness can be a good escape.
Erica Kanesaka is a writer and scholar specializing in Asian American literature and culture, with a focus on the racial and sexual politics of kawaii and cuteness. Her work has appeared in Public Books, Avidly: Los Angeles Review of Books, and Ms. Magazine among other places. She is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Emory University.