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Afro-Japanese Aesthetics  and New World Modernity



Lexington 2011


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"Thorsten Botz-Bornstein’s vast knowledge of philosophy and theory is amalgamated with his keen understanding of Japanese, African-American, and Afro-Japanese cultures to explain with precision, clarity, and valuable insights, tricky concepts such as kawaii, modernity, cuteness, coolness, kitsch, and dandyism. Drawing upon boundless examples, including those of Japanese manga and anime, Botz-Bornstein has given us a volume that will spark discussion and debate in a number of disciplines and set a standard for theoretical analysis."

John A. Lent, publisher and editor-in-chief, International Journal of Comic Art

Example one:

"A young black man strolls down the street in Oakland, California's African American community. He is wearing a Chicago Bulls athletic suit with expensive matching sneakers. The sneakers are untied and he walks with a light limp, leaning just a bit to one side. 

His arms take turns trailing behind him as he ambles on his way. He knows he is cool and looks good. He follows the popular rap groups and knows all the latest dance steps. Since he lost his job as a stock clerk six months ago, he has been unable to contribute to the support of his two children, who live with his former girlfriend and her mother. Halfway down the block, he runs into a good friend who is similarly dressed. They exchange a variety of low-five and high-five handshakes. Using a combination of Black speech patterns and street terminology, they discuss the latest happenings and exchange ideas about generating some income." [1] 




Introduction.  Chapter 1: Cool and Kawaii.

Chapter 2: New World Modernity. Chapter 3: Aspects of Cuteness. Chapter 4: Cross Gender Tendencies in Cool and Kawaii. Chapter 5: Coolness between Virtue Ethics and Aesthetics. Chapter 6: The Temptation of Kitsch. Chapter 7: Kitsch in Japan: Tradition and Modernity. Chapter 8: Cool and Dandyism: Two Words, One Concept. Chapter 9: Dandyism, Consumer Society, and Virtual Reality. Conclusion: A Dialectics of Cool and Kawaii? 

Example two:

"Tokyo. A group of extremely high-heeled Japanese girls wobble towards a group of Japanese young men who are sitting at a restaurant table. The girls' faces are made up with thick cream 

foundation and powder and all of them wear sparkly things in their hair. "Tokyo. A group of extremely high-heeled Japanese girls wobble towards a group of Japanese young men who are sitting at a restaurant table. The girls' faces are made up with thick layers of cream foundation and powder and all of them wear sparkly things in their hair. As they listen to the men, their outlined mouths are permanently smiling. Their shaded eyes, emerging under heavy fake eyelashes, adopt the shape of golf balls and convey the impression of astonishment as well as the vague feeling that whatever the males are saying will not be fully understood. The perpetual look of embarrassment, an effect of a sophisticated application of rouge, contributes to this impression. While they clap their hands whenever one of the males makes a joke, the few words that the girls occasionally breathe into the conversation come across as squeaky and "cute" sounds modeled on anime voices. Finally, one girl takes out her telephone from which six plush animals dangle and shows off a recently added glittery toy. In unison the other girls scream: kawaii!"  

What do these two examples, the one African American cool, the other Japanese cute or kawaii, have in common?


At first sight not much. The one is masculine and preoccupied with the dissimulation of emotion, the other is feminine and engaged in the ostentatious display of sentimentality. Cool produces an aesthetic of the emotionally restrained and the detached while kawaii excels in attachment to creations with resonances in childhood. Cool appears as an aesthetic used by the leader of the gang while kawaii seems to remain the option of women who have decided to become children. In spite of these exterior oppositions, both phenomena have important conceptual structures in common: both act against the plainness of official societies (the blandness of white America and the uniformity of Japan). In a more global context, they are even linked: they combat, both in its own way, the American "uncool" aesthetics of Disney.  


At the turn of the millennium, international youth culture is dominated by mainly two types of aesthetics: the Afro-American cool, which, propelled by Hip-hop music, has become "the world's favorite youth culture;" [2] and the Japanese aesthetics of kawaii or cute, that is distributed internationally by Japan's powerful anime industry. Hip-hop has become "the center of a mega music and fashion industry around the world" [3] and "Black aesthetics," whose stylistic, cognitive, and behavioral outfits are to a large extent based on cool, has become “the only distinctive American artistic creation"(White and Cones: 60). At the same time sixty percent of the world's cartoon series are made in Japan and Japanese games running on PlayStation 2 and Nintendo are as popular. [4] 

The USA and Japan are cultural superpowers and global trendsetters because they make use of two particular concepts that are complex and difficult to define, but continue to fascinate the world: cool and kawaii. While, as we will see below, in "white" European culture, cool and cute were, most of the time, defined as opposites, Afro-Japanese aesthetics is able to fuse both by following its intrinsic ironical patterns.

What is "Afro-Japanese Aesthetics"?


Cool and kawaii are expressions set against the oppressive homogenizations that occur within official modern cultures but are also catalysts of modernity. Cool and kawaii do not refer us back to a pre-modern ethnic past. Just like the cool African American man has almost no relationship with traditional African ideas about masculinity, the kawaii shojo is not the personification of the traditional Japanese ideal of the feminine, but signifies an ideological institution of women based on Japanese modernity in the Meiji period, that is, a feminine image based on westernization. At the same time, cool and kawaii do not transport us into a futuristic, impersonal world of hyper-modernity based on assumptions of constant modernization. Cool and kawaii stand for another type of modernity, which is not the technocratic one, but a "Dandyist" one that is closely related to the search for human dignity and liberation. 



          'Shades of Cool - Degrees of Kawaii' in The             Los Angeles Review of Books Nov. 12, 2013.


Review in Global Media Studies Journal


The Cool-Kawaii on Facebook 

The Chinese character "ku" (cool)

Notes: [1] White, Shane & Graham White. 1998. Stylin': African American Expressive Culture from its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 92.  [2] National Geographic Worldmusic website.  [3] US info State Government website .  [4] Avella, Natalie. 2004. From Woodblock and Zen to Manga and Kawaii. Mies, Switzerland: Roto Vision, 218.  

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