Well aware of the cutesy aesthetic that pervades Asian pop culture (only living under a bush for a decade or two would have saved me from Hello Kitty), I was not surprised to find that animated and caricatured figures formed the basis of marketing campaigns for nearly every pre-school, clothing brand, and even toilet seat in Korea.
What I find interesting, however, is the way that this aesthetic creeps into usually-mundane and conservative spaces in cultural media. Cutesy artwork in Korea has leapt from pencil cases onto medical advertisementsand law-enforcement logos.
When I turn on my laptop each morning, I am greeted with a series of whooshing and popping sounds akin to those that emanated from the video games my little brother used to play. My school uses a communication system called Cool Messenger, which features cartoonish sound effects and an animated penguin. Each teacher has an avatar and status icon and intra-school messages are populated with smileys ^^
In the week leading up to Buddha’s birthday, the streets of Daegu were adorned with thousands of lanterns featuring an animated Buddha. On a recent trip to Donghwasa temple on Palgonsan, I spied this little animated monk signposting the meditation centre on site. Cartoons certainly don’t seem to lessen the sanctity of this celebration. Even God can be cute in Korea.
Daegu, like many other South Korean areas, has adopted animated mascots as ambassadors for its eastern district, Dong-gu. Typically, governmental branding involves images, shapes and colours that secure a reputation of authority and trustworthiness, all the better to give the citizen a sense of security. It seems Dong-gu is just out to cheer your day.
Since cuteness is generally associated with light-heartedness, and ultimately that which is childlike rather than authoritative, this aesthetic would be deemed unprofessional in most other countries. Korea, however, is unlike any other place on the globe in many aspects, including their cutesy pop culture – except maybe Japan. Korea’s cutesy aesthetic is rooted in the Japanese cultural phenomenon known as “Kawaii”. As in Korea,
“. . . in Japan almost anything can be rendered cute, including authority figures. Signs erected by the police, the fire department, or construction firms warning pedestrians of new regulations, hazards or detours are frequently accompanied by a cute child-like character in uniform apologising for the inconvenience and inviting the public to take care.”
(Mark McLelland makes this comment in the intro to Issue 20 of a journal called Intersections “(A)cute Confusion: The Unpredictable Journey of Japanese Popular Culture”).
While Koreans are loath to associate themselves with the Japanese, this was the only explanation for the phenomenon that I could find. As “The Korean” of Ask a Korean says:
“Although Korea is a major exporter of culture at this point (in the form of movies, TV dramas and pop music,) Korea had no significant pop culture to speak of as recently as 40 years ago as the country struggled to build their way out of the heap of rubble. As Korean pop culture grew into form, it was influenced by two major pop cultures close to Korea — American and Japanese.”
While I might be hesitant to call Podori for help if I am being robbed, there are those that suggest that, like Japan, Korea is employing a kind of “soft power” in which citizens are persuaded to comply with authority rather than forced. As Yanto Chandra suggests in his article on the phenomenon of cute economics,
“It makes sense because cuteness signals positive facial and emotional expressions in social interactions that enhance cooperation (essential for success) and discourage rivalries.”
He suggests that cuteness, a survival tool for vulnerable children, is now a survival strategy for maintaining economic power. Perhaps Korea’s public sector is aware of what the private sector has known (and has been exploiting) for decades – “cute sells”.