Not the whole truth

The ultimate act of love? The truth behind Japan’s charaben culture” by Joshua Paul Dale is a pretty good popular intro to decorative food in Japan, but it contained one of my pet peeves:

Kawaii literally means “able to be loved” […]

Etymologically speaking, the direct ancestor of kawaii is kawayui, which can be traced back (with appropriate sound/morphology rewind: kahayusi, however you wanna pronounce that) to the end of the Heian period. This in turn is widely considered to derive from kahahayusi, roughly “flushed of face,” to do with embarrassment, pity, etc.

Dale is referring to the standard kanji spelling of kawaii, 可愛い, which can indeed be parsed “able to be loved.” But this spelling has nothing to do with the etymology and was applied long after the word came to be. To say that kawaii “literally means” this is oversimplified at best, misleading at worst. Oh well.

I have another objection to the article, actually: when it finally gets around to “the truth behind Japan’s charaben culture,” it doesn’t even touch on what we might call the “dark side” of charaben. I mean, consider this:

After all, these creations prove a mother’s dedication towards her child, not to mention her creative prowess.

I’m sure that for most mothers who make charaben, it is indeed a way to express maternal love. But given the whole “prove a mother’s dedication” thing, it shouldn’t be hard to imagine how, in some environments, peer pressure could transform charaben into a de facto public-facing obligation (falling entirely on the mother, natch). And indeed you do hear stories like this. I know it would have been a downer after the charaben Instagram success story talk, but I feel like it could at least have been mentioned.

Author: Matt

I live in Japan and read less books than I used to before I had kids, but still quite a few.

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