Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why Do Koreans Like Cute Things?

Dear Korean,

Since I arrived in Korea, I have wondered about the national obsession for cute things. I know of no other place where grown men and women so enthusiastically pose for photos with cute robots, over-sized teddy bears, wear cute Mickey and Minnie Mouse paraphernalia, and... well, the list goes on. Cute cartoon cows on galbi signs? Cutesy police officers who look like puppies on road signs? What's the deal? Seriously, Teenie Weenie? (It's a clothing brand centered around globe-trotting teddy bears who look rather out of place in any location that isn't a child's story book)

- I'm Not Wearing A Shirt With That Damn Bear No Matter How Adorable It Makes Me


You speak the truth. And in this case, pictures are worth a thousand words. So without further ado…

Cute robot assisting English education? Check

Time for NSET Luddite movement? (Source)

Grown man peddling teddy bears? Check.

Pro Gamer Yoon-Yeol Lee shows off teddy bears modeled after him. (Source)

Cannibalistic chicken peddling spicy chicken (dakkalbi)? Check.

My head is here. Now come taste my body! (Source)

Cutesy police officers who look like puppies? Double check.

At least it doesn't look like a pig. (Source)

Police characters, hard at work. (Source)

And horror of all horrors, Teenie Weenie.

Yes, an entire fashion chain built around a teddy bear theme!! (Source)

Pick up your jaws -- you are ruining the carpet.

Why is this happening? A society’s consumption pattern is a complex sociological issue, requiring many eggheads and inscrutable doctoral dissertations in order to uncover the multitudinous layers that create a sophisticated mosaic comprised of tastes, class identifications and ...

Heck, who is the Korean kidding? The answer is one word:  Japan.

In fact, when INWASWTDBNMHAIMM says he knows of "no other place" with obsession for cute things, he pretty much told the world that he has never been to Japan. Because if he did, he would have seen these:

One of the first things you see as you are stepping out of the Narita Airport near Tokyo. (Source)

 And these ladies, if you are lucky. (Source)

 The pinnacle of Japan's kawai-ness. (Source)

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.

It is, then, no surprise that Korea is infected by Japan's love for cute cartoon characters. Let's face it -- people like cute things. There is no population of children in the world that rejected Pokemon, and that's not because of its compelling story line. It is perhaps the first cartoon whose only appeal was cuteness overload.

Even children of South Park love Poke--, ahem, Chinpokomon.

The only reason why American adults are inhibited from embracing their cuteness-loving nature is the years of Puritanical repression they suffered as children, only using yellow No. 2 pencil when they secretly desired colorful mechanical pencils with anime characters printed on them. So INWASWTDBNMHAIMM, you actually want Teenie Weenie deep down. Look at that bear smiling. He's smiling at you! Are you going to disappoint the cute bear? How dare you!

But the Korean understands that old habits die hard, and your revulsion will not subside easily. So next time when you are subject to the horrors of Teenie Weenie, do what all Koreans do when they hate something about Korea -- blame Japan.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email the Korean at


  1. I love this post. So true. The "cute" culture of East Asia is what makes it so unique, among other things. To me it means those societies are better at embracing their inner child, heh.

  2. When I read the original email at the beginning, I had the exact same thought - "He thinks Koreans like cute things? Wonder what he'd think if he ever visited Japan."

  3. Yes we sure DO like cute things ^_^

  4. We were never grown really, Its a super imposed reality of some evil minds that we are leaving as adults.

    We all love cute things in any age...its the evil society that does not permit it to be like kids again.

  5. I thought the Koreans were crazy when I first arrived to this country. Now, 4 months later - I've got a pajamas with black and white cow-pattern...

  6. But what about the repression of my inner teenager? who loves to hate cute things, because it remembers her of being dependant and overcontroled? what about the ruff guys? what about angry punk music? what about parties? what about dirty jokes? I can't understand how they can do so well with all those syrupy unreal cuteness...looks like just as fake to me as the painted hillside in front of mountains in Everland...

  7. Hum... my pajamas have cute puppies on it... My fave t-shirt has Minnie Mouse on it... I love dressing up dolls... I really love cute things!!!!! Fortunately, my family never opposed me!

  8. I've heard Korean folk complaining of it. The cute style isn't for everyone. But heck I would rather have the "cute" pushed around than other fashions like "emo" or "cutesy punk rock"

  9. LOL.
    When I read the question my first reaction was "Japan!" but I thought you'd anwser something else... You didn't. :-)

  10. Awesome post, Korean! That groping cop character and the South Park pic cracked me up.

  11. I have no qualms with loving the cuteness. It's just in our blood. :3

    chinpokomon =^.^=

  12. I can live among the cuteness and even mildly appreciate it without taking part in it.

  13. The #2 pencils -- so true! I came to the US when I was 6, from my adorable anime double-decker pencil box with magnet closure and colorful pencils and animal shaped erasers to the land of the solid vinyl zip pencil pockets, yellow pencils and pink rectangular erasers.

    Why such plainness????

    Puritanism -- Korean, you are so right.

  14. I don't agree with the "puratinism" thing. In Europe we're even less into cute things than Americans are... And God knows we're not Puritans.

    My half-baked philosophico-historic theory about it is... Confucianism!

    Or at least the vertical and hierarchical organization of society (at least in Japan, I'm not too sure about Korea) that makes most of the population keep some childlike traits their whole life (being under somebody's responsibility their whole life and all).

    (Disclaimer: I woke up 20 minutes ago, haven't finished to drink my coffee yet, and that idea just popped in my mind like that after 30 seconds of reflection. Is it genius or the lamest theory I've ever had? Not sure, you decide)

  15. David:

    I'm thinking on the same thing sometimes, however, not gaining deeper understanding yet. I hope by time.

    ( actually, Puritanism was quite popular in my area, when it appeared. and I guess we still have some of it's traditions today. )

  16. Point #1: Is that guy cop going for a boob grab of that girl cop?

    Point #2: You make no truer statement than to say "When in doubt, blame Japan."

    Point #3: It disturbs me that I go past the Teenie Weenie store in Gangnam almost daily and no longer get disturbed by it. It disturbs me that I'm not disturbed.

  17. Teenie Weenie? Now I'm curious.

  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

  19. lol - "blame Japan." So true on so many levels.

  20. Great post!
    It's so true on all levels. When I travel every summer from the US to Korea, it is almost mind-boggling at how much cute stuff is everywhere! I personally think all the other things are very childish and lame, but I for one love the brand Teenie Weenie not because of its cuteness but because of the design :)

  21. I wouldn't say it has to do with Puritanism.

    I was born in America (of hispanic descent, but in this context, I might as well be grouped with westerners), and I like to think of myself as pretty much full fledged American.

    I'd say it has a lot to do with History. Americans have constantly been involved in wars for the past 100 years, it influences the mainland culture greatly. I doubt Japan would parade around cute kittens if it was constantly involved in war (and hell, pre [and during] WW2, it DIDN'T parade around any of that stuff).

    Japan is pretty peaceful nowadays. I'd be willing to say that most of the country is pacifist by now. I know Miyazaki is (who I'm pretty sure drew that 'Welcome to Japan pic).

    But I'd also say East Asians rigorous culture has a lot to do with it as well. Let's face it; Asian students are under a LOT of pressure. I love them as productive members, but I hate how they don't rebel. Rebellion shows us errors in our ways and aims to correct them.

    Even Asian American students are under a lot of pressure to perform well. I don't have exact numbers, but DO know that student suicide in Japan IS an issue. As are 'hikkimori'. That's not to say it doesn't happen in America, but students don't KILL thjemselves over disappointing grades and scholarly failures. At least, not as often.

    I've heard that it starts early, as well. Japanese students are competitive from birth, having parents that try to enter them into the best pre schools which leads to the best schools which leads to the best middle schools etc etc. It goes all the way into the best companies.

    It's only natural for even those in their 20's to wish for a simpler time. Just as Americans (and let's be fair, America is a very diverse land, and ten times bigger than Japan. Hell, 30 times bigger) like the College experience because of the freedom, I would think asians have the whole cute thing because of the relative simplicity they experienced in their youth.

    ..and that, is my analysis. I'd also say something about High School girls being the trend-setters in Japan (and that having a lot to do with what is sold). But I don't want to drag this out any further.

    My point is; Americans are actually relatively 'free' from the rigid structure of these other (smaller) countries. I mean, if you can't find a job-move to another state. I would logically assume that Japanese citizens don't have this luxury.

    Plus, the rigid structure of feudalism left over from the past.

    1. Shake, I can understand why you make the points you do in your argument, but at the same time have objections to some of the points you make. The biggest objection I have is to your lament of "I hate how they don't rebel." If you were thinking of the "storm the Bastille" type of rebellion, then you're technically correct. If you were thinking of the youth-culture protesting type of rebel, then I would point you towards Tienanmen Square, and the many protests that occurred in Korea during the 70's and 80's.

      In fact, my dad remembers studying in the library at Yonsei U and getting tear-gassed by riot police. Or getting caught in a crossfire of rocks and tear-gas while walking to class.

      However, I must (partially) agree that Puritanism (while having a minor role) is not the cause of a lack of cuteness in America.

  22. Also; I don't have anything AGAINST cute things. I can dig it, but only in small increments.

    But it gets to a point (for me) where women annoy me.

    In reality, there's a similar type of culture in America. I was in class next to a black girl that was trying to get a 'cute' photo. So let's not act as if this is a far flung concept which is alien to us.

  23. I cracked up when I read the cannibal Chicken bit.

    *goes to sit in the corner of shame.* What have I become... TT

    Really though, I love cute things. Kpop and cute things, yup. My room is currently covered in posters of Gdragon, Shinee, Teen Top, BoA, Big Bang, Miyavi (ok he's the exception), etc. My sheets are Sanrio Characters and my blanket is pink and covered in monkeys. I have a mesh netting hanging from my ceiling full of stuffed animals and all my notebooks have cute cartoon pandas and bunnies and cats on them and I love to write with my giant hello kitty ink pen, and my desk is decoupaged with pictures of kpop idols cut from Bromide & TenTen and... Oh god, I sound like I'm 10. D:

  24. I am korean and I must say, I believe it's just in our blood. We koreans also have many cute things around, so it is pretty easy to get influenced. Koreans also make many anime comics that are very cute and stuff. It's just something natural I guess :D

  25. kkkkkk.... hahaha, I can't stop laughing when reading this article!! XD

    Yes, I agree.. most of it I think because of the influence from japan..
    I still remember when I wondered why Japanese really like "kawai" things about 8 years ago..
    and now, I do that for korean, since I've been living at Seoul! hahaha.. seems that "aegyo" equals with "kawai", doesn't it??

    As for me, I really like that. it somehow makes you keep younger & happy, hahaha
    Since I'm southeast asian, I can say our cultures are influenced from the northern which are "cute"(korea, japan, east asia) and the western which are "serious & mature" (south asia, west asia)..

    because of that, in every south east asian country, I think you can find both types..
    even in Indonesia,my country, we already have an equal word for "aegyo", which is "unyu"..haha ;)

  26. Ha ha ha..true..
    I m a die hard fan of cute things..which was a scarsity at my time..what ever it was..a new pencil to write was a status..yup things are changing here too..
    I was amazed to see these cuteness craze in Korea..then I understood same was for an extend China too..I m an Asian..but our cultures are totally different..
    N I respect that..


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