Sybilla Schwaerzler Westminster School of Media, Arts and Design alumna graduated from Contemporary Media Practise BA in 2016. Her recent work documenting Japan’s sexualisation of women and their concept of cuteness was published by German Vice.
Sybilla explained that when she first visited Japan five years ago she was shocked by how Japanese media sexualised women.
She said:“One thing everyone who goes to Japan will notice is that Japanese people have a special relationship to, what is probably best encapsulated is the concept of cuteness.
“And I don’t just mean their affection for adorable puppies wearing sweaters, life-size mascots or cafés serving teddy bear shaped food, but cuteness as a pervasive element in various aspects of everyday life, which manifests itself in both subtle and strikingly bold forms.
She added: “While most Japanese people don’t dress in cute outfits like you will see in this project, cuteness and even innocence are seen as ideal virtues, especially for (young) women. It is, for example, not uncommon for some females to make their voices sound cuter when talking to customers or to their often-male superiors at the workplace.
This also has a lot to do with cultural standards of politeness, it is noteworthy that cute behaviour is more often expected from and performed by women than by men which many scholars attribute to the lingering of patriarchal values in Japanese society.”
In 2016 Sybilla moved to live in Japan and study at Tokyo University of the Arts. For her project, she visited Purikura which she describes as “unique photo booths designed for groups of people to make memories with their friends while looking über-adorable but also slightly bizarre.”
However, the Purikura photo booths are not like the ones we have in the West. She explained: “The photo booths contain a gazillion soft boxes aimed at making your skin and hair look perfect and blemish-free and suggests various poses (modelled by Japanese idols) to help you and your friends turn into the best possible versions of yourself.
“In a special post-production area users can then choose the size and colour of their eyes, lightness of their skin, shape of their chin and add any thinkable type of makeup, from fake eyelashes to pink blusher.
“So while the subjects I have photographed in the Purikura are all adults, the machine turns them into their teenage alter egos, reflecting the ever-lingering sense of nostalgia for youthfulness which spans across so many aspects of Japanese society and culture.”
Sybilla concluded that:“There is certainly something mesmerising but also quite uncanny about the notion of cuteness; it can bring empowerment and comfort to some, evoke cherished memories of the past, but also hide the vulnerability and facilitate exploitation of others. Cuteness is an overwhelming expression of happiness and yet refusal of responsibility.”
Lastly, she warned others that Japanese culture should not be studied from a Eurocentric point of view but it should be looked as a multidimensional, historic and contemporary society with its own individuality.