Street style in Harajuku, Japan. Photo via TokyoFashion.com.

Street style in Harajuku. Photo via TokyoFashion.com.

In Asia's cult of cute, the ultimate woman is part lady, part Bambi. Her big, dewy eyes peer behind long, fluttering eyelashes. She is slim, and leggy, tottering on a pair of stiletto heels, giving the impression of a newborn fawn taking its first nervous steps.

Not every Asian woman looks or wants to look like this, but it is a popular archetype seen on magazine covers, billboard ads, and yes, walking down trendy streets in Beijing, Seoul, Bangkok and Tokyo.

Her resemblance to a Disney animation is little surprise considering the region has been steeped in adoration for everything that is fluffy and adorable for 30 years now. To see this for myself I head to the Sydney branch of the Korean store Morning Glory, deep in the heart of Chinatown. It is a three-level temple of cute, wall-to-wall stuffed toys, with blushing, cartoon rabbits, bears and frogs smiling from every kind of stationery item under the sun.

I ask the shop assistant what item might be appropriate for a woman my age, in her 20s. She points to a giant bath mat that reads "I <3 HELLO KITTY" and an illustration of the iconic cat wearing her signature red bow. Around me I see packs of female university-aged students, largely but not exclusively Asian and only one, lonely looking child. Everything is arranged by colour, and the largest section is pink. 

I asked my friend William* about the concept of "kawaii" (kah-wah-ee), Japanese for "cute". Since 2007, he has visited Japan every year, and most of the women he has dated have been Japanese. Few of these relationships have lasted and he says his last girlfriend was "30 years old, but with the emotional maturity of someone a decade younger."

He tells me you'll hear the word "kawaii" used everywhere and all the time in Japan. He calls it a "national ideology" that permeates all aspects of life, from company mascots, to childlike pop idols and schoolgirl-themed porn. Even cartoon characters used in official documents to make them appear less threatening. In a 2006 piece from Associated Press, author of Cool Japan Tomoyuki Sugiyama explained, "[the] Japanese are seeking a spiritual peace and an escape from brutal reality through cute things."

Like Tomoyuki, William sees a link between "harmony-loving" and cuteness. "Cultures like Japan and some other Asian countries in which an individual finds ones meaning in life through the group are very susceptible to cuteness because it's a dependence aesthetic," he says.

There is a Japanese word for feigned cute behaviour, "burikko". The analogous word in Chinese, "sajiao" also connotes acting like a spoiled brat, no surprise in the land of only children. Hannah (also not her real name) is a 29-year-old woman from Beijing but now lives in Sydney with her Australian husband. Last year I brought you her story, which included a penchant for sajiao-ing, and in the comments section readers shared their own encounters.

Tony wrote, "I heard about one Western guy here in Shanghai whose local girlfriend would fall to the floor, screaming hysterically and thrashing all four limbs, if she didn't get her way. All the neighbours thought he was beating her up." While Helen from Sydney talks of the unnerving experience of witnessing her Chinese friend, an otherwise "mature, young woman", transform in an instance into a "childlike, foot-stomping tantrum-thrower".

Nasana is the Internet handle of a 26-year-old marketing professional from Beijing. She tells me almost all Chinese women like to sajiao. "When you're small you sajiao with your parents, and then you grow up and do it with your husband. It's very normal," she says. I'm reminded of a line from Henrik Ibsen's groundbreaking 1879 play "A Doll's House" in which Nora, the heroine says to her husband: "I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald … Our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been our doll-wife, just as at home I was papa's doll-child."

But Nasana cautions me from over-reading the significance of sajiao, saying that for many Chinese women it is simply a cultural tic, used to signal her affection or desire for affection. Nasana confesses to occasionally sajiao-ing, such as imploring her boyfriend not to go out too late, and considers this innocent enough. For sure sajiao-ing with someone you are not on intimate terms with is frowned upon. But sajiao alone is not an indicator of an imbalance in power.

In emailing Hannah for her opinion, it is her husband (somewhat ironically) who replies, saying Hannah was too busy to write but they'd spoken on the topic. Alex says, "I understand the Freudian style view you've mentioned, however both Hannah and I agree that it doesn't actually play out within the psyche of those involved." He explains the behaviour in more prosaic terms. Historically feminism never steamrolled its way through Asia in the same way it has in the West, and with the region still deeply patriarchal tools like sajiao are a way for women to gain power. "It might not even seem this deliberate to the perpetrator," he says.

For William, blaming kawaii for sexism is to read the situation from the wrong direction. "The Japanese didn't need cute characters to have patriarchal structures," he says. Kawaii is just the icing on a patriarchal cake, which includes a dearth of women in the upper echelons of Japanese politics, business and science. Last year's Global Gender Gap report from the World Economic Forum ranked Japan 101 out of 135 countries on gender equality. South Korea fared even worse, at 108th place. The study used economic participation, educational attainment, health and political empowerment as criterion for analysis. "Cuteness quotient" was not included.

The personal may be political but discouraging cuteness in Asia alone is unlikely to shift this deep-seated disparity. Just as Australian women selling handmade Christmas craft on Etsy is unlikely to reverse a century of hard won wins by activists for equal laws and opportunities for women. Because sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and having pictures of smiling lambs is just about liking smiling lambs.

As Zooey recently told Glamour magazine in addressing her chorus of critics, "We can't be feminine and be feminists and be successful? I want to be a f**king feminist and wear a fucking Peter Pan collar. So f**cking what?"

*Name has been changed