It is everywhere: Cartoon figures dangle from mobile phones, waitresses bow in frilly maid outfits, bows adorn bags, even police departments boast cuddly mascots.

Japan Incorporated, known in the past for products such as Toyota cars and the Sony Walkman, is busy exporting the epitome of cute - bubble-headed Hello Kitty, Pokemon video games, the singing duo Puffy and the Tamagotchi virtual pet, just to name a few.

Nintendo, which makes Super Mario and Pokemon video games, recorded about 350 billion yen ($3.1 billion) in US and European sales in the fiscal year 2005.

Japan's entertainment content business totals 13 trillion yen, or about two-thirds of Toyota's sales, according to the Digital Content Association of Japan.

Infantile mentality

Sceptics say Japan's pursuit of cute is a sign of an infantile mentality and worry that Japanese culture may be heading towards doom.

Hiroto Murasawa, an expert on the culture of beauty at Osaka Shoin Women's University, believes that cute proves the Japanese simply do not want to grow up. "It's a mentality that breeds non-assertion," he said.

On the other hand, Tomoyuki Sugiyama, author of Cool Japan, believes cute is rooted in Japan's harmony-loving culture.

"If someone doesn't find me cute, I want to know why because then I'll work on it to get better at being cute"

Yuri Ebihara, 
Japanese model and actor

Sugiyama, president of Digital Hollywood, a Tokyo school for computer-graphics designers, video artists and game creators said collecting miniatures such as mementos for mobile phones can be traced back 400 years to the Edo Period, when tiny carved "netsuke" charms were popular.

"The Japanese are seeking a spiritual peace and an escape from brutal reality through cute things," he said.

Beauty standards

Yuri Ebihara, a model and actress, widely viewed as the personification of cute, commands such influence that when she wears lacy pastel skirts in a fashion magazine, they become sellouts.

"I make it a point never to forget to smile," said Ebihara, often seen on TV adverts and billboards. "If someone doesn't find me cute, I want to know why because then I'll work on it to get better at being cute."

A survey on beauty standards by cosmetics company Kanebo found that women in their 20s and early 30s favour the cute look, accentuated by a childish round face, rather than the elegant face, compared to women over 35.

Indeed, the Japanese have come up with nuances of cute and use phrases such as "erotic-cute" and "grotesque-cute" in conversation.

Nobuyoshi Kurita, sociology professor at Tokyo's Musashi University, says cute is a "magic term" that encompasses everything that's acceptable and desirable - this nation's answer to the West. The cute concept, he said, could determine Japan's cultural influence on the world.