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Most Neotenous in the World: Japan

Maeda Atsuko, the former number 1 member of AKB48, along with rest of the members, epitomizes Japanese neotenous features.
Damn your infernal cuteness, Pikachu!
Recently I have been getting interested in a subject that all too few seem to know about. It is called Neoteny. And even I, until recently, wasn't aware of the term, which is ironic since it especially surrounds me everywhere in Japan.  I used to think it was just kawaii-ness (or cuteness). But now I've realized it's far beyond that, and that I am living in the most neotenous place on Earth. 

Background of Neoteny

The word neoteny, from Greek, can be broken up into two words," neo", meaning young or new, and teinen, meaning "tend to", which really fits the Japanese stereotype, since they do tend to be younger. Or at least Japanese people appear that way.

But neoteny can be applied to much more than the aesthetic taste of Japanese culture and their seemingly vampiric-like never aging semblance.  In fact, the human race itself is quite neotenous compared to other species. Meaning, we tend to remain young, or in other words, the features that are prominent in babies and children seem to continue into adulthood for all of us.  Just compare the bone structure and facial features of our closest ancestor, the chimpanzee.
With that glout look they develop in adulthood comes the strength of 10 men.
Humans, on the other hand, as we reach adulthood, will continue to exude child-like qualities, such as little body hair and a flatter face. Also, our cranial shape undergoes little change.

Other neotenous creatures (those whose physical features change little as they age) are the panda...
Panda's are so cute, in fact, that Tokyo's Ueno Zoo spends around US$950,000 a year to rent them from China.
...and the less famous, but perhaps cutest creature ever to walk and swim the earth, one of the species of the axolotl salamander. 

Salamance, go!                   
Although the puffer fish was a close contender.

Even cuter when they get angry
Some propose that human evolution has been and is continuing to head toward evermore neotenization.  And compared to the rest of our ancestral family, it does certainly appear that way.  

We have certainly gotten a lot less hairier and better looking over the years.

In fact, just recently there has been this popular article floating around on the net called "How The Human Face Might Look In 100,000 Years". And it shows a chilling view of an artist's depiction of what humans could look like if this trend continues. Seriously, this is the stuff nightmares are made of.  It is also said that Google Glass-like eyewear that humans will inevitably use will also contribute to our eyes becoming tremendously big. So apparently Google will eventually make us "goggle-eyed".
Will we become anime characters or aliens? Are aliens really us in the future who have traveled back in time to visit the present us?! So many questions..!

Neotenization is a phenomenon not only seen among humans and other various species, but it is seen within our human race extremely amplified when we look at Japan. Wait, I mean women. I'll get to Japan soon, I promise.

Neoteny in Women

Ashley Montagu, an anthropologists who was an expert on gender and sex, notes the following neotenous traits in women relative to men: "more delicate skeleton, smoother ligament attachments, smaller mastoid processes, reduced brow ridges, more forward tilt of the head, narrower joints, less hairy, retention of fetal body hair, smaller body size, more backward tilt of pelvis, greater longevity, lower basal metabolism, faster heartbeat, greater extension of development periods, higher pitched voice and larger tear ducts."(1)

And if that wasn't enough...which evidently in most societies, it is not...there is make up and grooming which helps women appear even younger.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, "A man's face is his autobiography. A woman's face is her work of fiction.". While this may be true to some degree, given the free rein of options there are for a women to experiment and design their own creative look (I'm looking at you, Lady Gaga)...Really what women are doing when they shave or wax their legs (and sometimes arms), pluck their eyebrows, do their nails, meticulously groom their hair, and add blush, mascara, and eyeshadow, is preserving their youth. Why do women take so much time to preserve their youth? Is it just for health? Clearly not, since if it were, then the majority of women would be sufficiently satisfied to go towards the lengths that men do to groom themselves.  Unfortunately, some are.

But hey, to each their own, right? 
Obviously, most women go further than men to try and appear young.  So the reason women do this is because their chief value, to the woe of many feminists, is procreation.  Youth signifies to a man that a woman is healthy and in peak condition to conceive and bear a child. This value, which is strictly a biological value, has been relegated by men throughout human history to be woman's main utility and worth.

Through documented cross-cultural studies, where races rated the level of attractiveness of women, it has been proven that men are more attracted to women who have a higher degree of neoteny than those whom do not. (2)

However, in the study, it was noticed that Asians tended not be as concerned with sexual maturity as Blacks, Whites, and Hispanics. This probably has to do with Asians overall being more neotenized than other human races.
Golden Bomber, a visual kei rock band, famous for their song "Memeshikute" (effeminate/unmanly) parodizes some Japanese men's trend towards an increasingly feminine demeanor.

Neoteny in Asia and Japan

Asians are stereotypically known to have less body hair, fewer sweat glands, be shorter , have stockier legs, and a flatter face. By chance, these are all traditionally neotenous characteristics in humans.  Or is it by chance?
There has been some conjecture to as of how this came about with Asian people.  One such explanation was of the cultivation of rice, which allowed for greater population density, and thus people could live much closer together.  Usually among mammals, when a species reaches maturity, they tend to live in not-so-close quarters. Juvenile mammals, however,  can live together without any problems. Eureka! So there's the solution! 
Living close together required a great necessity of harmony and cooperation, and so it is speculated that perhaps Asians inadvertently bred themselves, in a sense, to acquire more juvenile features, ergo less aggressive features, for the good of society.
Toy poodle, feeds off human's "awwww!"'s.

Just as adorable dogs have been able to be bred in a relatively short period of time, it is speculated that Asians naturally have chosen mates that would produce "cute" offspring, as to keep social harmony, which evolved over time to create the more neotenic look of Asian people. 

And with Japan being an island nation, along with its long history of seclusion, this perhaps happened on a greater scale here, in almost complete isolation of intermixing with other people.

A large population getting along successfully on a small island also meant that the culture, too, would need to carry some neotenic inclinations. This is perhaps how the kawaii-culture was formed.

Neoteny Spotted within Japanese History

Even before anime and manga, there is some hint that Japanese had a inclination toward neoteny. Even as far back as the Jomon period, archeologists have unearthed Japan's version of the "venus figurine", called the Doguu (below), with its characteristic buggy goggle-eyes. Is it possible that Japan has apparently done a 360 as far as character art is concerned, from Doguu to Anime. 
The Doguu(土偶)- Some conspiracy theorists claim that these clay figures figure represent beings in space suits. Humans from the future, perhaps?!!
Or maybe Lord Nibbler from Futurama?
The Western Venus figurines however no signs of cuteness in the face...nor even a face for that matter.

The haniwa clay figures during the later Kofun period (3rd to 6th century B.C.) also display rather cute features.

Buddhism may have had a role in Japan's fondness in cute things, as well. As we can all imagine the fat Laughing Buddha (Hotei/Maitreya) being all jolly and full of smiles with a big belly, some Japanese sculptures depicted his disciples in a similar fashion. 
8th Century Rakan statues of Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, at a Buddhist temple near Kyoto.

Indeed even Buddhist monks represent a child in many respects, with their bald head and ego-less child-like minds.  This type of child-mind has been instilled in many manga and anime heroes today, too.

Admittedly, not all Japanese art reflected kawaii-ness. A lot of art depicted more realistic looking characters.

And by the middle ages (Edo/Tokugawa period), bushido samurai culture was born, and became the pinnacle of Japanese manliness.  This culture is revered still by many in Japan as what a man should be: silent, loyal, just, carry a strong sense of shame, self-sacrifice, have refined manners, martial spirit, and honor. Traditionalist men often lament that those manly days are gone and men have become feminized over the recent decades.

Now I am not saying that Japanese culture has been and is even today wholly neotenous. I am only suggesting that there may have been some latent potential for it throughout history which may have been part of the reason this kawaiiness and neotinzation has taken off like it has in the past several decades. 

America's Contribution Toward the Kawaii Trend

Betty Boop not only helped spawn
 our typical notion of Japanese manga

but also was the first to "kanchou"
After WWII and with the economic rise that Japan underwent, kawaiiness crept its way up to the forefront of Japanese culture through anime.  Large and part due to the influence of American animation. Betty Boop perhaps the most neotenous American cartoon human, and Disney, whose early characters displayed a kawaii countenance with its big bright eyes and small mouth.  

Bambi was even the influence for Osamu Tezuka , who is best known for creating Astro Boy and Kimba, and is considered the father of manga and Godfather of anime.
And as Japan entered the economic bubble later in the 70's, the kawaii bubble expanded right along with it.  
And with Hello Kitty, Japan was ushered into a new world of kawaii, the likes of which no one had known before. (More recently, in fact, this type of yurukyrara, a simply drawn character, has been created for each prefecture in Japan, and many cities as well, to act as a local representative.) 
To whereas now we are at the point that we can see kawaii-ness in everyday things. From traffic monkey road barriers, to abunai (danger) signs, to cute convenient store and even police mascots (below).
Criminals beware.

Fake Cute-ing

Have you ever wondered where Japanese girl's cute poses came from? I know I have...

I'm not sure what to call this pose...The star-trek-puffy-face-open-my-left-eye pose?

The culprit who started the"girls should behave cutely" craze has been identified. Her name is Seiko Matsuda.

"Atashi?" (Me?)
This pop singer and songwriter idol set a new precedence for kawaii in the 80's and popularized a cute way of acting, known as burikko (ぶりっ子). This pretend cute-playing is often accompanied with an air of innocence and stupidity as well.

This way of acting has not gone away and is ever more pervasive today.  Many girls do this in front of men, and some to a very extreme extent, because they believe it is what many Japanese men find attractive (and many do). 
This is not strictly a Japanese phenomenon mind you. The American "California valley girl" voice and behavior, for example, is similar. Although I would argue the Japanese burikko may have it beat.

I would even argue that the "standard" way of talking and behaving within customer service for most Japanese people has a degree of burikko.  Just listen to the difference of pitch when Japanese people talk to a friend versus when they take a business phone call.  Here's basically what happens when they're in customer service mode...

Given, I think most people, despite nationality, raise the pitch of their voice when talking with a stranger or customer; however I feel like its leagues different from the extremity of difference you will hear in Japan, especially among women.  While I don't think many Japanese people would recognize a higher voice as burikko, I believe it has the same overall purpose, to neotenize. That being, to come across as less intimating by imitating children's high voice.

Neoteny in Men

Neoteny is not only pervasive among children, women, government, and local or company mascots.  Nowadays, this trend has even started to reach the men in Japan, too.  Neotenized behavior can be seen with Japan's notorious soushoku dansei (herbivore men), who do not fit in the traditional male stereotype of being competitive, and/or lack interest in sex and money.  

You can also find a cosmetics section in many stores now that cater specifically to men.  Morever, some Japanese men shave their arms and legs.  And perhaps most humorous (and harmless) of them all, are grown men's inclination to janken (rock, paper, scissors) to make a decision.
How salary men get things done.

Danger of Scientific Racism

A danger of this concept of neoteny is that it can be used for a scientific backing of either racial superiority or inferiority.

After Japan's defeat in WWII, General Douglas MacArthur once famously said "Japan is a nation of 12-year olds".  Way to kick Japan when they were already down, MacArthur. And so non-Asians may use this evidence of neotinzation as proof of Asian's stunted growth and thus inferior status.

On the other hand, as some anthropologists theorize, neoteny is what human evolution has been heading towards.  To preserve one's youth, both in and out of the body, is what mankind has been striving to do for millennia. So, in that respect, Asians and Japanese could be seen as at the top of the tier, as more evolutionary advanced, and thus superior. Biologically, Asian's longer youthful appearance and higher lifetime expectancy could also be used to support this position.

Both views are dangerous to adopt and I think it behooves us all to be critical when analyzing the evidence and drawing any conclusions.  

Neoteny in Everyone

Japan aside, it is a fact that all human beings possess an inherent neoteny that many other species do not have. Our youth, no matter the race, is something we can keep throughout the aging process, and not only with products or clothes that make us look younger. Where other animals by-and-large lose the sense of 'play' that they once have, humans have the ability to keep it for life. This youthful sense of play is what drives humans to be curious about the world, to take courageous steps toward the unknown, and thereby make many great discoveries and enable us to explore the universe. Were we stagnant when we reached adulthood, our humanity would be at a loss.

I think by looking at Japan, we can get a good look of how neoteny interplays in a society, since its so noticeably everywhere here. I think, in many ways neoteny is very healthy, and may be lacking in other societies. 

At the same time, there may be a point where neotenous features are a bit too much.


  1. What the f*** does Jersey Shore have to do with anything?

    1. It was a jesting poke I used to illustrate a contrast between Japan and other cultures (in this case a sub-culture in America) to show how some cultures emphasize more macho extroverted masculinity rather than reserved neoteny.

    2. I have Asian family but I'm white and Native American. Apparently most people I talk to think that I'm part Asian because I have the slanted eyes, are slanted eyes a neotenous trait, because otherwise I have a very non-neotenous face and body build.

    3. Asians and native Americans are not different.

  2. This was interesting!

    1. Thank you for the comment, Grete Anai. I am glad you liked it. :-)

  3. Great article! I was really surprised by your level of insight. I honestly think some of your guesses into Japan's neotenophilia could be formally studied, if that sort of thing interests you.

    1. Thanks! I agree...I suppose it could be formally studied. It could easily be made into a Master's thesis. Alas, I have many other interests which probably won't make that happen. Plus, I am not living in Japan anymore (although I may be back in a couple of years). I appreciate your comment, though. :-)

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. This is a great article and I wholeheartedly agree that Japan not only excel in Neoteny but celebrate it. I'm doing my own article on Neoteny, though it would be for different intent. I'll cite this article in my reference.
    Edit: Posted erroneously, reposted same comment.

    1. Celebrate! That is very true; well said. I guess by your name and location you are Japanese so you know fully well the extent of neoteny that Japan excels and celebrates. I wonder if this kawaii-culture will continue for a long time or if it will phase out at some point. The end is nowhere in sight currently however in my opinion...not that it is a bad thing. :-P コメントを書いてくれてありがとうございます、Kyojiro!

  5. This was so interesting, and I'm glad I've stumbled across your blog!

  6. This is interesting and a good read. However, while you mention the many ways in which Asians have more neotonous features (such as a flatter face and smaller stature) you ignore the fact that they have much smaller eyes, whereas very large round eyes are probably the single largest indicator of neotony. How do you reconcile this conflict? I'm more inclined to believe that different races exhibit different neotonous traits in varying ways (for example, white people have lighter skin/hair, as babies of all races are lighter than fully grown adults, and have larger eyes on average; black people often have big eyes and very flat noses, etc).

    1. Great comment! That's a very astute observation. I agree that all humans have (and perhaps are still) headed toward neotony ;although in varying degrees throughout history in various cultural settings. You might be right that different ethnicities exhibit different neotonous feautures (which can also set the standard of beauty in that society).

      Japan, has though, without a doubt, become neotony-obsessed in the last few decades with no perceivable stop in sight for this train. I wonder the source of this obsession. It could either be the Japanese had an environmentally inclination toward neotony (due to many-people-small-space-on-an-island-we-gotta-get-along-theory) or else the Japanese took Westerner's standard of beauty and ran with and never looked back. It could be both, also.

  7. Neotany is considered inferior trait for man. Just look at all those stereotypes for Asian man. And it's painful to read through this racist article.

    1. Umm, I don't see how this article is racist at all. Yes, most men considered neotenization a bad thing to common notions of what it means to be a male (if that is what you meant by man). Yet in Japan I think there is a relative neotenization that is occurring in both men and women, compared to the West.

    2. Neotened face looks trusty for most people. macho face looks creepier. In my experience.

    3. Anonymous- This has been shown with a recent study-->

  8. かわいい!!❤❤ This article makes me inspired. My facial features and personality traits are more similar to the Japanese type, which is why sometimes I'm ridiculed by my fellow Filipinos (Filipinos I think are the only Asians who are obsessed with sexual maturity thanks to Western colonization). For me, I really prefer Japanese beauty standard over the American or Latino standard. Why? Because the Japanese do really appreciate childlikeness as part of humanity. Your inner childhood never disappears even if you are already an adult. At least being childlike is like being optimistic in adversary. Also, chikdlike beauty is also more natural-looking than the 'mature' type beauty. And being childlike also makes a person more willing to be open, simple, and kind, just like in the teachings of Christianity and Buddhism. Also, you will have a lighter life when your heart is like a child (childlike, not childish). I wish more Filipinos will appreciate the good side of neoteny just like most Asians.
    Note: Only an estimated 3% of Filipinos have European blood and yet they dominate the Philippine entertainment industry and try to represent the whole Philippines as mixed raced Hispanics, which is deviating from the true representation of the Filipino, which is Asian. This leaves the rest of Filipinos (97%) of pure Asian stock (Malay/Indonesian/Chinese/Japanese) insecure and want to look 'European,' which may explain why my native country cannot progress as a nation because they reject their Asian-ness.

  9. Taira, I am glad you liked the article! You make some very interesting observations about the standards of beauty of both traditional East and the West. I agree, this childlike beauty is not only appreciated aesthetically, but in a person's character, too, especially when being optimistic in adversary. This can be shown by the heroes of many anime and film. You might be right to say that this might very well stem from Buddhism. I hadn't thought of that. Thank you!
    Not only in the Philippines, but in Japan as well, Western media has a huge influence on the way Japanese dress, wear makeup, and behave. Thankfully, they haven't fully subscribed to Western aesthetics.I wonder if there is some correlation between a people coming to terms with itself physically and its economic progress. You might be right in suggesting there is.

    Thanks for the insightful comment! :-D

  10. Great article. I have just run across this term in relationship to baby faced dog breeds, but it is a term with a larger area of application I see.
    Is neotinism and an attraction to it, why some men these days claim that they are more sexually attracted to women who shave off all of their body hair including their pubic hair which to my mind, makes the woman's body look like that of a prepubescent girl? I thought had considered this interest of some men as an attraction to pedophylia or is this the same thing? Please help me to understand this better.
    Sincerely, an American female

  11. Thanks for the comment. Yes..the theory goes that the majority of heterosexual men are attracted to females that imbue qualities of fertility. For woman (more than men), youth is equated with such qualities. However, by the tiem of puberty or shortly there after (when a woman is fertile), many girls do have body hair (though perhaps less than a maturer older woman). But my own theory of what happened is that in the hunter-gatherer days, girls with body hair were never considered not a sign of fertility or youth, but rather as the agricultural revolution spawned civilizations, a competition of resources emerged (the haves and the have nots). In such an environment, older woman could not naturally compete with younger women (who were naturally more fertile and thus typically showed more signs of beauty), so to compete, women tried to do everything they could to extend their youthfulness, such as makeup, and eventually shaving.

    So yes, in a sense men are natural pedophyliacs to some degree (ie. naturally desiring youthful features). However the shaving itself is a cultural-phenomenon.

    Please look at my other post, which also contains this topic. :-)

  12. I have Asian family but I'm white and Native American. Apparently most people I talk to think that I'm part Asian because I have the slanted eyes, are slanted eyes a neotenous trait, because otherwise I have a very non-neotenous face and body build.

  13. I think that is debated. Well not sure about the slantedness, but as far as the single-fold eyelids versus double fold eyelids, we are not sure what is considered more neotenous. On the one hand, double fold eyelids appear more neotenous because it makes people's eyes look bigger in relation to the rest of the head, much like a baby's. However, bigger eyes, and the double lids can also be interpreted as more aggressive since you can't hide your expression as well if you are angry, upset, etc. Your eyes show it more readily. That is just my two cents, though.

  14. Alright thanks.

  15. Very interesting article. Please don't take this the wrong way, but the use of "THAN" to mean "THEN" and vice versa is becoming epidemic. It is not a natural development quirk of language but a habit emerging from sheer ignorance then taken up by others through nothing more than peer pressure. Please do not bow to this pressure.

    1. Haha, okay I'll check my THENS and THANS and get on it. I don't want this epidemic to get further out of control. Thank you. :-)

  16. No offense, not trying to be racist or anything. But how can you say that japanese people are the most neotenous, and then say that we may look like anime characters one day, when they themselves don't have big round eyes? I get that anime characters represent japanese people but they don't have their real life facial qualities. Anime characters are really more similar to caucasian people.

    1. Keep in mind that to have bigger "eyes" we'll need bigger eyeballs, so the skin around the eyes doesn't matter. Don't compare a Caucasian baby with an Asian adult but take an Asian baby with an Asian adult to understand neoteny. They should look like a grown up baby, short arms/legs big head, flat face. The eye shapes come from years of adaptive evolution but is likely to disappear if they keep operating them over and over.

    2. Anime characters really don't resemble Caucasian people, this is a misconception that only people raised in Caucasian majority countries believe because they've been exposed to Caucasian faces since infancy, so their brain filters out the ethnic traits particular to caucasians (ex. prominent caruncle, deep eyes, protruding supraorbital ridge and protruding nasal bone). Similar to how your brain highlights the epicanthic fold when you see Asians, Asians see a big nose, brow ridge, etc. when they see Caucasian people. It's kind of like how many Americans believe that American English has no accent or a less pronounced accent, because their brains filter out the peculiarities of American English. Hiding in plain sight, as it were.

      Regarding the eye shape of anime characters versus real people. The scale of anime eyes are obviously completely divorced from reality. No race of peoples have eyes even approaching the size of anime characters. Caucasians having an average of 5-10% more exposed eyeball than asians doesn't really have any relation to anime eyes, which are 250-500% the size of real eyes. In any case, australoid people and black people have more exposed ("larger") eyes than caucasians, but you probably don't think anime characters look like Australian aboriginals.


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