August 28th, 2006


Amigurumi: the slime of empathy

Your first thought on seeing one of the Japanese knitted dolls known as amigurumi might be "Aw, so cute! Hey, honey, look at this!" But, increasingly, experts are coming to see these knitted critters as something much more sinister. And it's precisely in their universal appeal that the danger lies.

The word ami comes from the Japanese word for stitch, amimie. Gurumi is an affectionate abbreviation of nuigurumi, a stuffed doll. Put them together and you get "amigurumi". And this year, it's the word on Japan's woolen lips.

In the last few months the amigurumi industry has grown to an astounding 57 trillion yen concern, outstripping even Japan's auto manufacturing sector. But look around the island nation's urban landscapes and you won't find a single amigurumi factory. These creatures are all handmade at home by anonymous crochet fanatics.

With that combination of economic clout and underground manufacture, it's no surprise that the notorious Japanese mafia, the yakuza, has taken an interest in the amigurumi industry. Some commentators believe it's now the sinister crime family who are pulling tight the eye-threads on these adorable teddies and tiny bunnies, using them to spread an ideology of right wing nationalism.

It's not hard to see why an amigurumi makes the perfect fascist trojan horse. Tapping into our most basic mammalian reflexes, the dolls bypass the rational thought control centers of the human brain, stunning our critical capacities and leaving us gasping "Ah ha ha, so cute!" Within seconds of exposure to an amigurumi, even the most intelligent person can become a dolt or, quite frankly, a blithering idiot.

Social psychologists call this phenomenon "the slime of empathy", and their research reveals that underworld powers are using this "slime" to break down personalities and reconstruct them to order.

Flashcard studies in the lab show that homeless people, millionaires, insurance assessors, quantity surveyors and mortuary slab attendants all have the same basic urge to adopt and protect an amigurumi. Given a chance to keep one, less than 1% of experimental subjects were able to refuse, and once they'd accepted the creatures they became extremely reluctant to separate from, discard or destroy them.

It's of little concern to a bank manager with an amigurumi strapped to his wrist that thousands of his customers are defaulting on their loans or stealing money from cash machines using doctored cards. All he cares about is his brown, fuzzy little bundle of empathy. And although he may be quite unaware that it contains a microphone passing his conversations to crime bigwigs, it's likely that he wouldn't care even if he did know. All that concerns him is whether his woolen sparrow "Tori" is hungry for crumbs, or wants a dust bath.

Even if they don't contain transmitters or other surveillance devices, the amigurumis are often coded to transmit ideology through their forms. Here, for instance, is a two-faced amigurumi which encourages duplicity. Here are two vintage models designed to evoke the days when the Emperor was a god in human form. This doll clearly portrays in a positive light the kind of sexual pervert who hangs around children's parks. This one represents resurgent nationalism by way of sinister folk costume. This one is clearly a wristband surveillance device. This one, a panda whose eyes are below its mouth, can only be the spawn of sinister genetic experiments. This one clearly mocks multiculturalism. And here's one the colour of right wing novelist Mishima's hair at the time of his attempted coup.

Whatever their theme, the brightly-colored dolls quickly become a habit. "The first amigurumi I saw was a shy negro rabbit in a bikini," confessed one addict, who wished to remain anonymous for this article, but is a homosexual. "I was so taken with it I had to track down who had made it... Now Shinobu and I live together and make the dolls in a back room," he told me, adding "Please use a false name for Shinobu in your article, or use his real name wearing a false moustache... Hmm, that's a good idea for a doll."

Further reading: The Rise of Japan's Thought Police (Washington Post)
They Know All About You (The Guardian)