Japan's Kawaii Culture. It's influence, style and spread into modern fashion and pop culture.
Japan is a country with rich history and traditions, usually based on honor, sobriety and elegance. However, in the past few decades, a new cultural phenomenon has emerged: kawaii culture. It is often considered to be a creative rebellion against a rigid social and work structure that dominated the lives of Japanese youth, that responded by idolizing certain childhood elements. It took the world by storm, from fashion to TV shows, and became an aesthetics of its own. But what is kawaii exactly, where did it come from and what effects does it have on Japanese society? And how why do we, Westerners, find it so mesmerizing?
Where does the word “kawaii” come from?
Kawaii is an overused word in Japan and the closest term in English would be “cute”. In some circumstances, it could also mean cool - in others, it could indicate a person is a little helpless or even pathetic. In fact, it was first recorded in the celebrated Genji no Monogatari, a medieval Japanese book often considered to be the first novel in the world. There, its author, Lady Murasaki, used the word in a negative way, to describe qualities that inspire pity.
The kanji characteres to write “kawaii” are 可愛い ( in Hiragana: かわいい ). The second Kanji 愛 means “love”, which is why kawaii can also be translated as “lovable” or “adorable”. Originally, there was an expression (顔映し) which was meant to indicate a face, usually a woman’s, blushing. In fact, after that expression was shortened to become the medieval adjective kawaisôu, it was mostly designed to describe women as a bit of helpless, pitiful creatures.
Kawaii as we know it today emerged in the 1970s. The term was first popularized through the drawings of Rune Naito, a Japanese artist that begun to represent women with big eyes in cute and delicate outfits and poses. Others artists, such as Makoto Takahashi and Masako Watanabe, drew depictions of innocent looking yet seductive and incredibly feminine young girls, awarding kawaii with a sex appeal that was, until then, mostly directed at more mature women. This might be why, even today, there is a certain erotic allure in Japanese culture to schoolgirls - you can say that it was around this time that it became somewhat socially acceptable to depict teenagers in a subtle erotic fashion and childish features were romanticized.
It was also around this time that Japanese girls started to develop a different penmanship. Instead of using thick Japanese calligraphy brushes, they began to use pencils and pens to develop a rather feminine, round and embellished handwriting featuring hearts, starts, roman characters and what we would today call emojis. This handwriting style was almost reminiscent of a child’s and it was called several names, like kitten writing or round writing. Although most schools frowned upon the new trend, advertisers were enthusiastic about it being featured in items directed at young girls.
Hello Kitty’s creation in 1974 also popularized the rise of kawaii style, initially aimed solely at pre-adolescent girls. The character became a huge hit and other companies followed suit, astonished by the increase in sales by simply adding a cute character to otherwise ordinary products.
Finally, in 1980, Seiko Matsuda rose to fame as a Japanese pop singer idol, thus sealing the kawaii trifecta that would soon take over Japanese contemporary culture as a whole. Today, kawaii is not limited to pre-teen girls, but it encompasses a series of aesthetics, behaviors, performances and fashion styles and it is present almost everywhere in Japan.
The importance of contemporary Japanese consumer culture for the spread of kawaii as a common aesthetical language cannot be understated. Even though other neighbouring Asian countries had similar ideals and undergone similar processes of modernization, none of them was as developed as Japan during the 1980s.
Kawaii as we know it today emerged in the 1970s ...
What kind of stuff do the Japanese call “kawaii”?
The Japanese call many different things kawaii. Although at first it was mostly referring to mascots and characters such as Hello Kitty or Doraemon, there is now a whole aesthetics dedicated to kawaii that goes from eating utensils to prefecture mascots. There are many different dimensions of objects, attitudes, symbols and garments we might call kawaii. We’re going to break it down for you.
Let us begin with fashion, the awe of Japanese contemporary youth culture in the West.
The kawaii fashion was first popularized in the famous Harajuku district of Tokyo. Girls started wearing puffy ballet skirts under colourful socks, their hair and make-up painted in bright colours and wearing a thousand different accessories, usually featuring traditional kawaii characters as our friend Hello Kitty. If you want to see the epitome of kawaii harajuku style, you should check out this youtube video below and see how Decora girls dress.
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As you can see, Decore it’s the kawaii style gone extreme. Other urban tribes of the Harajuku district also dress with kawaii-inspired elements, although in a slightly different way. The famous Lolitas, that clothe themselves like porcelain dolls, can also be described as cute and feminine. Others, like fairy kei (clothing inspired by childlike characters such as My Little Pony), dolly kei (a modern twist on fairytale fashion) and mori girl (nature themed with vintage and natural fabrics) are also cute looks that evoke innocence and naivité. Ruffles, big bows, ribbons and soft colours rule these down to earth kawaii styles.
If you want more examples of kawaii fashion and you happen to be in Japan, the Harajuku Kawaii Festival is a must-see for kawaii fashion enthusiasts. There’s models, fashion shows, live music performances and plenty of kawaii merchandise for you to spend your yens.
Kawaii was basically born with Hello Kitty, so fictional characters and mascots are one of the best examples. We can find kawaii fictional characters basically everywhere, but they mostly appear in anime or video games.
In anime, the series that best exemplifies the kawaii style of conceptualizing characters, from clothing to anatomy to voices, is Sailor Moon. It initially began as a shôjo manga, meaning, a manga whose target audience was teenage girls and that mostly deals with romance and young heroines that save the day. When Sailor Moon was first aired as an anime, it was a hit. The fashion of the female superheroes continues to be emulated today by cosplayers, and it is viewed as being incredibly beautiful and feminine.
Other animes followed suit. Of those inspired by Sailor Moon, Sakura the Cardcaptor is probably the most famous one and it was also very popular, its artwork being highly praised in the manga and anime world.
After such successes, the kawaii heroine became a regular of Japanese television. Today, you can check entire lists dedicated to kawaii animes, rating the best ones - you’ll see that most of them were created in the 2000s, a decade in which more light hearted animes began to be increasingly popular.
As for mascots, well, they are everywhere in Japan. They are used to promote brands and regions and are called by their Japanese name, Yuru-chara. Even though these mascots are used as ambassadors of respectable businesses and institutions, they are purposely made awkward, laid-back and loving, so that the general public will find them adorable and non-threatening. Mascots are part of the public relations strategy in Japan and they raise a considerable amount of money from merchandising sales - they usually even have their own theme songs! Comedian John Oliver did a segment about the importance of mascots in Japan, which is considered to be bizarre by the Western world.
Burikko girls and women are those that act in a way as to appear more innocent and cute, in order to be more appealing to men.
BEHAVIOR - Burikko
Perhaps the most important part of how kawaii surfaces in Japanese popular culture has to it with the behavior itself of people, mostly girls and women. It has even evolved into a whole personality type, known as Burikko.
Burikko girls and women are those that act in a way as to appear more innocent and cute, in order to be more appealing to men. They do not act in a sexual or even sexy way, they simply pretend to be more helpless and ignorant about their surroundings and about men themselves, feigning admiration and surprise for the simplest of actions. They are the sort of girls that, at least in the eyes of some Japanese, make the men feel wanted, respected and - most of all - needed.
Burikko means pretending you are quite inexperienced when it comes to matters of the heart and to sexual things and having a body language to match your innocence. Some general traits of Burikko might included having a lisp, speaking with a squeaky, high tone voice and doe eyes. It’s the ideal of a submissive, helpless and cute young girl.
In their relations with men, they are usually easy to please and respond in an exciting and positive way to most things. However, not everyone is into this kind of acting - some women respond very negatively to girls that completely change their personality once men are in the room, while some men themselves do not find Burikko girls appealing at all because they see it as being “fake”.
It’s interesting to see, however, how almost all animes (and hentai) features at least one character that could be described as Burikko. Similarly, in maid cafés across Japan the waiters are sometimes forced to dress in a childish way and incorporate Burikko traits when they communicate with customers.
In Japan, women and girls usually prefer to be called cute and not sexy, because kawaii can be seen as an endearing term that fosters feelings of protectiveness and care. Acting as a Burikko can make such feelings emerge more easily.
Meltia is also a good example of kawaii in terms of music and fashion. High pitched vocals and colorful clothing.
IDOLS AND J-POP
When does the aesthetics of kawaii anime, fashion and behavior come together? That’s right - when a Japanese idol takes the stage. One such example is the group Meltia, inspired by kawaii lolita fashion. Idols must follow strict padrons of behavior to make sure they remain adored by their audience - in a YouTube video, Meltia exemplified some forbidden behaviors. These included dancing sloppy, using dirty language, fighting with other group members, ignoring or being negligent to fans, using other people’s stuff. The ideal idol acts in a way quite different from what we usually associate with mega pop stars in West.
Meltia is also a good example of kawaii in terms of music and fashion. High pitched vocals, colourful clothing and music videos, pop-sounding music with a cheerful tone are all characteristics of kawaii music.
J-Pop, the distinctive brand of popular music native to Japan with American influences, has a lot of kawaii influences and one of the most famous artistics embodying that trend is Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Her song Ponponpon and respective music video are quite representative of what kawaii constitutes in terms of visual and musical style.
Most J-Pop performers referred to as idols have a rather young appearance and are fashioned to be as cute as possible for the satisfaction of consumers.
As we mentioned above, basically everything can be kawaii - and the Japanese really mean it.
As we mentioned above, basically everything can be kawaii - and the Japanese really mean it. An extremely varied collection of consumer goods can have kawaii features, that are usually added to increase the value of the object. As a consumer trends consultant at the Euromonitor International stated:
“Japanese companies are skilled at transforming products and services not traditionally thought of as adorable or cuddly into the latest kawaii must-have trend. This includes anything from USB keys to police stations which have their own cartoon mascots to Nippon Airlines aeroplanes decorated with colourful anime characters, and even government safety signs featuring cute characters to convey serious messages.”
Kawaii food, for example, is very popular in Japan in the form of candies, chips, cakes, even sushi. Soft colours such as pink or light blue, discreet smiley faces, bows, stars and hearts are added or molded into the food to make it seem more appealing to consumers.
There are kawaii cars, furniture, house decorations and even vacuum cleaners. It is everywhere in Japan, all for the viewing pleasure of the consumer who wants to be delighted by a cute aesthetics.
Even though kawaii is the product of popular culture, that does not mean that it isn’t featured in high-brow expressions of art as well. Japanese fine arts artists merge different kinds of materials and traditional practices with popular characters in an attempt to reclaim kawaii as the artform that it started off.
Illustrators and manga artists are the most famous kind of kawaii artists, and many build a considerable amount of fan following in the internet. The artist Charuca Vargas is an example of that, despite being a foreigner not raised in Japan.
TYPES OF KAWAII
Kawaii is not all the same thing and indeed, it can appear in many shapes and forms. When the Japanese say something is kawaii, is always good to have some of these categories in mind so we do not think it is crazy for them to call a skull cute, for example.
Kimokawaii is what we could describe as “creepy” or “unpleasant”...cute. That’s it. It might seem as a strange combination, but there is an entire industry devoted to it and it continues to grow. The mascot for the Funashi city is usually pointed as a good example of kimokawaii.
Busukawaii is the ugly kind of cute. It usually refers to either the physical appearance of women or pets - the best example is the pug.
Ever heard of Happy Tree Friends? It was a mix of adorable anthropomorphized animals and gore and it is the perfect example of the allure of gurokawaii.
Erokawaii draws on the Western obsession with sexiness and joins it with the Japanese obsession with cuteness. Japanese idol Koda Kumi described her personal style with that word and she became a symbol of the sexy kawaii girl.
We can call this one casual kawaii, or effortless kawaii. No need to overdo it, a cute haircut or accessory will suffice.
Itamikawaii is when even painful experiences, like undergoing an operation or having a cut or bruise, are described as cute. A cute scar. A cute wound. Or a cute emotional pain.
This is dreamy kawaii, the kind of pastel-coloured filled fantasies with magical beings and fairy-tale stuff.
Kirekawaii is beautiful cute. It usually refers to the physical appearance of females, when they have traits that make them not only cute but downright beautiful for the beholder.
As we can see, Japanese are masters at taking everyday things and even conflicting emotions and mixing them with feelings of cuteness. This way, kawaii can extend to basically all phenomena of your day-to-day life, from the scar on your knee from an old fall to the ugly pet in your living room.
Kawaii is often seen as a way for young adults to escape adulthood and cherish certain elements of their childhood.
Why is Kawaii so important?
For us to answer this question, it is important to understand the social context that allowed for kawaii culture to flourish. The economic miracle of Japan after World War II generated a powerful consumer culture that guaranteed steady and reliable jobs for millions of Japanese men - becoming one such worker, a salaryman, and putting on that eternal symbol of office servitude (the suit) was a rite of passage for the youth. However, the 1990s experienced an economic downturn, evaporating work opportunities for many Japanese young men and women that were forced to survive through precarious jobs. The subcultures that were created during that time frame was a way to rebel against both the monotony of the corporate world an the harsh confrontation with a reality that could not even provide enough monotony for financial emancipation. Kawaii is often seen as a way for young adults to escape adulthood and cherish certain elements of their childhood, imposing an over-simplification is a rather complex world.
But this personal or social value is not the only one. Kawaii has also been linked to a more international strategy by Japan to be seen as non-threatening and cool, a kind of rebranding of Japanese culture for foreigners. In an article for the East Asia Forum, Christine Yano referred to “kawaii diplomacy”: “, strategic negotiations based upon ‘cute’ positioning. In such diplomacy, Hello Kitty represents a highly successful soft-power niche for Japan. This niche builds upon an arsenal of performed innocence that justifies retreat from responsibility.” It’s a way for Japan to exert soft power not only abroad, but also domestically - even during times of social instability, the youth is encouraged to consume and take pride in goods that appeal to innocence and a certain kind of ignorance.
While a misfit in the Western world might definitely hang a completely overused poster of Che Guevara, a Japanese misfit has a poster of Hello Kitty with skulls. As Yano puts it: “Kawaii diplomacy builds upon affect and nostalgia, rather than on critical thinking. And in doing so throws a soft pink blanket upon the razor-sharp edges of history.”
But perhaps this ideal fits with the notion of contemporary Japan as a powerful ally, but one that does not even have an army to call its own and whose culture has become influential in West through cartoons. Although Japanese reality is much more complex, kawaii does not have much space for nuance and it is determined to present a soothing version of basically everything that exists.
Interestingly, kawaii can also used as a subversive weapon in the hands of Japanese to mock threats from outside. One example of that is the creation of ISIS-Chan, a kawaii meme against the terrorist group that was created after the beheading of Japanese journalists by the terrorists. It was created as way to hijack the ISIS violent propaganda and replace it with an amicable version of a non-terrorist mascot, with no affiliation with the group, but with the same name, thus disrupting google searches. This is a good example of how kawaii can bring people together to fight hate groups without having to find other sources of hate - instead, they put a pink cover and mock them endlessly without actually referring to them.
The protective instincts that arise when we call something kawaii are also interesting, since Japanese society is very much group-oriented rather than individualistic. By connecting people through feelings of cuteness, you might be joining people who felt too far apart from each other and encouraging them to care for one another. The only problem here is when these feelings are directed not at real people but fictional characters.
Finally, kawaii follows a familiar and traditional Japanese aesthetics in the sense that perfection is not the aim of being kawaii. Kawaii characters and aesthetics are purposely made clumsy, for example. Traditionally, Japanese people have valued the natural features of objects as a mirror of the transience and imperfection of life - a fractured bowl, for example, when repaired, retained the mark of the fracture and it made it more beautiful and not less.
Is there some downside to “kawaii culture”?
Kawaii culture has a difficult and complicated relationship with feminism. It’s emergence has been linked to the Japanese women’s emancipation - idolizing adorable and infantilizing attitudes was seen a way to soften the impact of women’s newfound freedom. Kawaii girls are not seen as threatening as the usual models of strong independent women presented by Western feminism, for example. The submission of women that some kawaii behaviours entail is a source of great anxiety for people working on the advancement of women’s rights in Japan. It is also telling that many Japanese men claim to have no desire for modern working women, most of which are in a constant battle to be taken seriously by their employers, and satisfy their sexual cravings with virtual reality and fictional characters. It is clear that, whenever sex robots become a routine commodity in Japan, they will be kawaii. Working women in high level positions who are meant to boss around men beneath them in the chain of command are not kawaii.
The erotic aspect of kawaii aesthetics is also troubling for some, because it could inspire paedophilic feelings. The images of seductive school girls with full bosoms but childlike behaviors and voices, made popular by hentai, are seen as problematic for inspiring sexual desires directed to children or young teenage girls.
While Japanese women struggle to be taken seriously, others complain that kawaii culture is also responsible for the softening of Japanese males and the erosion of traditional patriarchal values. Although economics is mostly to blame for this, it is true that Japanese men are not as central in society as they used to be and many Japanese women, fed up with the patriarchal system that left them to be only stay-at-home mothers, have grown disillusioned with the dating scene. There is a fertility crisis in Japan and it can be attributed to evolving gender roles that have not yet found a new balance.
But perhaps the most troubling aspect of kawaii culture is the refusal to accept the harshness of reality as it is and attempt to be continuously escaping. Kawaii thrives in virtual reality, in which participants can create characters to fit their mold of perfection of cute. But in the real world, being cute can only take you so far, and tough decisions and criticisms cannot be delivered by naive and innocent people who wish to live in rainbows.
As a whole, kawaii is blamed for infantilizing an emotionally exhausted Japanese society, to the point of penetrating sexual desires with the same penchant for childish attitudes and aesthetics.
In the West, dressing kawaii can be described as a defiant gesture by girls that are usually pressured to dress sexy.
Kawaii around the world
With the internationalization of Japanese culture, kawaii became a global phenomenon. Even though it remains more present in Japan and many of its feature continue to be surprising to Westerners, the truth is we are not so immune to it as we might think. The spread of Hello Kitty is a good example of how kawaii can become a highly valuable commodity in the international market.
In the West, dressing kawaii can almost be described as a defiant gesture by girls that are usually pressured to dress in a sexy, revealing way. Most kawaii outfits and fashion are quite the opposite, with fluffy dresses and long, buttoned shirts with ruffles. Cleavage is not kawaii. Westerners who follow the Japanese trend also think that it allows them to express themselves in a fun way and it is more fantasy oriented than the normal clothes we usually wear in our daily lives.
The comic-book and gaming communities are particularly fond of Asian culture in general and kawaii is viewed as an exotic trend to follow, that allows them to connect with their favorite characters and heroes. Many people spend months developing complex cosplay costumes to show off at conventions and make sure to have every single detail right, from accessories to make-up, eye color or ear shape.
Cartoons and merchandise for children has also become more kawaii. If we compare, say, the drawings of Snow White to those of current children’s cartoons, we will note the latter are much more influenced by Japanese anime and manga, with big eyes and exaggerated features.
However, for most Westerns, kawaii remains an interesting and sometimes puzzling trend. It consists mostly of accesories or decorations and it is not considered a lifestyle, as it might be for some Japanese people. It has the same allure for Westerners as it does for Japanese people, in the sense of being a way to escape the harsh realities of day-to-day life and move into a fantasy world. For Westerners, this alienating features are more intense because kawaii refers to a foreign culture. Sometimes, it leads to the featichization of Japan as some sort of fairytale land where cuteness prevails and people do not struggle so much as they do in Western countries.
Obviously, none of this is true and Japan has the same problems of any other country. However, while popular cultures of countries such as the U.S. or France strive by taking their social ills and amplifying them, turning them into cool commodities (rap, for example, started as the language of the underprivileged to a mainstream celebration of Western consumer culture), Japan’s kawaii hides the social ills by providing comfort elsewhere, in the enlarged eyes of a dim-witted cartoon character.
It is also interesting to note how kawaii in the Western world remains a feminine phenomenon. In Japan, softness of speech and an androgynous appearance can be considered masculine features, but in the West they are almost automatically relegated to the homossexual community. It is as if Japanese men were more free to embrace their feminine side and partake in activities usually reserved for girls in the Western world, while Western men are still afraid of being called “cute”.
So far we’ve focused on the influence of kawaii in the Western world. But we are overlooking the regions were Japanese influence is more immediate and pervasive - East Asia.
Hong Kong, in China, has a considerable population of Lolitas and K-Pop’ aesthetics is quite similar to the Japanese one. Taiwan, in particular, embraces Japanese popular culture much faster than it does Chinese one, because it views the latter as menacing.
Also, all over East Asia, female attractiveness is measured by a youthful appearance, so the gender performance associated with cuteness is considered to be more desirable than an outright sexy presentation. Considering how much of kawaii is based on the gender performance of women to appear suitable to potential partners, it is interesting to see how much all of these cultures that embrace kawaii have in common when it comes to gender stereotypes.
What is the opposite of “kawaii”? Japan’s kowaii culture
Because Japanese culture goes far beyond kawaii and because it is always good to use comparisons when we are trying to define something with some detail, I will now present to you the opposite of kawaii - kowaii, meaning scary or fearful.
Indeed, when people are asked to give examples of contemporary Japanese culture, it is just as easy to mention Hello Kitty as it is to mention the dark-haired mess ghost of The Ring. Japanese are masters at making everything cute, but they can also make everything really scary.
Japanese horror is a whole phenomenon of its own, that created blockbusters and terrifying nightmares. Much of it is derived from traditional Japanese culture with a modern twist.
Traditionally, Japanese folk tales feature youkai, magical creatures that can be either vicious, dim-witted or benevolent, and yuurei, spirits that remain in this world because they have some unfinished business that keeps them from moving on to another realm. Most of the yureei are depicted as women, usually with long black hair and limp limbs.
Even though Japan is a highly developed and technology-driven society, it seems that all this technological progress offers no protection against the grudges of the yuurei. They are capable of using modern devices to their advantage, terrorizing us even more.
Japanese horror stories also do not provide a detailed backstory to every single detail, making it even more scary because we are unable to find proper reasons and explanations to why we are targeted by scary spirits and the like.
There is also a whole aesthetics devoted to Japanese horror: white faces with a certain redness around the eyes, black clothing and long black hair and the overall appearance of being a ghost.
If kawaii is supposed to make us cheerfully embrace the world, Japanese horror is here to remind us that danger lurks in the most inoffensive of objects and we cannot always protect ourselves. Bad things can happen for no particular reason and we have to accept it for what it is.
Whether you love or hate kawaii, it is still a fascinating culture that shows how powerful the force of consumers really is.
Kawaii is a much more complex phenomenon than we usually think. It encompasses almost all facets of Japanese culture and it has seduced the West, but it is not a benign culture trend that emerged out of nothing. Indeed, it tells us many things about the Japanese society of today, their fears and aspirations.
What do you think about kawaii? What makes it so appealing to you? Is it the feminine aspect of it, the adorableness, the round shapes and bright colours?
How about the kawaii culture in Japan? Do you think it is something that could be replicated in the West, and if so, would it be a good or a bad thing?
Do you think there are any parallels we can draw between our Western cultures and the kawaii culture in Japan? What are the mutual inspirations and conflicting cultural values that make it possible to be cute in a certain place and not in another?
Do you consider kawaii to be really a gender issue? Do you think associated cultural practices, such as Burikko, undermine or empower women? What do you think to be less damaging to gender stereotypes - the hegemony of sexiness in the West of the hegemony of cute in Japan?
Whether you love or hate kawaii, it is still a fascinating culture that shows how powerful the force of consumers really is. If it wasn’t for the consumer-driven society of Japan of the late twentieth century, kawaii culture would have never been possible.
In a way, there is something quite charming about how an entire country can fall under the spell of cuteness when everything around us demands us to mature fast and be capable of facing the hardships of the world. Maybe there is something positive in embracing innocence and the fun and magic of childhood and we are the ones who are silly for not letting it continue to influence our adult lives further.
Is Kawaii a Japanese miracle in the midst of an increasingly cynical and globalized world? Perhaps we should not dwell too much on these issues and simply let ourselves be cuddled by the adorable big-eyed pictures of antrophormized animals smiling at us. After all, is not such a bad thing wishing to be loved and protected by those around us and doing the same thing for them.