Japanese people have always been famous for their obsession with cuteness and aesthetics. You might think that everyone loves cuteness, but not everyone loves it the way the Japanese do. A number of things are referred to as “cute”. The aesthetic of cuteness has been fused with art for long. Today’s interactive world is playing with the digital art and is deep into the aesthetics. However, in Japan, cuteness is an important part of the culture itself. Let’s look at this phenomenon in detail.

Introduction to ‘Kawaii’ – the Japanese cuteness

Kawaii means ‘cuteness’ in Japanese language and is one of the most broadly used terms in the Japanese culture. It reflects the love that Japanese people possess for the culture of celebrating and embracing fictional characters as the embodiment of positivity. It also indicates that Kawaii has a strong cultural background and it is a huge part of Japanese traditions.

Today, Kawaii is so popular that the moment someone hears of it, they automatically imagine a radiant, cute and loving smiley face. It has become such an integral aspect of Japan that its colors are visible almost everywhere – from streets to road signs, the hello kitty symbols hang off bars. The street art in pastel colors and frilly dress exhibitions every now and then reflects that this art goes for both living and non-living things.

The Japanese cuteness

The history of cuteness

The rise of cuteness in the Japanese culture goes back to the 1970’s. This was when little Japanese girls started to get obsessed with writing using mechanical pencils which resulted in finer lines as compared to ordinary Japanese writing. This gave birth to a popular new trend. As a result of this obsession of with this new form of art, Japanese girls started to practice their skills and wrote big and round characters followed by cute tiny pictures (somewhat similar to emojis of today). This style caught on and was initially criticized and banned in the schools.

Many names were given to this practice of writing such as ‘Koneko Ji (Kitten Writing)’ and ‘Burriko Ji (Fake-Child Writing)’. It has been believed that such sudden obsession of Japan with adorability is due to their post-WWII traumas and destruction. This cuteness gave the youth of Japan a sense of expression and allowed positivity and optimism into their lives. Although cute and adorable handwriting initially got discouraged and banned in the schools, it still made it into Japanese magazines and street-art, leading to the growth of Kawaii.

Famous characters of cuteness

Many hit characters from Japan are now a worldwide sensations including the highly decorated character of ‘Hello Kitty’. This was launched by Saniro in 1974 as the ambassador of Japan’s cult of cuteness. The super-adorable cat with no mouth and pink bow has now become a star and is representative of Japanese cute culture. Now it is placed on almost every product – from schoolbags of kids, to their lunchboxes, mugs, stationery items and much more. In 2008, Japan announced the infamous ‘Hello Kitty’ as their official tour ambassador, inviting the rest of the world to celebrate the Kawaii sensation.

characters of cuteness

The great success and admiration of Hello Kitty motivated Saniro to develop more characters like it. The aim was to spread a sense of happiness and popularity among the people, especially the young ones. This is why, in the coming years, after the hit launch of Hello Kitty, Saniro introduced several new characters as the face of cuteness.

Japan understood the economic impact of this cult-cuteness and instead of letting the world get swayed away with cuteness of Hello Kitty, Saniro and Japan ended up introducing almost 450 different products with almost 3500 variants. Even though these characters are fictional, they are still immensely decorated and celebrated not only in Japan but around the globe. Some famous characters include:

  • Hello Kitty – the pioneer cat of Japanese cute characters
  • Pokemon’s Pikachu – by far the most famous cartoon character in the world was also introduced by Saniro as an ambassador of Japan’s distinctive cult.
  • The Afro Ken dog – the famous rainbow-colored afro dog is also an important evidence of Japan’s obsession with cuteness.

Similarly, Nintendo video games, anime and Japanese cartoons have experienced a vast number of cute fictional characters living in their fictional universe. They radiate nothing but positivity and happiness in our dark and gloomy real world!

Fusion with art

The whole Japanese contemporary culture of Kawaii is an essential part of Japan’s culture for kids. However, it has also made a promising impact on Japan’s cultural and traditional heritage including lifestyle, fashion, entertainment, food and much more.

The ‘Superflat’ Art Movement

Initially, Japan struggled with drawing a clear line between its rich commercial heritage of culture and this new obsession with cuteness. An artist named ‘Murakami’ started a movement known as ‘Superflat Art Movement’ solely based on the Japan’s craze for cuteness and hence merged fine art and the commercial culture of Japan. He developed many iconic characters such as smiling flowers which easily paved their way into the Japanese fashion industry and street art. He also kept the craze of anime and manga alive.

‘Superflat’ Art Movement

The Sinister-Subtle combo

Another artist, who gained a lot of praise and held almost 40 exhibitions of his unique and state-of-the-artwork was ‘Yoshitomo Nara’. The distinctive art of Nara incorporated pictures illustrating both sides of the Japanese cultural heritage, including the iconic ambivalent paintings of children and animals who appear to be sinister and cute at the same time. It was the kind of artwork unknown and unheard of at that time and ended up gaining a lot of attention during the Japan’s Pop Art movement in the early 1990’s.

Sinister-Subtle combo

What’s so special?

The questions that have often been asked are – why is Kawaii popular and how is it different from conventional attributes of cuteness which are present in almost every culture? The answer is simple. The cuteness in Japanese culture has been incorporated using some distinctive features which are present in almost every character, hence making them unique and adorable. Some of the key attributes that make Kawaii characters so special and super-cute are:

  • Big, Round Eyes – the Japanese have always had historical views regarding big and round eyes, and this is why they are also incorporated in Kawaii characters. They represent genuineness and cuteness. They are used equally for male and female characters.
  • Cute Animals and Non-Human Kawaii – Similar to obsession with animals in Japan’s pop-culture, it is featured with same enthusiasm in their cult of cuteness.
  • The Babyish Vibes – These characters are found to be having little and bubbly bodies with large heads, showing the picture of pubescence and underdeveloped sexuality.
underdeveloped sexuality

It’s not only Japan

Importantly, the obsession is not only limited to Japan now – it has become homegrown in multiple locations and seems like it has given rise to many childlike adults who don’t want to grow up. It has given people a finite escape from reality. As this cuteness has propagated into technology and lifestyle, at slight glance it appears as the culture of capitalism sugarcoated in glitter.

not only Japan