Japanese culture is a curious and multifaceted one. Japan is famous for high quality electronic products and a world-class work ethic. But its exports are not just limited to the field of science and technology. Japanese food is one of the most unique yet prevalent cuisines in the world. Entertainment is another major export of Japan.

Millions of people around the world passionately watch Animes and read Mangas. The Anime/Manga merchandise industry alone rakes in an approximate $8.81 billion in sales. That should give you a clear idea about the popularity of Japanese culture and its products globally.

Another Japanese cultural trend that has caught the world in frenzy over the past few decades is the ‘Kawaii Culture’. Whether it was due to Avril Lavigne’s ‘Hello Kitty’ song or Karl Lagerfeld’s Kawaii clothing line, this aspect of Japanese culture turned into a global phenomenon. But what is Kawaii? How did it originate, and how integral is it to the Japanese culture? In this article, we will attempt to answer these very questions.

What is Kawaii?

Even if you have never heard the term “Kawaii”, you surely must have seen the following images.

What is Kawaii
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The character on the left is the beloved Pokémon (an Anime) character known as Pikachu. The character on the right is the face of the brand known as “Hello Kitty”. Now, what do these two characters have in common? They are both cartoons, yes. But more specifically, they are cute cartoons. And therein lies the core of what Kawaii means.

Kawaii is a Japanese word that roughly translates to “cute”. Broadly speaking, it means something that can be viewed as adorable, shy, vulnerable and innocent. These are the kind of characteristics one may associate with children. In Japan, however, the Kawaii culture is popular among teenagers and even adults.

It is so popular that it is present in virtually every aspect of the Japanese society. It can be found in fashion, popular culture, toys, marketing and personal appearances as well.

The origin

The origin of the culture is a subject of great debate. No one is particularly sure how it all started. The usage of the actual term “Kawaii” can be traced back centuries ago in Japanese literature. Usually, it was used to define ideal women who were innocent and shy. However, one theory suggests that Kawaii emerged in Japan in the 1970s in the form of cute handwriting preferred by teenagers. While Japanese script is usually written in broad strokes, this new cute handwriting style had thin round letters with occasional emojis. Soon, it started making its way into mainstream entertainment forms such as Anime and Manga.

Around the same time, cute fashion was trending in Japan as well. Illustrations of baby-faced girls in brightly colored outfits became more and more prevalent in girls’ magazines. The popularity of this aesthetic led to the creation of brands like ‘Hello Kitty’ which greatly defined the Kawaii culture.

The Kawaii aesthetic

The Kawaii aesthetic
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We have thrown the word ‘cute’ around a lot in this article, but what exactly does ‘Kawaii’ look like? As far as personal appearances go, it is mostly about wearing brightly colored clothes and dyeing the hair. Pink is a popular choice among Kawaii enthusiasts, along with blue and purple. Makeup can be a big part of it too. People often like to create an innocent, child-like appearance by making the eyes seem bright and big.

You might think that this is something that primarily captivates girls, but this culture transcends gender. While it can be said that the percentage of female Kawaii enthusiasts is higher, males do partake in this trend. They either transform themselves to look like Kawaii girls, or mix ‘Kawaii-ness’ in their regular look.

Kawaii Fashion
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The relationship between Kawaii fashion and Kawaii popular culture is based on active give and take. The outfits are greatly inspired by Manga and Anime depictions, which in turn are influenced by pioneering Kawaii fashion icons. All of this then affects the Kawaii merchandise and accessories which then inspire new Kawaii outfits. Examples can range from bright pink handbags decorated with Hello Kitty logos to furry suitcases that look like teddy bears.

The importance of Kawaii in the Japanese culture

Kawaii culture can be found everywhere in Japan. We have discussed how entertainment modes such as Anime and Manga are influenced by this trend. However, it is present in other facets of popular culture as well. Many Japanese pop stars have adopted this aesthetic in the past.

One would think that such a seemingly teenage-centered trend would hold little importance outside of mainstream entertainment. This is not the case with Kawaii in Japan. Several food products have elements of Kawaii in their branding. This is not just for products for kids. Items such as fizzy drinks and noodles also have cute-looking characters on the packaging.

Kawaii elements being used on various food items
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However, what is truly remarkable is the presence of Kawaii culture in corporate and government settings. Multiple Japanese airline carriers have branded their jets with Pokémon characters and Hello Kitty artworks. Such decorations can also be found on other modes of transportation such as buses and trains.

A Tokyo high-speed train with Pokémon Branding
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A Taiwanese Eva Air Airbus A330 Jet (headed for Japan) supporting Hello Kitty artwork
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Many companies and even government agencies have adopted Kawaii themed characters as their mascots. For instance, Tokyo Police’s Crime Prevention Task Force has a Kawaii dog mascot known as “Tewatasanaiinu”. Other examples of organizations that have adopted Kawaii mascots include banks and television networks. In fact, the Japanese public broadcaster NHK’s mascot is one of the most popular Kawaii characters in the world and is a popular internet sensation.