You may not have heard of the term kawaii unless you are familiar with Japanese culture, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t been exposed to the kawaii culture. In fact, chances are that you have experienced it multiple times already and in your own country – no less.

‘Kawaii’ is the Japanese word for cute. The word, however, has grown out of its limited meaning and turned into a culture – even a way of life for some. Kawaii culture celebrates cuteness, and it has ingrained itself in many aspects of Japanese culture, be it art, music, fashion or anime.

Kawaii: A Complete Guide 11

Kawaii culture may have bloomed in Japan as a modest concept. However, it didn’t take long for it to spread its roots across the world and become a global sensation. It quickly took on many shapes and forms, the most popular of which is embracing fictional characters as a means to spread positivity – think

Japanese exoticism

Had the culture been limited to a form of Japanese exoticism, we probably wouldn’t be writing an article about it. But it isn’t solely a Japanese phenomenon anymore, and the hundreds of dressed-up adults lining up outside Comic-Con every year are proof. Bring your attention to the Lolita fashion that is becoming increasingly popular. Victorian clothing, netted stockings, braids, and ribbons – the fashion that has been profiled in V&A and other leading fashion exhibits is another form of Kawaii. Follow us along as we take a deep dive into the culture to find out how a fad turned into a phenomenon that gripped the world.

The Roots

The word Kawaii finds its roots in the Japanese phrase kawayushi that signifies shyness, lovability and vulnerability. The phrase evolved and so did its implication – until it came to be associated with cuteness in the modern day.

Although Kawaii as we know it today is a fairly modern phenomenon, the hints of the culture can be traced all the way back to the Heian period in Japan. Art from this period depicts animals adopting human characteristics and taking on human form.
The Japanese believed that giving humanistic characteristics to animals, and vice versa, generated more affection towards the subject. Such characterization is a central element of modern Kawaii culture. The idea of girls wearing cat ears has become so popular that it has inspired several Snapchat filters.
Influences of the Kawaii culture have existed throughout Japan’s elaborate history. But it wasn’t until after World War II that the culture came together in its modern form. It all started with the student protests of the late-1960s when Japanese university students rebelled against corruption in the education systems.

The Roots
Kawaii culture

The protests didn’t directly result in formation of the Kawaii culture, but they gave rise to Japan’s manga comic culture. This paved way for Kawaii being integrated in the expanding comic-reading culture almost a decade later. By the end of the 1970s, the fast-growing manga-craze had spread like wildfire throughout Japan. It promoted various forms of self-expression among Japanese teenagers.

Among these forms was the rising marui-ji trend. Teenage girls would decorate their writing with hearts, symbols and drawings. The unique rounded writing style not only became the basis of the Kawaii culture, it also evolved into what we know today as emoji.

Hello Kitty! Hello, World!

Hello Kitty! Hello, World!

Kawaii culture may have been written off as Eastern exoticism destined to amuse tourists and nothing more, had it not been for the now iconic pop-culture phenomenon, Hello Kitty. 1974 saw the first embodiment of Kawaii when Sanrio, a stationary brand, launched their new mascot. The cute white cat with a pink bow, designed by Yuko Yamaguchi, first came to the spotlight as a design on the company’s coin purse. The character found immediate popularity among teenage girls. It can be counted as an influence on the marui-ji writing trend that came some time later.
Today, Hello Kitty is a cultural icon across the world. Its face is plastered on everything from handbags to bullet trains. Japan has even named the character its official tourism ambassador. However, this recognition didn’t come overnight. It came as a carefully planned marketing strategy to lift Japan out of its economic crisis.

tourism ambassador

Hello Kitty came and settled into a spot of moderate popularity among teenagers. It influenced Kawaii self-expressions which were banned from many schools. However, advertisers saw this new trend as a means of expanding their target audience. The playful writing style started cropping up more and more in advertisements, and with it came the recognition that something was working. Having observed the effectiveness of kawaii in local advertising, banks and corporations strategized to use the same approach to enhance Japan’s appeal in the international market. Japan, at this time, was undergoing economic crisis and needed to be seen as a modern country, in order to attract investor interest.

A wide range of companies from various industries adopted cuteness as a promotions strategy. Kawaii elements became a strong part of their advertising during the 1990s. Some companies that were at the forefront of this shift were Mitsubishi, Nissan, Nintendo and Sony. Hello Kitty also saw a brand revival, as its face began cropping up on airlines and a range of products targeted at teens as well as adults.

Why Kawaii?

Why Kawaii ?

Kawaii culture may have been used as a means to introduce Japan to the world, but any analyst at the time would have told you that the interest would die soon. What we see today is the opposite. Somehow and for some reason, Kawaii has not only persisted but also grown and evolved. It is no longer an element of Japanese culture but has taken on various iterations in various cultures.
The question to ask here is, why has this seemingly pre-adolescent culture been claimed by people of varying ages, genders and nationalities? Part of its widespread appeal can be attributed to its evolution. Kawaii has branched off into so many different forms in addition to the original pastel aesthetic associated with Hello Kitty. These different forms attract different audiences.
Kawaii has solidified its purpose as a means of self-expression. For instance, not only is there a cute and colorful a form of Kawaii, there is a dark and gothic form as well. Similarly, Yami-kawaii incorporates elements of depression to give a platform to people suffering from mental illnesses to express themselves.
The culture can also be seen as a means of escape and reprieve from the bustle of modern life. At an initial glance, it seems as if these adults who have given in to their childish tendencies don’t want to grow up. However, the reality isn’t often black and white.

Pokémon Go

Competition on the professional front has increased and so have pressures of debt and responsibility. Thereby, it is unsurprising that people would want an escape in childlike freedom, even if only temporarily. This need for reprieve has culminated in various forms, such as Lolita fashion, the increased popularity of Kawaii merchandise and mobile games such as Pokémon Go.

Kawaii representations, be it Hello Kitty, Pikachu or even the emojis we use so often, all have thematic similarities that makes them so popular. All these characterizations are designed with big disproportionate heads, big eyes and are devoid of emotion.

Yes, you could see the character smiling or even crying, but they are designed in a way that any real emotion is absent. The absence of emotion increases the character’s appeal. It gives the viewer the opportunity to project themselves in the character and bask in its innocence and cuteness.

Kawaii Subcultures

Something we have already touched on in our exploration of Kawaii is its evolution. The culture has branched off into several subcultures, each with its own connotation. This was an inevitable with Kawaii becoming a prominent form of expression.

All of Kawaii subcultures retain its core element of cuteness but stray from everything else that makes the traditional Kawaii iconic. Many of the subcultures could be considered opposites of the traditional Kawaii as they dip their toes into the darker elements of one’s emotions. In addition to Yami-kawaii which we discussed earlier, here are some of the most prominent subcultures that are popular today.

This is kawaii with dark twist. It is gore edging on grotesque but still cute enough to generate a unique appeal.
Creepy and cute – this is a weird blend of both elements that might not appeal to all tastes. Think earrings that look like a spider is stuck in your earlobe.
Ugly and cute – this form of expression promotes the thought that ugly can be cute.
This is cute and sexy. There is a heavy focus on sexuality. Think – a sexy cat girl.
This entails just a hint of kawaii in otherwise ordinary attire. This is a subdued representation which is not very overpowering.

Kawaii Subcultures

The Future of Kawaii

The Future of Kawaii

Kawaii started off as just another fad amongst pre-adolescent teens in a remote part of the globe. What it has evolved into is a culture and a sentiment. It promotes individuality and freedom. It brings down walls of misguided perfectionism that state that you have to be perfect to be cute.
As the world searches for new forms of self-expression, kawaii, as we know it today, might lose the spotlight it enjoys. However, it is very unlikely that it will completely fade. The forms of expressions in which individuals use kawaii will probably shift over time, but this is only because the masses will discover other forms of expression that embody the culture.