Japan’s Kawaii Culture

Cute, adorable, loveable – these are just some of the possible translations for the Japanese word kawaii. But there is much more to this harmless-looking words than just an expression of cuteness.

Kawaii has been accepted as a part of Japanese culture. In fact, with the emergence of famous pop stars like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, kawaii is on a mission to capture the hearts of people around the world. After introducing you to Otaku culture some time ago, we now want to give you an insight into the cute and playful side of Japanese everyday life.

How is it possible that cute things are widely accepted amongst all ages? Where does the kawaii trend come from? Does kawaii only mean being cute and small? These are just some of the questions we want to discuss today. Let’s get started!

Kawaii shop


First, let us take a look at the historical context of kawaii. The word itself traces back to the word kawahayushi, used in the Taisho era (1912 – 1926) of Japan. It means “radiant face” or “red face” and describes a blushing face. The reading of the word went through a couple of transformations, to kawayushi, kawayui and finally to modern day’s kawaii. Along the way, more meaning was attached to it. On top of describing someone shy or embarrassed, new characteristics such as small, loveable and – of course – cute could be described using this word.

The beginning of modern kawaii culture is hard to pinpoint, but many people set it in the 1970s, with the emergence of a new style of writing. New mechanical pencils allowed students, especially school girls, to create much smaller and finer lines. Their words would become bigger and rounder and they would doodle either on the side of their notebooks or combine small drawings with their writing. Even though teachers weren’t happy with these almost unreadable handwritings, products aimed towards that age group would start using them for packaging and similar advertisements under the term kawaii.

Whether this started a whole kawaii trend or was just one of the many factors contributing to cute things becoming acceptable in everyday life is hard to say. Soon enough, however, cute merchandise became widely available and even household items started becoming more colorful and decorated. What might have been directed only at schoolgirls at first, soon became popular amongst all ages. Especially the wish of many women to stay young as long as possible led to them becoming attracted to kawaii products.


Kawaii everywhere

Kawaii doesn’t end there. Japan embraced it and started using the concept of kawaii as a way to symbolize and market their country. Today, almost every prefecture, bigger company or institution has a cute mascot representing them. Pikachu flies across countries on the side of ANA airplanes and the mascot of broadcasting company NHK, Domokun, is known even outside of Japan. In a way, all things small and cute became associated with Japan – a great opportunity for tourism.

Nowadays, kawaii can even be displayed on your body in the form of fashion. It is widely accepted that kawaii is a compliment. Many girls want to appear vulnerable and shy, since that makes them more attractive to the general public. Youthful and childlike looks are essential – you don’t want to use makeup or clothes that make you appear older than you are. Kawaii girls have big eyes, a small mouth and look as innocent as possible. On the streets of Tokyo you will see many girls wearing playful skirts or dresses, topped off with cute accessories and jewelry.

Kawaii fashion

Forms of kawaii

Let us finish this article by mentioning that kawaii does not only have to mean pink, small or cute. As it is often the case with Japanese trends, subcultures emerge sooner than you would think and they become almost as popular as the real deal. Let me introduce you to just a few of them.

One form of kawaii is busu kawaii – ugly cute. Yes, you have heard correctly, apparently some things are just so ugly that they are cute again. This form of cuteness has to do with feeling pity for that object and wanting to show it some love. Most of the time though, you will encounter this term when cute girls deliberately make an ugly face to look even cuter.

Kimo kawaii means an unpleasant or disgusting form of kawaii. This term is one of the hardest one to understand by many foreigners. Just think of the more than unique faces of the Kobitos or Kobito dukan below and you will understand what I mean with “disgustingly cute”. Last but not least we have guro kawaii, grotesque or scary cute. This concept might be more easily understandable by foreigners; imagine creepy dolls or cute toys combined with disturbing images. Some concepts of Western Emo or Punk scenes are similar to guro kawaii.

Of course, there are many more subcultures than the three mentioned above. Just keep your eyes and ears open and you will certainly find even more things that you didn’t know could be described as cute.

Kobito dukan

Big eyes, cute smiles and lots of hearts and stars. Kawaii seems to be easily explained. But there is so much more to it than just cute looks; hopefully you came to understand the deeper meaning behind this culture.

Liking small and innocent things might not be widely acceptable abroad, but in Japan you cannot hide from cute mascots or merchandise. You might think of kawaii culture what you want, but you cannot deny that seeing cute and happy characters wherever you go will brighten your mood. Especially in a culture where you experience lots of pressure from society, kawaii can bring a little bit of light into your dull everyday life. In the end, isn’t that the only thing that matters?

I am sure that many of you are already familiar with the word kawaii. What does it mean to you and how would you use it? What do you think of Japan’s fascination with cute things? Share your opinion in the comment section down below!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *