Cuteness in Japanese culture

"Kawaii" redirects here. For the manufacturer of musical instruments, see Kawai; for the Hawaiian island, see Kauai.

Since the 1970s, cuteness (in Japanese adjective, kawaii (かわいい?)) has become a prominent aspect of Japanese popular culture, entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance, behavior, and mannerisms.[1] Foreign observers often find this cuteness intriguing, revolting or even childish because the Japanese employ it in a vast array of situations and demographics where, in other cultures, it would be considered incongruously juvenile or frivolous (for example, in government publications, public service warnings, office environments, military advertisements, and commercial airliners, among many others).[citation needed]



The rise of cuteness in Japanese culture emerged in the 1970s as part of a new style of writing. Many teenage girls began to write laterally using mechanical pencils. These pencils produced very fine lines, as opposed to traditional Japanese writing that varied in thickness and was vertical. Also, the girls would write in big, round characters and they added little pictures to their writing, such as hearts, stars, smiley faces, and letters of Latin alphabet. These pictures would be inserted randomly and made the writing very hard to read.[2] As a result, this writing style caused a lot of controversy and was banned in many schools. During the 1980s, however, this cute new writing was adopted by magazines and comics and was put onto packaging and advertising. From 1984-86, Yamane Kazuma studied the development of cute handwriting, which he called Anomalous Female Teenage Handwriting, in depth. Although it was commonly thought that the writing style was something that teenagers had picked up from comics, he found that teenagers had come up with the style themselves, as part of an underground movement.[2]

Later, cute handwriting became associated with acting childish and using infantile slang words. Because of this growing trend, companies, such as Sanrio, came out with merchandise like Hello Kitty. Hello Kitty was an immediate success and the obsession with cute continued to progress in other areas as well. The 1980s also saw the rise of cute idols, such as Seiko Matsuda, who is largely credited with popularizing the trend. Women began to emulate Seiko Matsuda and her cute fashion style and mannerisms, which emphasized the helplessness and innocence of young girls.[3] No longer limited to teenagers, however, the spread of making things as cute as possible, even common household items, was embraced by people of all ages. Now there are airplanes painted with Pikachu on the side, and each of Japan’s 47 prefectures, the Tokyo police, and the government television station all have their own cute mascots. Currently, Sanrio’s line of more than 50 characters takes in more than $1 billion a year and remains the most successful company to capitalize on the cute trend.[4]


Cute elements can be found almost everywhere in Japan, from big business to corner markets and national government, ward, and town offices.[4][5] Many companies, large and small, use cute mascots to present their wares and services to the public. For example:

  • Pikachu, a character from Pokémon, adorns the side of three All Nippon Airways passenger jets.
  • Asahi Bank used Miffy (Nijntje), a character from a Dutch series of children's picture books, on some of its ATM and credit cards.
  • Monkichi, a cute monkey character, can be found on the packaging for a line of condoms[6]
  • All 47 prefectures have cute mascot characters
  • The Japan Post "Yū-Pack" mascot is a stylized mailbox.[7]
  • The Japan Post also uses other cute mascot characters, for example, on stamps.
  • Some police forces in Japan have their own moe mascots, which sometimes adorn the front of kōban (police boxes).
  • Sanrio

Cute can be also used to describe a specific fashion sense[8][9] of an individual, and generally includes clothing that appears to be made for young children, outside of the size, or clothing that accentuates the cuteness of the individual wearing the clothing. Ruffles and pastel colors are commonly (but not always) featured, and accessories often include toys or bags featuring anime characters.[4]

Perception in Japan

As a cultural phenomenon, cuteness is increasingly accepted in Japan as a part of Japanese culture and national identity. Tomoyuki Sugiyama, author of "Cool Japan", believes that "cuteness" is rooted in Japan's harmony-loving culture, and Nobuyoshi Kurita, a sociology professor at Musashi University in Tokyo, has stated that "cute" is a "magic term" that encompasses everything that's acceptable and desirable in Japan.[10]

On the other hand, those skeptical of cuteness consider it a sign of an infantile mentality.[10] In particular, Hiroto Murasawa, professor of beauty and culture at Osaka Shoin Women’s University asserts that cuteness is "a mentality that breeds non-assertion ... Individuals who choose to stand out get beaten down."[10]

Influence on other cultures

Cute merchandise and products are especially popular in some parts of east Asia, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mainland China.[4]

In some Asian and western cultures, the Japanese word for cute (kawaii, かわいい) has joined a number of other Japanese words borrowed by overseas Japanophiles, sometimes in the wrong context. While the usage is almost entirely limited to the otaku subculture, it has been used by American singer Gwen Stefani, who gave kawaii a brief mention in her Hollaback Girl music video.[11]

Linguistic note: The word "kawaii" in Japanese has a narrower definition than the English word "cute". When applied to pop culture, "cute" will suffice; however "kawaii" refers primarily to the affection of a parent toward a child coupled with the protectiveness for the innocent and weak. Thus a pop cartoon character is considered "kawaii" because it exemplifies the innocence of a child and evokes general protective, caring instincts in the viewer. Other translations of "kawaii" can include "adorable", "precious", "lovable" or "innocent".[12] According to sociologist Sharon Kinsella, "Kawaii is a derivation of a term whose principle meaning was 'shy' or 'embarrassed' and secondary meanings were 'pathetic', 'vulnerable', 'darling', 'loveable' and 'small'. In fact the modern sense of the word kawaii still has some nuances of pitiful whilst the term kawaisô derived directly from kawaii means pathetic, poor, and pitiable in a generally negative if not pleasing sense."[2]

See also



  1. ^ Diana Lee, "Inside Look at Japanese Cute Culture" (September 1, 2005).
  2. ^ a b c Kinsella, Sharon. 1995. "Cuties in Japan" [1] accessed August 1, 2009.
  3. ^ See [2] URL accessed February 11, 2009.
  4. ^ a b c d "Cute Inc.". WIRED. Dec 1999. 
  5. ^ Business Week, "In Japan, Cute Conquers All".
  6. ^ Monkichi condoms. URL accessed September 30, 2006.
  7. ^ Japan Post site showing mailbox mascot. URL accessed April 19, 2006.
  8. ^ The New Yorker "FACT: SHOPPING REBELLION: What the kids want". URL accessed April 19, 2006.
  9. ^ Time Asia: "Arts: Kwest For Kawaii". URL accessed April 19, 2006.
  10. ^ a b c Quotes and paraphrases from: Yuri Kageyama (June 14, 2006). "Cuteness a hot-selling commodity in Japan". Associated Press. 
  11. ^ "Gwen Stefani neuters Japanese street fashion to create spring's must-have accessory: Giggling geisha!". URL accessed April 19, 2006.
  12. ^ [3] _The Japanese Self in Cultural Logic_ by Takei Sugiyama Libre, c. 2004 University of Hawaii Press, ISBN 0824828402, p. 86.

Additional reading