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What is Japanese Kawaii Culture?

Japan’s cultural influence is recognised globally, from anime to gaming to fashion trends. One sub-culture which has become increasingly popular is Japanese kawaii culture, which has permeated across the globe as a result of globalisation and an increasingly technological world. If you’ve heard of Hello Kitty, you’ve already had a glimpse into Japanese cute culture, but what is it all really about?

What Does Kawaii Mean?

Japanese kawaii culture is the Japanese culture of cuteness. Kawaii is more than just a word to Japanese people. The word itself has taken on a persona of “cute”, “lovable” and “adorable”, and has evolved to mean someone or something with no negative traits. It describes the culture of celebrating all things adorable as well as embracing fictional characters as the embodiment of positivity.

Kawaii can refer to items, humans and non-humans that are youthful, cute and childlike and is based on the sweet physical features of young children and animals. Animals can take on human features to make them appear more lifelike. Similarly, humans can take on the features of animals, particularly cats, using tails and ears to enhance emotional expression.

Kawaii is popular in Japan because Japanese culture values youth, where men and women seek to emulate youth by adopting the kawaii style of dress and lifestyle. It may also represent an escape from long working hours and strict social pressures that many people in Japan face.

Japanese kawaii culture has filtered into the lifestyles of every Japanese person, but how did it begin?

The History of Japanese Kawaii Culture

Luigi, Yoshi and Mario Action Figures Stood in a Line on a Path with Greenery in the Background

The word “kawaii” evolved from “kawayushi”, in the Taisho Era (1912-1926), meaning embarrassed, shy, vulnerable, lovable and small. The modern word has retained this meaning, but now encompasses feelings of love, care and protectiveness.

Girls Illustrations are an early artistic form of kawaii. Yumeji Takehisa’s illustrations on “chiyogami” woodblock prints, merged East and West, using round eyes in his work to represent innocence and youth. There is a distinct western influence present today; the big, round eyes are a result of the interaction between Japan and America during World War II.

Before the 1970s, the target audience of kawaii was younger school girls. Shojo was a way to market and develop fashion after the Second World War, to target teens with drawings of characters in chic fashion trends. Kawaii was used to sell cuteness to girls, who chose their products based on kawaiiness. Collective identity and culture were formed around cute dress, accessories and objects, making a large group identity.

By the 1970s, Marui-ji, or round writing, was popular in Japanese schools. Schoolgirls used mechanical pencils to decorate their writing with cute symbols like stars and hearts, similar to the modern emoji!

The face of kawaii was born in 1974, with the creation of Hello Kitty. Hello Kitty is one of the world’s most famous cats and today has over 50,000 product lines available in 130 countries. Hello Kitty represents kawaii culture to a tee: a cute character with disproportionally big eyes and head, a small nose, and minimal facial expressions. Her expressionless demeanour means that people could give her almost any kind of emotion, making her an extremely popular character transcending age and gender.

What is Kawaii Culture Like in Japan Today?

Japanese kawaii culture has permeated all aspects of lifestyle and popular culture. Even the road crossing chirps rather than beeps!

A Kawaii Girl Smelling a Flower in a Dress Up Cosplay Costume Wearing a Green Wig
  • Fashion: Kawaii fashion is a fashion subculture in Japan. Japanese fashion trends are recognised worldwide, with cosplay being the hallmark of the modern Japanese lifestyle. It is hugely popular in Japanese popular culture to dress up and portray anime and manga characters. If you ever wondered why anime is so popular, our informative blog post explores the reasons why it’s such a big trend. 

Japanese cute culture is embodied by Japanese fashion, which focuses on cuteness and innocence. The kawaii aesthetic includes bright, colourful, frilly clothes and overstated bows. To complement the style, the kawaii mannerisms are overly cute and behave in an adorable, childish way.

The Harajuku area of Tokyo was once associated with foreignness and difference, as it was an Americanised housing area named Washington Heights. In 1977, it became a pedestrianised area and epicentre for street fashion, with every style from gothic to cosplay and kawaii making an appearance. Harajuku is now a popular tourist destination, retaining its reputation as a pop culture hot spot.

  • Popular Culture: Japan has a quirky café culture, to say the least. From cat cafes to monster cafes, to character cafes, there is bound to be café in Japan that suits you!
  • Mascots: All companies and prefectures have a mascot; usually, an animal- similar to an anime character come to life. Museums, schools, prisons and even the military have them too! If you were ever wondering where else to visit for all things anime, our recent blog posts helps you find the best places in Japan which celebrate all things manga and anime.
  • Entertainment: Male and female pop stars wear kawaii clothing and makeup. They also attempt to change the size and colour of their eyes by wearing big, coloured contact lenses, false eyelashes and strong eye makeup. Japanese pop stars also act in a cute, kawaii way and write in kawaii script, or include small drawings in their signatures.
  • Marketing and Advertising: Japanese food and snacks are marketed in cute and bright packaging, or are cute themselves and have faces on them. Faces add an element of cute and affection to everything!
  • Gaming: Japan is famous for its gaming industry, and most games have a kawaii element to them.
  • Art: In kawaii art, cuteness thrives. There are many genres of cuteness: guro-kawaii (grotesque cute), ero-kawaii (erotic cute), kimo-kawaii (creepy cute) and busu-kawaii (ugly cute). One of Japan’s most famous kawaii artists is Takashi Murakami. Murakami has been described as “the Warhol of Japan”, due to his cartoon-pop aesthetic.
  • Food: Japanese cute culture has even made its way into food. A popular trend includes turning basic packed lunches of staple foods like rice, fish, meat and vegetables, into cute works of art. There are two distinct styles of bento box: the kyaraben and oekakiben. The kyaraben, or character bento boxes are designed with people, animals and characters from popular media. The oekakiben bento, or picture bento, is designed to look like animals, buildings, landscapes and scenes.

Japanese kawaii culture is a huge part of everyday life in Japan and so different from what we experience here in the UK. If you are planning a visit to Japan, and want to experience Japanese cute culture first hand, check out our popular Japanese guides. To experience kawaii at home, explore our range of kimonos and kokeshi dolls and accessories.

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