If you’re familiar with Japanese culture then there’s no doubt that you’ve heard of the term kawaii. It makes many people think of pastel colors, Hello Kitty, frilly dresses, anime and of course Japan! The word kawaii is derived from a phrase that refers to blushing but through time the meaning of the word has changed and is nowadays translated to ‘cute’. But kawaii is actually so much more than just cute: it’s a huge part of Japanese culture and can be found in anime, fashion, art, music, lifestyle and more!
According to other articles kawaii culture started coming up in the 70’s, personally I wonder if it hadn’t already started years before that during the Heian period (794-1185) If you look at Japanese art from this time you often see prints with inanimate objects or animals with human characteristics. Adding a ‘face’ to an object makes it feel more alive and people feel more affection towards it. The same thing goes for giving animals a human body or face which you can see nowadays a lot in anime, cat girls are super popular!
Anime boar girl by Hank88
The actual kawaii boom from which kawaii as we know it now started to develop in the early 70’s after World War II. It partially started with a movement in handwriting where teenage girls began to use mechanical pencils and decorate their writing with symbols like hearts, starts and more known as marui-ji (round writing). It caused a lot of controversy and was even banned in many schools at that time. This writing style contributed to the nowadays popular kaomoji and emoji
The other main influence was… can you guess it ? Hello Kitty. Born in 1974, the Sanrio’s most famous character has promoted kawaii culture not only in Japan but worldwide for many decades and has become THE symbol for Japanese kawaii culture. appearing on bags, t-shirts and even household items: toasters, spoons, toilet seats?! Everything had to be Hello Kitty-fied!
The interesting thing about kawaii is that it can be so simple, most if not all cute characters are often designed with disproportional big eyes and head, a tiny nose and hardly no facial expression. Some examples of these characters are Hello Kitty and Rilakkuma. Hello Kitty doesn’t even have a mouth but brings and yet she brings joy to people all around the world!
But why in Japan?
If you think about it, other countries also have characters, mascots and other things that could be considered ‘kawaii’ such as sport mascots, cartoons like the power puff girls and of course Disney but it is obvious is that kawaii is much bigger in Japan! In many western countries cuteness is often associated with childish and not in a good way. Even though this has been changing since the Hello Kitty boom for some people, especially guys it’s still considered a taboo to like cute things in the west. In Japan it is way more accepted and even when it’s not people will only judge you quietly instead of calling you out for it. Therefore it’s (fairly) normal for let’s say, a 50-year old man to be into anime or idols who sing and perform in a (in a westerners eyes’) childish way.
Japan is a country with many contradictions, one of these being the strict and formal work culture vs the pink and frilly kawaii culture. Kawaii is a way for people to escape the stress and extreme pressure from work and school and to express themselves in fashion, art and lifestyle. If you have to behave professional all day one way would be to grab a drink at a bar, some people like to indulge themselves in cuteness! Considering that Japanese people have to wear uniforms basically their whole life at work and at school it makes sense that they want to wear something completely different outside work. At the same time kawaii is also present in the work life, did you know that all prefectures in Japan and even companies have their own mascots?
Kawaii culture keeps evolving!
There are so many different kinds of kawaii now besides the traditional pastel Hello Kitty aesthetic. Even dark and gothic can be considered kawaii! Think of Sanrio’s character Kuromi for example, she is punky but still super cute! Yami-kawaii takes it a step further and incorporates sick, depressive and suicidal elements for people who cope with these kind of things to express themselves. There is also kimo-kawaii which can mean either gross-cute like these 3 Sanrio characters or creepy-cute like Gloomy Bear!
One thing that I also noticed is how emotionless characters like Hello Kitty have become less popular these years and made place for more relatable cute characters like the lazy Gudetama who is tired of life and the cute yet angry Aggretsuko who loves metal. How do think kawaii is going to evolve in the future? Let us know in the comments!
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