What is Kawaii?


Kawaii (可愛い [kaw͍ai.i], literally, “lovable”, “cute”, or “adorable”) is the quality of cuteness in the context of Japanese culture. It has become a prominent aspect of Japanese popular culture, entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance, behavior, and mannerisms. The noun is Kawaisa (可愛さ?) (literally, “lovability”, “cuteness” or “adorableness”).

The words “kawaii” have the root word “kawai” which is formed from the kanji “ka” (可), meaning “acceptable”, and “ai” (愛), meaning “love”. The term kawaii has taken on the secondary meanings of “cool”, “groovy”, “acceptable”, “desirable”, “charming” and “non-threatening”.


Sōichi Masubuchi 増渕聡一 (Masubuchi Sōichi?) in his work, Kawaii Syndrome, claims “cute” and “neat” have taken precedence over the former Japanese aesthetics of “beautiful” and “refined”.

Gender performance

Japanese women who feign cute behaviors (e.g., high-pitched voice, squealing giggles) that could be viewed as forced or inauthentic are called burikko and this is considered a gender performance. The term burikko (鰤子?) is formed with buri (鰤, literally ‘amberjack’ a fish), a pun on furi (振, ‘to pretend or pose’), and ko (子, ‘child’). It was a neologism developed in the 1980s by singer Kuniko Yamada 山田邦子 (Yamada Kuniko?).

Physical attractiveness

In Japan, cuteness is expected of men and women. There is a trend of men shaving their legs to mimic the “asexual” look. Many Japanese men are drawn to the owner of cute merchandise, because it is reminiscent of little girls, and Japanese women try to act cute to attract men. A study by Kanebo, a cosmetic company, found that Japanese women in their 20s and 30s favored the “cute look” with a “childish round face”.


Original definition

The original definition of kawaii came from Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji where it referred to pitiable qualities. During the Shogunate period under the ideology of neo-Confucianism, women came to be included under the term kawaii as the perception of women being animalistic was replaced with the conception of women as docile.

Cute handwriting

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 the Latin alphabet.

These pictures would be inserted randomly and made the writing very hard to read. As a result, this writing style caused a lot of controversy and was banned in many schools. During the 1980s, however, this new “cute” writing was adopted by magazines and comics and was put onto packaging and advertising.

From 1984–1986, Kazuma Yamane 山根和麻 (Yamane Kazuma ?) studied the development of cute handwriting, which he called Anomalous Female Teenage Handwriting, in depth. This type of cute Japanese handwriting has also been called: marui ji (丸い字?), meaning “round writing”, koneko ji (小猫字?), meaning “kitten writing”, manga ji (漫画字?), meaning “comic writing”, and burikko ji (鰤子字?), meaning “fake-child writing”. 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.

Cute fashion

Tomoyuki Sugiyama 杉山奉文 (Sugiyama Tomoyuki?), author of Cool Japan, claims cute fashion in Japan can be traced back to the Edo Period with the popularity of netsuke.

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. The market for cute merchandise in Japan is driven by Japanese girls between 15 and 18 years old.

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 Pokémon characters on the side, and each of Japan’s 47 prefectures, the Tokyo police, and even the public broadcaster NHK all have their own cute mascots. Domokun, the unique-looking and widely recognized NHK mascot, was introduced in 1998 and quickly took on a life of its own, appearing in Internet memes and fan art around the world. Currently, Sanrio’s line of more than 50 characters takes in more than $1 billion a year and it remains the most successful company to capitalize on the cute trend.

Cute characters

Cute elements can be found almost everywhere in Japan, from big business to corner markets and national government, ward, and town offices. 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 ANA passenger jets.

– Kirby, the main character from Nintendo’s Kirby video game series.

– Asahi Bank used Miffy (Nijntje), a character from a Dutch series of children’s picture books, on some of its ATM and credit cards.

– All 47 prefectures have cute mascot characters.

– The Japan Post “Yū-Pack” mascot is a stylized mailbox; they also use other cute mascot characters to promote their various services (among them the Postal Savings Bank) and have used many such on postage stamps.

– Some police forces in Japan have their own moe mascots, which sometimes adorn the front of kōban (police boxes).

– Sanrio, the company behind Hello Kitty and other similarly cute characters, runs the Sanrio Puroland theme park in Tokyo.

Cute can be also used to describe a specific fashion sense of an individual, and generally includes clothing that appears to be made for young children, apart from 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.

Cute products

This concept of ‘kawaii’ has had an influence on a variety of products, such as Hi-Chew, Koala’s March and Hello Panda. Cuteness can be added to products by adding cute features, such as hearts, flowers, stars and rainbows.

Popular cute characters in Japan

These cute characters are popular in Japan: Tarepanda, Hello Kitty, Momo the Postpet, Felix the Cat, Pingu, Mickey Mouse, Stitch, Marie, Chip ‘n’ Dale, Teletubbies, Snoopy, Winnie-the-Pooh, Miffy, Rilakkuma, Mameshiba, Care Bears, Care Bear Cousins, Popples, Hamtaro, Domo, Pikachu, Totoro, Doraemon and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

Cute in Western countries but not in Japan

There have been occasions when the Western concept of “cuteness” conflicts with kawaii. Cabbage Patch Kids dolls did not sell well in Japan, because the Japanese considered their facial features to be “ugly” and “grotesque” compared to the flatter and almost featureless face of Hello Kitty. Also, Barbie did not become successful in Japan compared to the Rika-chan doll who was modeled after a pre-pubescent girl

Perception in Japan

As a cultural phenomenon, cuteness is increasingly accepted in Japan as a part of Japanese culture and national identity. Tomoyuki Sugiyama 杉山奉文 (Sugiyama Tomoyuki?), author of “Cool Japan”, believes that “cuteness” is rooted in Japan’s harmony-loving culture, and Nobuyoshi Kurita 栗田経惟 (Kurita Nobuyoshi?), 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.

Influence on other cultures

Kawaii products are seemingly gaining more popularity beyond the borders of Japan into other Asian markets and it’s seemingly becoming more popular in the US especially among the young anime and manga fans as well as among those who are influenced by the Japanese culture. Cute merchandise and products are especially popular in some other parts of East Asia, such as China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and South-East Asian countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore.

Sebastian Masuda, owner of 6%DOKIDOKI and a global advocate for kawaii influence, takes the quality from Harajuku to the western markets in his stores and artwork. The underlying belief of this Japanese designer is that “kawaii” actually saves the world. The infusion of kawaii into other world markets and cultures is achieved by introducing kawaii via modern art, audio visual and written media and the fashion trends of Japanese youth, especially in high-school girls.

Japanese kawaii seemingly operates as a center of global popularity due to its association with making cultural productions and consumer products “cute”. This mindset pursues a global market giving rise to numerous applications and interpretations in other cultures.

The dissemination of Japanese youth fashion and “kawaii culture” is usually associated with the western society and trends set by western designers borrowed or taken from Japan With the emergence of China, South Korea, and even Singapore as economic centers in Asia, the Kawaii merchandise and product popularity has shifted back to the east. In these Asian markets, the kawaii concept takes on various forms and different types of presentation depending on the target audience.

Taiwan culture, in particular government, has embraced and elevated kawaii to a new level of social consciousness. The introduction of the A-Bian doll was seen as the development of a symbol to advance democracy and assist in constructing a collective imagination and national identity for Taiwanese. The A-Bian dolls are kawaii likeness of sports figure, famous individuals, and now political figures that use kawaii images as a means of self-promotion and potential votes. The creation of the A-Bian doll has allowed Taiwanese President Chen staffers to create a new culture where the “kawaii” image of a politician can be used to mobilize supports, and gain election votes. Japanese popular “kawaii culture” has had an effect on Singaporean youth. The emergence of Japanese culture can be traced back to the mid-1980s when Japan became one of the economic powers in the world. Kawaii has developed from a few kid television shows to an internet sensation. Japanese media is used so abundantly in Singapore that youths are more likely to imitate the fashion of their Japanese idols, learn the Japanese language, and continue purchasing Japanese oriented merchandise.

The Asian countries of China, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Thailand either produce kawaii items for international consumption or have websites that cater for kawaii as part of the youth culture in their country. Kawaii has taken on a life of its own, spawning the formation of kawaii websites, kawaii home pages and finally kawaii social networking pages. While Japan is the origin and Mecca of all things being kawaii, artist and businesses around the world are imitating the kawaii theme. Kawaii has truly become “greater” than itself. The interconnectedness of today’s world via the internet has taken kawaii to new heights of exposure and acceptance, producing a kawaii “movement”. The popularity of kawaii and kawaii products have become a part of the “world’s culture”

The Kawaii concept has become something of a global phenomenon. The aesthetic cuteness of Japan is very appealing to people globally. The wide popularity of Japanese kawaii is often credited with it being “culturally odorless.” The elimination of exoticism and national branding has helped kawaii to reach numerous target audiences and to span every culture, class, and gender group. The odorless and tastelessness of kawaii has made it a global hit, resulting in Japan’s global image shifting from being known for austere rock gardens to being known for “cute-worship”. (via Wikipedia)


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