Kawaii (可愛い, or commonly written in hiragana as かわいい), or “cute” in Japanese, is a word that tends to be thrown a lot in anime, with Japanese teenagers, and international fans of Japanese pop culture. Yes, some of you readers are concerned that the term has been butchered by weeaboos, but being “kawaii” is simply part of modern Japan society. Beyond its scholarly accepted meaning, when we look at the actual Japanese characters, what does it literally mean? 可、the first character, means “possibility” or “capability,” while the 愛いpart means “love.” When you put them together, it literally means “possibility/capably lovable.” Overall, it’s a person’s way to express that they love something based on how appealing it is.
In addition to anime and manga, being kawaii also applies to AKB48 and other idol groups, merchandise such as Hello Kitty, Maid Cafes in Akihabara, and all the fashion you see in Shibuya. Some planes and trains have Pokémon or Hello Kitty characters plastered all over them to attract customers. In addition, modern Western stars have paid homage to it in their works. Just about a decade ago, Gwen Stefani portrayed Harajuku with her videos and fashion, and Avril Lavigne made a song about Hello Kitty. If you’ve seen the Princess Kenny episodes of South Park, it spoofs kawaii (and we can say with confidence that the Japanese in Princess Kenny’s theme song is far superior to the Japanese of Avril Lavigne’s). So, why is Japan so kawaii?
Meaning and Modern Day Usage
In the last four and a half decades, kawaii has evolved from just simply meaning “cute” in Japanese, to an international cultural phenomena. How did the term start and enter the language? Some scholars have pinpointed that the word originated in “The Tale of Genji,” and it’s a derivative of “kawaisou.” “Kawaisou” (可哀想) is a derogatory way to refer to sad and pathetic people. The word is still in use in modern Japanese with its original meaning intact. However, due to this kanji reading of 顔映様 “kawaisou” meaning “to have a shining face” in the classic story, it eventually paved way for “kawaii.”
So, how did “kawaii” become a cultural phenomenon? In the 1970’s, mechanical pencils came into use and teenage girls enjoyed writing with them, and it gave them more creativity abilities in comparison to a typical calligraphy brush. As opposed to writing linearly, they wrote and experimented with many fonts (keep in mind this was before computers) until they found something that was “kawaii,” which resembled bubble letters. Just like the students of today’s generation, they enjoyed decorating their writing with hearts, smiley faces, and stickers. This style became a symbol of girl power to the Japanese youth. However, the decorations were considered a distraction and became banned in numerous schools. As these schoolgirls became adults the following decade, they made a comeback in advertising during the height of Japan’s economic dominance. The fonts were also highly emphasized in Shoujo manga to the point that some scholars mistakenly theorized that the fonts originated from them for a period of time.
In terms of kawaii in merchandising, it all started with Hello Kitty, who is still going strong even after more than 40 years, is still a multi-billion dollar international franchise. Her simple design resonated with girls and just embraced what “kawaii,” or being lovable is all about. Nobody has to explain why she’s kawaii, just look at her. She doesn’t exist just for the Japanese but for the world. As we shared earlier, say what you want about Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty,” but it shows how much of a international impact that she has made on internationalizing kawaii. When you put Hello Kitty on you, it makes you kawaii, too. In addition, many celebrities around the world have expressed their fandom and have worn Hello Kitty merchandise in public such as Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey, and Ronda Rousey. Thanks to her popularity in China, she became an ambassador of tourism there mid-way into the 2000’s.
During the 80’s, Seiko Matsuda, a legendary idol, also further popularized kawaii with how she presented herself. She was considered a positive role model to pre-teen girls, and that influence just further expanded the power of being kawaii. Thanks to her impact, many actresses and singers who were already in the industry, or entered after her prime, all have embraced a sense of kawaii to resonate with audiences. Thanks to the cultural influences of idols, the power of kawaii progressively became universal to all audiences in Japan, and not just schoolgirls.
As for fashion, you can enjoy that in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward. For modern fashion, you can see that just right outside of Shibuya station, or if you want something niche like Lolita, there’s Harajuku, where many ladies dress like they’re Victorian era dolls. In addition, you can also get a different taste of kawaii by visiting a maid café in Akihabara, where the maids make you the cutest looking food and just love to make up their own catchphrases just for the sake of being kawaii.
Kawaii in Japan
Thanks to the domestic and international popularity of anime/manga, numerous prefectures have adopted cartoon looking mascots. One notable mascot is Kumamon, the mascot of Kumamoto, who is a cartoon bear (since kuma means bear). Due to the 2016 earthquake in that region, the mascot became popular and helped raise millions of yens in relief funds. Or when you visit McDonald’s in Japan, it uses anime depictions to encourage people to apply. As to why Japan is kawaii, the notion allows companies and people to find a love (or an attention) that they are seeking. It gives a unique sense of comfort and when you embrace it, you can feel kawaii. Due to people finding ways of making it relatable and accessible, the concept of kawaii has become the phenomenon as we see it.