Nippon Day Seventeen: Kawaii and the Culture of Cute

Hello Kitty, featuring my favorite colors

Hello Kitty, featuring my favorite colors

My favorite holiday is Christmas, but my second favorite holiday is, without a doubt, Easter. I told this to a friend of mine a while ago and she gave me a confused look. "Easter, really?" she said, no doubt she was picturing church, crucifixes, and brunch with the grandparents. "I like the color scheme and all the rabbits," I clarified, "it's such a cute holiday." In fact as someone whose favorite colors are dusty pink and powder blue, who collects porcelain rabbits, and owns every Beatrix Potter book, this holiday was clearly designed for me.

While I was ruminating on the nature of cuteness, (you know, while I was dusting my rabbit collection and reading Martha Stewart Living's Easter edition) I couldn't help but think of Japan. I made a brief reference to kawaii while writing about Okunoshima not too long ago. If you read that post (or know anything about Japanese pop culture), you'll know that kawaii (pronounced like Hawaii) is the Japanese word for cute culture.


Everyone knows the feeling that cuteness gives us, a warm feeling and the irresistible urge to squeeze. Some are more susceptible than others, but across cultures and continents humans tend to find the same things cute. This most likely stems from our evolution, which instills in us an urge to care for and protect things we find to be cute, i.e. highly dependent babies and children. The features that people usually associate with cuteness, round eyes, big heads, fuzziness, etc. are all connected to our offspring.

Probably because of this, cuteness has a place in all human culture, but no one seems to have embraced it quite so wholeheartedly as the Japanese. If you've ever been to Japan, or seen pictures, or watched Japanese television, you'll have noticed the overwhelming cuteness. Hello Kitty and pikachu have become famous worldwide but in Japan there are thousands of animal icons and mascots, plus designs, fashions, and even foods that embody cute.

Seiko Matsuda, also in my favorite colors.

Seiko Matsuda, also in my favorite colors.

Considering that Japan has been well known for its tradition of simple and beautiful aesthetics, the more modern obsession with brightly colored, childlike adorableness seems a bit out of the blue. The history of kawaii is usually sited as having begun with cute handwriting amongst teenagers in the 1970s. The phenomenon of different writing styles, often so decorated and adorable that they were illegible, spread and began to crop up in comics. Companies took advantage of the trend with merchandise, such as Hello Kitty, a creation of Sanrio, which exploded into Japanese culture in 1974, becoming one of the most recognizable icons of the country. In the 1980s, helped along by pop stars like Seiko Matsuda, cuteness in fashion also began to gain in popularity.

Though it might have started out as something for and among teenagers, kawaii soon spread and today is embraced by all age groups. Products, merchandise, and cartoons seem like a logical place for this to have taken root, but kawaii didn't stop there, even ensconcing itself onto the national identity.

In America we have a certain appreciation of cuteness in children's products and cartoons, but it's not necessarily embraced by adults. Plus, lots of it is quite garish. I realized this while shopping for a birthday present for my one-year-old niece. I make the case that even if kawaii doesn't quite fit into the beautiful aesthetics of Japan's history, their tastes are still pretty high quality. Look at the difference between Spongebob Squarpants and Hello Kitty, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Japan still manages to keep its simplicity and charm. After all, even my super sophisticated sister loves pikachu.

Though some American icons, such as Mickey Mouse and Chip 'n' Dale have been absorbed into kawaii, others were rejected. Cabbage Patch Kids, for example, were thought of as ugly, and the womanly Barbie couldn't complete with the childlike Lika-Chan. The cute standards of Japan seem to favor simplistic, almost flat features, either with too large eyes or too small eyes.

Mascots are rarely seen out of sports teams and commercials in America, but in Japan almost every city and prefecture has its very own adorable creature. Known as yuru-chara, these mascots, who were created for tourism, often take on a life of there own, becoming cultural icons. Hikonyan, a white samurai cat, was created in 2007 to promote the four hundredth anniversary of Hikone Castle's construction. He became so popular that he increased visitation annually by 200,000 and added an extra 17.4 billion yen (approx. $218 million) to Hikone's economy. Someone should try that for my local town, we sure could use the extra income.

But kawaii isn't solely the realm of marketing and merchandise, it's also a way of life. Inspired by Victorian and Gothic styles, Lolita fashion involves lace, petticoats, corsets, parasols, and other such accessories. There are a couple subgroups to this style, and one of the most popular is Sweet Lolita, which embraces lighter colors and emphasizes childlike cuteness, making the wearer look a lot like a porcelain doll. The unfortunate name has nothing to do with Vladimir Nabokov's book Lolita, and is in fact meant to embrace modesty, innocence, and cuteness over sexiness.

Simply dressing the part isn't always enough though, often it's taken a few steps farther. Mannerisms and behavior are sometimes changed to match the ideals of kawaii, such as speaking in a higher voice, giggling, and acting sweet and innocent. Eating candy and carrying stuffed animals or dolls are other ways to exemplify kawaii. These behaviors are usually adopted by women, but men are not insusceptible. Some cross-dress as kawaii girls, others simply mimic neotenic features, like shaving the legs to seem younger.

If you're starting to feel judgmental, I might remind you that in America young people are often sexualized. I know I'm not the only person who is disturbed by the way women are shown in children's movies and cartoons (why on earth are the girl animals so busty?). When I was growing up in the 90s the characters in kids shows were actual kids, and now it seems like they're all teenagers. Though it might seem strange to idolize childlike cuteness and to embrace infantile appearance, at least the emphasis is off of sexy.

An All Nippon Airways 747 adorned with Pokemon characters

An All Nippon Airways 747 adorned with Pokemon characters

Over the years kawaii culture has spread from Japan, carried by merchandise, anime and manga. Now it is not only popular in other Asian countries but is also gaining steam in America. Japanese characters like Totoro, Hello Kitty, and pretty much any Pokemon are recognizable imports, but our own artists and designers are taking note. Shows like Steven Universe and Adventure Time are clear examples of the influence of Japanese kawaii. I also see a connection in characters like Bernadette on The Big Bang Theory and Rachael Berry from Glee, with their hair ribbons and sweet wardrobes.

So are we seeing the beginnings of a shift from sexiness to cuteness? I guess only time will tell. Personally I think that if we are it will be a nice change, so long as we can do it as nicely as the Japanese.

Until next time, stay cute!