If you know a little bit about Japanese pop culture, you've probably heard of the word kawaii. Literally meaning "cute" in Japanese, "kawaii" is used to describe all sorts of things. This term is also associated with legendary equidae, but not that : we can think of Pokemon, lolita fashion, etc.
It's not just a word: it's a cultural phenomenon. How did the term kawaii come about ? In this article, we'll try to explain everything you need to know about the term : its etymology, the aesthetics associated with it and its evolution, the people behind it, and much more ! 😊
1) Meaning of "Kawaii" in Japanese
The word "kawaii" comes from the Taisho era (1912 - 1926), more precisely from the term "kawayushi", which means embarrassed, pathetic, shy, kind and small. A lot of meanings combined in one word, then ! Even if the meaning we generally give it is "cute", to say that it is the only one is simply wrong. "Kawaii" refers to notions such as love, affection and protection. It reminds us of the physical characteristics of young children and baby animals, and surprisingly takes its influences from Western culture, with the big round eyes for example. This is probably due to the interactions between Americans and Japanese during the Second World War.
"Kawaii" can today take on a number of meanings :
It may also refer to a person who has no faults or bad character traits.
2) History of Kawaii Culture
According to some articles dealing with the term kawaii dating from the 1970s, one might wonder whether this trend did not begin before the Heian Era (794-1185) ! Indeed, if we look at Japanese art, we notice that there are many animals or inanimate objects bearing human characteristics. By adding a face to an object, it becomes more alive and people show affection for it. The same principle applies to animals that are given human bodies, which we see in animated ones. Girl cats are very popular for example 🐱 !
The explosion of the kawaii trend as we know it today began to develop in the early 1970s, after the Second World War. We saw the beginnings of this with teenage girls who began to decorate their writing with small symbols such as hearts, stars and to adopt a round writing style. This created a lot of problems at the time: this kind of practice was banned in many schools. This is probably where today's emoji and koamoji come from !
3) The Kawaii Trend in Japan
The first official traces of the Kawaii trend were found during the Edo Period (1603-1868), with inscriptions on wood known as "dijinga", which literally means "painting of a beautiful person".
The "Kawaii" became really popular with the appearance of three major movements : illustrations of young women, the Shojo style, and fanciful marketing images. The illustrations of women date back to the same period as the inscriptions on wood. The first shojo illustrator was Yameji Takehisa in 1914. At that time, the term kawaii was used to refer to the people of the Japanese plebeians : it lasted until the 1980s. It is said that the kawaii culture was only really born from Takehisa's work. His drawings mixed Western and Eastern cultures : he drew round eyes (which was considered vulgar at the time), and was the first to use the word "kawaii" to refer to his work as "chiyogami". Chiyogami refers to the art of shaping paper (from which origami is derived).
During the 1970s, we saw many women cartoonists trying to make a place for themselves. They began to depict female Kawaii characters in the same way as male cartoonists, but with extra depth. These characters often had great strength and a taste for adventure. "Kawaii" began to mean the absence of negative character traits, and the meaning of the term was thus changed forever. Strength and self-confidence became valued qualities in young, cute girls. Before the 1970s, the only people interested in the kawaii trend were little girls. From then on, teenage girls and young women began to enter the phenomenon.
The shojo style was also used as a means of developing and spreading the world after the Second World War. At that time, fashion publications did not target teenage girls at all. It wasn't until shojo characters, and by extension kawaii, began to be drawn, that girls were encouraged to identify themselves as a group. They started to dress in certain ways or wear certain accessories. The identity of the young people was thus defined in terms of what they liked in terms of characters or clothing.
Japan is a country full of contradictions, such as the opposition between the very strict and regulated labour culture on the one hand and the fantasy Kawaii culture on the other. Kawaii fashion is actually a way for people to escape for a few moments from the extreme pressure of school and work. It gives them a way to express themselves in fashion, art and lifestyle. Everyone has to be very disciplined every day at work, so some people decompress with a mug of beer, while others prefer to surround themselves with cute things ! Japanese people have to wear a uniform for most of their lives: first at school and then at work. It is therefore understandable that they want to wear something totally different after work. However, we try to introduce a little kawaii during work. Did you know that all prefectures in Japan and even some companies have their own mascots ? 😄
4) Hello Kitty : THE Kawaii Mascot !
Hello Kitty is probably the most famous kawaii icon ! Sanrio, her designer, has been able to renew her design over time, attracting young girls who like to dress in fashion! The merchandising of kawaii fashion is nothing new. Takehisa had a shop from the very beginning of the kawaii trend : he sold objects to young girls. Hello Kitty is the modern incarnation of this : it is sold generation after generation.
Born in 1974, Sanrio's most famous character has been a fantastic vehicle for the promotion of Kawaii culture, not only in Japan but also worldwide, for decades ! She has appeared on bags, t-shirts, and even household objects : toasters, spoons and toilet glasses. Everything had Hello Kitty's logo on it !
The most interesting thing about kawaii fashion is that everything is actually very simple. Almost all the characters have more or less the same design : big eyes, a big head, a small nose and almost no facial expression. Exactly like Hello Kitty and Rilakkuma ! Hello Kitty doesn't have a mouth but that doesn't stop her from bringing joy all around the world. 🐱
Come to think of it, other countries also have their own mascots that could be considered "kawaii". We could mention the Disney characters. But let's face it : kawaii fashion is much more present in Japan ! In many Western countries, cute is often connoted as "childish", in the wrong sense of the word. Even if this has changed with Hello Kitty, it is still taboo to be interested in anything cute, especially for boys. In Japan, it's something perfectly accepted, nobody is going to judge you ! For example, it is completely normal for a 50-year-old man to like cartoons or artists who sing in a childish way.
5) Kawaii writing
Kawaii writing is one of the few non-commercial manifestations of Kawaii culture. In 1974, the girls started to write horizontally (as we do, whereas Japanese writing was usually read from top to bottom), with rounded characters, a few words of English and small drawings. A nice nod to the Western world, which was seen as freer and cooler, and a break with the rigid Japanese tradition ! It was also a way for teenagers to express through writing : something that didn't exist before.
6) The Different Types of Kawaii
The kawaii trend is actually multifaceted. There are many Kawaii subcultures, some of which are listed here :
Guro-Kawaii : Cute with a dark touch. This is expressed, for example, with high-contrast make-up.
Kimo-Kawaii : Cute with a hint of frightening. One can think of Kewpie dolls, for example.
Busu-Kawaii : Cute and ugly at the same time. It's a bit of a contradiction: this tendency wants to play on the feeling of pity.
Ero-Kawaii : Cute and sexy. One can think of garter belts, cat girls, cleaning ladies dressed provocatively, etc...
Shibu-Kawaii : Cute and discreet. This trend can be applied to everyday life: being kawaii but without overdoing it. It can be for example a pretty hair clip, a telephone charm, etc. The opposite would be, for example, a gothic lolita.
7) Kawaii Fashion in Everyday Life
From now on, kawaii fashion no longer concerns only girls and young women : it invades every aspect of life in Japan ! Companies use kawaii mascots (from hairdressing salons to car garages), traffic signs have a touch of kawaii (in Okinawa, the barriers used to manage car traffic during construction have shisa dog heads, and there are even cute characters on the sewer !), pedestrian crossings have cute sounds and Japanese social networks are full of kawaii (download the Line application and you'll understand !).
Pop stars, male or female, wear kawaii clothes, act kawaii, and write in a kawaii way (the singer May'n is a very good example : her signature contains a little drawing of herself !), food and snacks are in shiny and cute packages, or have a kawaii shape (a lot of candies are in the shape of kawaii mascots). Games of all kinds often include kawaii elements, while others revolve only around this theme, such as the hit Neko Atsume (Kitty Collector), a game where the aim is to collect adorable cartoon cats ! The list goes on and on. When you come to Japan for the first time, you feel like you're swimming in an ocean of cute. After a while you will realise that you won't notice it anymore, because kawaii fashion has become a central aspect of everyday life. And so much the better : it adds a touch of softness in a hard and rigid world !
8) The Future of Kawaii Culture
There are so many different kinds of kawaii now, beyond Hello Kitty, that even the dark and gothic could be considered kawaii! Take for example Kuromi, Sanrio's character: her inspiration is punk but she is still super cute ! In addition to the different kawaii trends mentioned above, we have seen the emergence of the Yami-Kawaii movement which incorporates illness and depression to help people suffering from them, and for them to express themselves.
However, we can notice that emotionless characters like Hello Kitty are beginning to give way to kawaii characters who are easier to identify with, such as the lazy Gutedama who can't get enough of his life but is still adorable ! We can also think of the cute but nevertheless annoyed Aggretsuko who is a big fan of metal.
We can therefore easily predict that the kawaii trend will continue over time ! Deeply rooted and constantly evolving, it is a symbol of individuality not only for Japanese teenagers, but for the whole planet. We can see that it is becoming embedded in all elements of society, and that it has no intention of stopping ! So don't worry, the kawaii trend is not about to stop ! 😉
Immerse yourself in Japanese culture with a Kawaii Unicorn !
Our overview of the kawaii trend in Japan and around the world is now complete. We have seen that this fashion has come from far away and will probably continue for a long time to come. How do you see the evolution of kawaii fashion in the years to come ? Don't hesitate to tell us what you think about it in the comments section !