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Temporary guard rail in Narita, Chiba
E3 Series Shinkansen train with Pokemon decorations E311-1000.JPG
E3 Series Shinkansen train with Pokémon decorations

Kawaii(かわいい, pronounced  [kaɰaiꜜi] ; "lovable", "cute", or "adorable") [1] is the culture of cuteness in Japan. [2] [3] [4] [5] It can refer to items, humans and nonhumans that are charming, vulnerable, shy and childlike. [2] Examples include cute handwriting, certain genres of manga, and Hello Kitty. [6]

Cuteness subjective term describing a type of attractiveness commonly associated with youth and appearance

Cuteness is a subjective term describing a type of attractiveness commonly associated with youth and appearance, as well as a scientific concept and analytical model in ethology, first introduced by Konrad Lorenz. Lorenz proposed the concept of baby schema (Kindchenschema), a set of facial and body features, that make a creature appear "cute" and activate ("release") in others the motivation to care for it. Cuteness may be ascribed to people as well as things that are regarded as attractive or charming.

Manga comics or [[graphic novel]]s created in Japan

Manga are comics or graphic novels created in Japan or by creators in the Japanese language, conforming to a style developed in Japan in the late 19th century. They have a long and complex pre-history in earlier Japanese art.

Hello Kitty fictional character

Hello Kitty, also known by her full name Kitty White, is a fictional cartoon character produced by the Japanese company Sanrio, created by Yuko Shimizu and currently designed by Yuko Yamaguchi. She is depicted as a female Gijinka with a red bow and, notably, no mouth. According to her backstory, she is a perpetual 3rd-grade student who lives outside London. According to Sanrio, she is not a cat: she is simply a cartoon character. Sanrio announced in 2018 that Hello Kitty's birthday is 1 November. Since the cartoon character's creation, Hello Kitty has a media franchise including a product line, clothing apparel, toy-line, manga comics, anime series, popular music, and other media.


The cuteness culture, or kawaii aesthetic, has become a prominent aspect of Japanese popular culture, entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance and mannerisms. [7]

Japanese popular culture encompasses the modern popular culture of Japan. It includes Japanese cinema, cuisine, television programs, anime, manga and music, all of which retain older artistic and literary traditions, and many of their themes and styles of presentation can be traced to traditional art forms. Contemporary forms of popular culture, much like the traditional forms, are not only forms of entertainment but also aspects to distinguish contemporary Japan from the rest of the modern world. There is a large industry of music, films, and the products of a huge comic book industry, among other forms of entertainment. Game centers, bowling alleys, and karaoke parlors are well-known hangout places for teens while older people may play shogi or go in specialized parlors.

There are many styles of street fashion in Japan, created from a mix of both local and foreign labels. Some of these styles are extreme and avant-garde, similar to the haute couture seen on European catwalks. The rise and fall of many of these trends has been chronicled by Shoichi Aoki since 1997 in the fashion magazine Fruits, which is a notable magazine for the promotion of street fashion in Japan.

Japanese cuisine cuisine of Japan

Japanese cuisine encompasses the regional and traditional foods of Japan, which have developed through centuries of political, economic, and social changes. The traditional cuisine of Japan is based on rice with miso soup and other dishes; there is an emphasis on seasonal ingredients. Side dishes often consist of fish, pickled vegetables, and vegetables cooked in broth. Seafood is common, often grilled, but also served raw as sashimi or in sushi. Seafood and vegetables are also deep-fried in a light batter, as tempura. Apart from rice, staples include noodles, such as soba and udon. Japan also has many simmered dishes such as fish products in broth called oden, or beef in sukiyaki and nikujaga.


Cute manga drawing using kawaii basis (illustration by Daya Wyrd) Kawaii lolita manga.jpg
Cute manga drawing using kawaii basis (illustration by Daya Wyrd)

The word kawaii originally derives from the phrase 顔映し kao hayushi, which literally means "(one's) face (is) aglow," commonly used to refer to flushing or blushing of the face. The second morpheme is cognate with -bayu in mabayui (眩い, 目映い, or 目映ゆい) "dazzling, glaring, blinding, too bright; dazzlingly beautiful" (ma- is from me "eye") and -hayu in omohayui (面映い or 面映ゆい) "embarrassed/embarrassing, awkward, feeling self-conscious/making one feel self-conscious" (omo- is from 面 omo, an archaic word for "face, looks, features; surface; image, semblance, vestige"). Over time, the meaning changed into the modern meaning of "cute", and the pronunciation changed to かわゆいkawayui and then to the modern かわいいkawaii. [8] [9] [10] It is most commonly written in hiragana, かわいい, but the ateji, 可愛い, has also been appended. The kanji in the ateji literally translates to "able to love/be loved, can/may love, lovable."

Cognate word that has a common etymological origin

In linguistics, cognates are words that have a common etymological origin. A cognate etymon need not be inherited directly from a proto-language; the etymon can be borrowed from some other language, in which evolution produces cognate forms. For example, the English word dish and the German word Tisch ("table") are cognates because they both come from Latin discus, which relates to their flat surfaces. Cognates may have evolved similar, different or even opposite meanings, but in most cases there are some similar letters in the word. Some words sound similar, but don't come from the same root; these are called false cognates.

Hiragana is a Japanese syllabary, one component of the Japanese writing system, along with katakana, kanji, and in some cases rōmaji. It is a phonetic lettering system. The word hiragana literally means "ordinary" or "simple" kana.

<i>Ateji</i> kanji phonetically representing native or borrowed words, regardless of the underlying meaning of the kanji; e.g. sushi → 寿司, kurabu → 倶楽部

In modern Japanese, ateji principally refer to kanji used to phonetically represent native or borrowed words with less regard to the underlying meaning of the characters. This is similar to man'yōgana in Old Japanese. Conversely ateji also refers to kanji used semantically without regard to the readings.


Original definition

Kogal girl, identified by her shortened skirt. The soft bag and teddy bear that she carries are part of kawaii. JapaneseSchoolGirl-Sobuline-2011.jpg
Kogal girl, identified by her shortened skirt. The soft bag and teddy bear that she carries are part of kawaii.

The original definition of kawaii came from Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji , where it referred to pitiable qualities. [11] 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. [11] However, the earlier meaning survives in the modern Standard Japanese adjectival noun かわいそう kawaisō (often written with ateji as 可哀相 or 可哀想) "piteous, pitiable, arousing compassion, poor, sad, sorry" (etymologically from 顔映様 "face / projecting, reflecting, or transmitting light, flushing, blushing / seeming, appearance"). Forms of kawaii and its derivatives kawaisō and kawairashii (with the suffix -rashii "-like, -ly") are used in modern dialects to mean "embarrassing/embarrassed, shameful/ashamed" or "good, nice, fine, excellent, superb, splendid, admirable" in addition to the standard meanings of "adorable" and "pitiable."

<i>The Tale of Genji</i> classic work of Japanese literature

The Tale of Genji is a classic work of Japanese literature written by the noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu in the early years of the 11th century. The original manuscript no longer exists. It was made in "concertina" or "orihon" style: several sheets of paper pasted together and folded alternately in one direction then the other, around the peak of the Heian period. The work is a unique depiction of the lifestyles of high courtiers during the Heian period, written in archaic language and a poetic and confusing style that make it unreadable to the average Japanese without dedicated study. It was not until the early 20th century that Genji was translated into modern Japanese, by the poet Akiko Yosano. The first English translation was attempted in 1882, but was of poor quality and incomplete.


Blushing is the reddening of a person's face due to psychological reasons. It is normally involuntary and triggered by emotional stress tying candor, such as that associated with passion, embarrassment, anger, or romantic stimulation.

Cute handwriting

The rise of cuteness in Japanese culture emerged in the 1970s as part of a new style of writing. [12] Many teenage girls began to write laterally using mechanical pencils. [12] These pencils produced very fine lines, as opposed to traditional Japanese writing that varied in thickness and was vertical. [12] The girls would also write in big, round characters and they added little pictures to their writing, such as hearts, stars, emoticon faces, and letters of the Latin alphabet. [12]

Mechanical pencil

A mechanical pencil or propelling pencil, also clutch pencil, is a pencil with a replaceable and mechanically extendable solid pigment core called a "lead". The lead, often made of graphite, is not bonded to the outer casing, and can be mechanically extended as its point is worn away. Other names include microtip pencil, automatic pencil, drafting pencil, technical pencil, click pencil, pump pen, pump pencil, leadholder, pen pencil, and lead pencil.

These pictures would be inserted randomly and made the writing difficult to read. [12] As a result, this writing style caused a lot of controversy and was banned in many schools. [12] During the 1980s, however, this new "cute" writing was adopted by magazines and comics and was put onto packaging and advertising. [12]

Comics creative work in which pictures and text convey information such as narratives

Comics is a medium used to express ideas by images, often combined with text or other visual information. Comics frequently takes the form of juxtaposed sequences of panels of images. Often textual devices such as speech balloons, captions, and onomatopoeia indicate dialogue, narration, sound effects, or other information. Size and arrangement of panels contribute to narrative pacing. Cartooning and similar forms of illustration are the most common image-making means in comics; fumetti is a form which uses photographic images. Common forms of comics include comic strips, editorial and gag cartoons, and comic books. Since the late 20th century, bound volumes such as graphic novels, comic albums, and tankōbon have become increasingly common, while online webcomics have proliferated in the 21st century.

From 1984 to 1986, Kazuma Yamane(山根一眞,Yamane Kazuma) studied the development of cute handwriting, which he called Anomalous Female Teenage Handwriting, in depth. [12] This type of cute Japanese handwriting has also been called: marui ji( 丸い ), meaning "round writing", koneko ji( 小猫), meaning "kitten writing", manga ji( 漫画), meaning "comic writing", and burikko ji( ), meaning "fake-child writing". [13] 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, spontaneously, as an underground trend. His conclusion was based on an observation that cute handwriting predates the availability of technical means for producing rounded writing in comics. [12]

Cute merchandise

Kawaii figure Japanese kawaii doll.jpg
Kawaii figure

Tomoyuki Sugiyama(杉山奉文,Sugiyama Tomoyuki), author of Cool Japan, says cute fashion in Japan can be traced back to the Edo period with the popularity of netsuke. [14]

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. More recently, Sanrio has released kawaii characters with deeper personalities that appeal to an older audience, such as Gudetama and Aggretsuko. These characters have enjoyed strong popularity as fans are drawn to their unique quirks in addition to their cute aesthetics. [15] 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. [16] The market for cute merchandise in Japan used to be driven by Japanese girls between 15 and 18 years old. [17] No longer limited to teenagers, the spread of making things as cute as possible, even common household items, is embraced by people of all ages.


Kawaii styled luggage Girls in Harajuku --- Kawaii%3F.jpg
Kawaii styled luggage

Soichi Masubuchi(増淵宗一,Masubuchi Sōichi), in his work Kawaii Syndrome, claims "cute" and "neat" have taken precedence over the former Japanese aesthetics of "beautiful" and "refined". [11] 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 is acceptable and desirable in Japan. [18]

Gender performance

Japanese women who feign kawaii behaviors (e.g., high-pitched voice, squealing giggles [19] ) that could be viewed as forced or inauthentic are called burikko and this is considered a gender performance. [20] The neologism developed in the 1980s, perhaps originated by comedian Kuniko Yamada(山田邦子,Yamada Kuniko). [20]

Physical attractiveness

In Japan, being cute is acceptable for both men and women. A trend existed of men shaving their legs to mimic the neotenic look. Japanese women often try to act cute to attract men. [21] 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". [14] Women also employ a look of innocence in order to further play out this idea of cuteness. Having large eyes is one aspect that exemplifies innocence; therefore many Japanese women attempt to alter the size of their eyes. To create this illusion, women may wear large contact lenses, false eyelashes, dramatic eye makeup, and even have an East Asian blepharoplasty, commonly known as double eyelid surgery. [22]


Momoiro Clover Z performing at Japan Expo Japan Expo 2012 (3).jpg
Momoiro Clover Z performing at Japan Expo

Idols (アイドル,aidoru) are media personalities in their teens and twenties who are considered particularly attractive or cute and who will, for a period ranging from several months to a few years, regularly appear in the mass media, e.g. as singers for pop groups, bit-part actors, TV personalities ( tarento ), models in photo spreads published in magazines, advertisements, etc. (But not every young celebrity is considered an idol. Young celebrities who wish to cultivate a rebellious image, such as many rock musicians, reject the "idol" label.) Speed, Morning Musume, AKB48, and Momoiro Clover Z are examples of popular idol groups in Japan during the 2000s & 2010s. [23]

Cute fashion


Sweet Lolita fashion in Japan Pink gothlolita.jpg
Sweet Lolita fashion in Japan

Lolita fashion is a very well-known and recognizable style in Japan. Based on Victorian fashion and the Rococo period, girls mix in their own elements along with gothic style to achieve the porcelain-doll look. [24] The girls who dress in Lolita fashion try to look cute, innocent, and beautiful. [24] This look is achieved with lace, ribbons, bows, ruffles, bloomers, aprons, and ruffled petticoats. Parasols, chunky Mary Jane heels, and Bo Peep collars are also very popular. [25]

Sweet Lolita is a subset of Lolita fashion that includes even more ribbons, bows, and lace, and is often fabricated out of pastels and other light colors. Another subset of Lolita fashion related to "sweet Lolita" is Fairy Kei. Head-dresses such as giant bows or bonnets are also very common, while lighter make-up is also used to achieve a more natural look. Curled hair extensions, sometimes accompanied by eyelash extensions, are also popular in helping with the baby doll look. [26]

Themes such as fruits, flowers and sweets are often used as patterns on the fabrics used for dresses. Purses often go with the themes and are shaped as hearts, strawberries, or stuffed animals. Baby, the Stars Shine Bright is one of the more popular clothing stores for this style and often carries themes. Mannerisms are also important to many Sweet Lolitas. Sweet Lolita is not only a fashion, but also a lifestyle. [26] This is evident in the 2004 film Kamikaze Girls where the main Lolita character, Momoko, drinks only tea and eats only sweets. [27]


Example of Decora fashion Rainbow Decora.jpg
Example of Decora fashion

Decora is a style that is characterized by wearing lots of "decorations" on oneself. It is considered to be self-decoration. The goal of this fashion is to become as vibrant and characterized as possible. People who take part in this fashion trend wear accessories such as multicolor hair pins, bracelets, rings, necklaces, etc. By adding on multiple layers of accessories on an outfit, the fashion trend tends to have a childlike appearance. It also includes toys and multicolor clothes.

Kawaii men

Although kawaii is typically a female-dominated fashion, there are men who decide to partake in this trend. Some men decide to transform themselves into women, more specifically kawaii women. They are able to transform themselves by wearing wigs, false eyelashes, applying makeup, and wearing kawaii female clothing. [28] This is seen predominately in male entertainers, such as Torideta-san, a DJ who transforms himself into a kawaii woman when working at his nightclub. [28]

Japanese pop stars and actors often have longer hair, such as Takuya Kimura of SMAP. Men are also noted as often aspiring to a neotenic look. While it doesn't quite fit the exact specifications of what cuteness means for females, men are certainly influenced by the same societal mores - to be attractive in a specific sort of way that the society finds acceptable. [29] In this way both Japanese men and women conform to the expectations of Kawaii in some way or another.


The concept of kawaii has had an influence on a variety of products, including candy, 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. Cute elements can be found almost everywhere in Japan, from big business to corner markets and national government, ward, and town offices. [21] [30] Many companies, large and small, use cute mascots to present their wares and services to the public. For example:

All Nippon Airways Boeing 747 with a Pokemon livery Ana.b747.pokemon.arp.750pix.jpg
All Nippon Airways Boeing 747 with a Pokémon livery
JNR Class C11 locomotive repainted as Thomas the Tank Engine, Japan, 2014 JNR C11 227 20140824 001.jpg
JNR Class C11 locomotive repainted as Thomas the Tank Engine, Japan, 2014

Cute can be also used to describe a specific fashion sense [33] [34] 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. [30]

Non-kawaii imports

Kawaii goods outlet in 100 yen shop Kawaii goods.jpg
Kawaii goods outlet in 100 yen shop

There have been occasions in which popular Western products failed to meet the expectations of kawaii, and thus did not do well in the Japanese market. For example, 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 faces of characters such as Hello Kitty. [11] Also, the doll Barbie, portraying an adult woman, did not become successful in Japan compared to Takara's Licca, a doll that was modeled after an 11-year-old girl. [11]


Kawaii has gradually gone from a small subculture in Japan to an important part of Japanese modern culture as a whole. There is an overwhelming amount of modern items featuring kawaii themes, not only in Japan, but worldwide. [35] And characters associated with kawaii have an astounding popularity these days. We can see the "global cute" by the billion-dollar sellers like Pokémon and Hello Kitty. [36] "Fueled by Internet subcultures, Hello Kitty alone has hundreds of entries on eBay, and is selling in more than 30 countries, including Argentina, Bahrain, and Taiwan." [36]

Japan has become a powerhouse in the kawaii industry and images of Doraemon, Hello Kitty, Pikachu, Sailor Moon and Hamtaro are popular in mobile phone accessories. However, Professor Tian Shenliang says that Japan's future is dependent on how much of an impact kawaii brings to humanity. [37]

The Japanese Foreign Ministry has also recognized the power of cute merchandise and have sent three 18-year-old women overseas in the hopes of spreading Japanese culture around the world. The women are dressed in uniforms and maid costumes that are commonplace in Japan. [38]

Kawaii manga and magazines have brought tremendous profit to Japanese press industry. [39] Moreover, the worldwide revenue from the computer game and its merchandising peripherals are closing in on $5 billion, according to a Nintendo press release titled "It's a Pokémon Planet". [36]

Influence upon 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 Japanese culture. Cute merchandise and products are especially popular in other parts of East Asia, such as China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. [30] [40]

Sebastian Masuda, owner of 6%DOKIDOKI and a global advocate for kawaii influence, takes the quality from Harajuku to Western markets in his stores and artwork. The underlying belief of this Japanese designer is that "kawaii" actually saves the world. [41] 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. [42]

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, [43] 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 designers borrowed or taken from Japan. [42] With the emergence of China, South Korea and 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.

In Asia

EVA Air Airbus A330 with a Hello Kitty livery EVA hellokitty1.JPG
EVA Air Airbus A330 with a Hello Kitty livery

Taiwanese culture, the government in particular, 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 people. 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. [44] 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 support and gain election votes. [45]

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 children's television shows to an Internet sensation. [46] 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. [47]

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, kawaii browser themes and finally, kawaii social networking pages. While Japan is the origin and Mecca of all things kawaii, artists and businesses around the world are imitating the kawaii theme. [48]

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". [48]

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 span every culture, class, and gender group. [49] The palatable characteristics of kawaii have 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". [14]

In 2014 the Collins English Dictionary in the United Kingdom entered "kawaii" into their then latest edition, defining as a "Japanese artistic and cultural style that emphasizes the quality of cuteness, using bright colours and characters with a childlike appearance." [50]

See also

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Yuko Yamaguchi is a Japanese character designer and illustrator, who is well known as the third character designer of Hello Kitty.

La Carmina is a Canadian blogger, author, journalist, and TV host. She specializes in Goth and Harajuku fashion and Japanese pop culture. She has been described by Qantas as "one of the best-known names in the blogging world, having authored three books and hosting travel segments for international television networks." She also appeared in one of the segments on the Tokyo episode of Bizarre Foods on Travel Channel.

Yuru-chara is a Japanese term for a category of mascot characters; usually created to promote a place or region, event, organisation or business. They are characterized by their kawaii (cute) and unsophisticated designs, often incorporating motifs that represent local culture, history or produce. They may be created by local government or other organizations to stimulate tourism and economic development, or created by a company to build on their corporate identity. They may appear as costumed characters at promotional events and festivals. Yuru-chara has become a popular and lucrative business, with character-driven sales reaching nearly $16 billion in Japan in 2012.


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Further reading