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Kawaii (かわいい), most commonly translated as “cute,” is practically everywhere in Japan – and I do mean everywhere. To paraphrase author Mary Roach, the Japanese save money with cute, pray with cute, and even have sex with cute (yes, there is indeed a Hello Kitty vibrator).

atm card, o-mamori, condoms

Image sources: 1, 2, 3

Pre-teen and teen idols abound; for example, AKB48’s Karen Iwata is only 14 years old, and Ryou Hashimoto, a Johnny’s Jr member, will turn 12 this October. Adult female idols giggle and strike childish poses: all pigeon-toed, wide-eyed innocence, while their male counterparts play childish games bordering on the ridiculous on TV shows.

Even traditionally macho institutions, such as the police and the armed forces, are fronted by a bevy of decidedly kawaii, un-macho mascots.

police maron, fukumaru-kun, mamoru-kun

Image sources: 1, 2, 3

But why? Just why is kawaii everywhere in Japan?

Data! Data! Data! I Can’t Make Bricks Without Clay!

So let’s begin at the beginning. What exactly is kawaii?

The physical attributes considered kawaii are basically those that coincide with childlike features – large eyes, for example. This is thanks to the proliferation of manga, whose characters (almost?) always have oversized eyes. This in turn was due to the influence of “Bambi” and “Snow White” on Osamu Tezuka, the Father of Manga. In fact, until Disney’s animated movies flooded into the country during the Allied Occupation (1945-1951), the Japanese depicted themselves with stereotypical Asian features, often with smaller than life eyes in ukiyo-e (浮世絵) woodblock prints and e-maki (絵巻) scroll paintings.

manga eyes

Large heads and small, soft-looking bodies with an air of helplessness are also considered kawaii – think fluffy kittens, chubby babies… These features are clearly seen in various merchandise characters, although in highly exaggerated form. The soft and cuddly Tarepanda (たれぱんだ), for instance, is so helpless he can’t even walk!

tarepanda rolling

Tarepanda gets around by rolling over at the top speed of 2.75 miles/hour.

In the same vein, to behave in a kawaii way is to behave childlike. The goal is to seem innocent and naive, weak and submissive, and utterly dependent on others. Paradoxically, kawaii is also supposed to be unconscious and natural, yet the childlikeness aspired to is completely bogus and highly romanticized – achieved by, quite literally, faking it: by burikko suru (ぶりっ子する), or “to fake-child” it.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: The Origins of Kawaii and Burikko

The word kawaii is actually a relatively modern word, and only became widespread during the 1970s. Prior to this, the term used was kawayushi (かわゆし), which meant shy and embarrassed, but also pathetic, vulnerable, lovable, and small. Not surprisingly, contemporary kawaii has hints of weak and pitiful – sometimes cute and pitiful are even the same thing.

buru buru dog

Image sources: 1, 2, 3

Buru Buru Dog (ぶるぶるドッグ) is tiny, constantly trembling, and teary-eyed: a perfect example of cute + pitiful = kawaii. Even kawaisou (かわいそう), which itself is derived from kawaii, means pathetic, poor, and pitiable.

The appearance of kawaii in the 1970s coincided with the start of an underground movement in writing. For no apparent reason, teens began to write in childishly rounded characters, liberally punctuated with random English words, cartoon hearts, and the like. Interestingly, those that used maru-ji (丸字) or “round writing,” as it came to be known, were mostly older teenagers. This meant it was a consciously adopted style, and not due to any real inability to write properly: the childish writing was completely contrived.

marui-ji

Maru-ji, koneko-ji, manga-ji… regardless of what it was called, by the 1980s, this childlike writing style was rife: some schools banned it entirely, and teachers refused to mark tests with answers written in that style.

The emergence of maru-ji coincided with a sudden craze of young adults acting kawaii – although the relation between the two, if any, is unclear. What is certain is that the childlike behavior was also completely contrived – I mean, they weren’t children, after all. So the baby talk, the pastel and lace, and the predilection for kawaii trinkets? Nothing but fakery. Besides, it’s not as if they were being entirely innocent – the saccharine nyan nyan suru (ニャンニャンする) or “to meow” is a burikko term for “to flirt” or “to have sex.”

burikko suru

Besides the wide-eyed, innocent expressions and childlike poses, another trademark of a burikko is exclaiming Hazukashii! (恥ずかしい) or “I’m so embarrassed!” even though it’s clear they’re not.

Naturally, those that engaged in such childlike fakery became known as burikko (ぶりっ子), or “fake child,” which of course spawned the burikko suru verb that I mentioned earlier.

Well, I Will Not Grow Up. You Cannot Make Me!

In the West, adulthood is commonly associated with freedom and independence – not so in Japan.

In Japan, adulthood is seen as a period of hard, thankless, never-ending work to fulfill the overwhelming sekinin (責任) or “responsibility” to one’s family and employer, and to society. Adulthood also means putting aside individuality and freedom to abide by the rules of honne (本音) and tatemae (建前), the unbending social rules by which Japanese society operates. With such bleak prospects, it’s easy to see the appeal of childhood, albeit a highly romanticized one – and what easier way to rebel against society’s expectations and to hold onto the simplicity and happiness of childhood, than to be kawaii?

In a nutshell, tatemae is the face one shows to society, namely the behavior and opinions that society expects. Honne is one’s true feelings and desires, which if contrary to tatemae must be kept hidden to maintain social harmony. The gap between them may be substantial – and can, quite understandably, cause extreme internal conflict. Not everyone can reconcile the difference between the two: at one extreme, people like Tanaka-san choose to fight the lonely fight; at the other, they withdraw into their rooms or homes and become hikikomori (引きこもり).

honne and tatemae

In any case, those that struggle with honne and tatemae can find some relief in kawaii. Creating quasi-relationships with kawaii objects or characters becomes a kind of compensation for the alienation and social anxiety they feel. Kawaii allows them to be part of a group in which they know they will be accepted. Consider fandoms and shippers, for example, and how unitedly aggressive their members can be when defending their OTP!

(Of course, trying to find one’s identity and sense of belonging through objects is not unique to Japan. It happens in all capitalist societies – remember the flood of tweets around Christmas last year? “I didn’t get an iPhone! FML.” That’s where the similarities stop, though: a Nike logo, for instance, isn’t adored and personified the way Hello Kitty is in Japan.)

Also, Japan’s still largely patriarchal society may have come to expect women to be kawaii. In the male-dominated field of academia, for example, women are expected to defer to their male colleagues by acting submissively – and being submissive, of course, is part and parcel of being kawaii, and of being a burikko. An acquaintance of Miller, contemplating her own career progression, succinctly put it as “I have to learn to do burikko better to get ahead.”

Which Came First?

Speaking of Hello Kitty, these days the character licensing industry in Japan is very big business. As in, trillions of yen big business. Which isn’t surprising, really – there’s certainly a demand for kawaii characters, accessories, clothing, and so on.

But which came first? Did kawaii explode because there was demand for it? Or did kawaii, already ubiquitous, muscle its way into everyday life? Personally, I think it’s a vicious cycle of both. This is just my opinion, so take this one with a grain of salt.

sanrio characters

The more kawaii things there are, the easier it is to find one to identify with, and ka-ching! Another plush toy or body pillow sold. Then, of course, a company like Sanrio sees that there’s a market for kawaii, and makes more, more, and even more kawaii things – and the cycle starts again.

Kawaii, Now and In the Future

Nowadays, kawaii is so deeply entrenched with Japan and Japanese culture that it’s near impossible to separate the two, although there are undercurrents of anti-kawaii and anti-burikko sentiments. Kawaii has become the normal state of affairs – I don’t think anyone consciously sticks it to The Man by writing with maru-ji or using baby talk anymore.

Besides, I don’t think kawaii is a bad thing. After all, it’s fun, and it’s funny, and well… cute! I can appreciate cute for cute’s sake, and hey – Japan just wouldn’t be the same without it.


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Header image by Minh Tan

  • Erika

    For some reason this makes me think back to my literature class on Meiji and Edo period literature. A lot of characters (and one assumes real individuals as well) have affairs/sexual relations with prepubescent boys and it was socially accepted. I wonder if those ideas play into kawaii at all? Though, according to this, kawaii culture doesn’t show up until the 1970s. Just a thought. Very interesting! It makes me want to learn more!

  • guest

    Wow, does no one else find this whole ‘kawaii’ thing disturbing and offensive? It’s anything but cute.

  • Suzuzu

    Personally, I think this whole KAWAII obsession is another cultural aspect of a country lost at war. I remember reading some article that argued that due to the American invasion after the second ww, inhabitants realized how vulnerable, ‘small’ and what insignificant meaning Japanese culture played in geo-politics. It was the first time the majority of inhabitants had probably seen a foreign person. I think there is nothing wrong with surrounding oneself with KAWAII objects if they make one happy (not only in Japan, society throughout the world demands a lot of adults, want them to be serious all the time, KAWAII is definately a good output for that). I do think it is wrong to ‘demand’ from grown ups (‘women’) to be KAWAII. My friend often complained that, if she had only lived in Korea, she ‘could’ also be labelled as sexy apart from cute, and get away with it. KAWAII should not be taken too seriously, and NEVER should be a personal value. Having the wish to be KAWAII (in other words, having the wish to stop growing and always stay in the same state as you was in in the past) is unnatural and quite retarded. Who doesn’t want to learn more? Oh heck, then Im not attractive to Japanese guys anymore.. FML. this is absolute bullshit.