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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

  • http://twitter.com/testyal1 William Sumners

    I can certainly see why curly writing was heavily discouraged, what with Japan regarding good handwriting as practically a necessity.

  • http://twitter.com/chanseobiex ♔Soriya

    We had a WHOLE section of this in my JPOP culture class, and gosh this article just reiterates everything! I can say that I don’t look at cute the same way again.

  • Willian Pestana

    Wonderful post! I always wanted to know when this “kawaii-thing” began. I think “Kawaii” can be the new “Arigatô”. Almost everyone in the world knows what “Arigatô” means, and soon, “Kawaii” will spread around the world too. (If isn’t already)

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    Kawaii… More like kowaii. D:

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    強飯?

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    何?

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi
  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    What a kawaii morning.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1434168513 Juan Fernando Castellón

    馬鹿なウエアボオの事と言わないでよ、小市君!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1434168513 Juan Fernando Castellón

    丸字を読むの事が難しいね。

  • http://twitter.com/Meroigo Johannes / ヨハネス
  • Stroopwafel

    Wow! Very well written. I like how you taught me all of these japanese words in this post.
    Thank you very much, Fiona!

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    I know what it means. Just trying to understand the context :)

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    Thanks Stroopwafel, I’m all for edutainment ^_^

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    I think かわいい is maybe 3/4 away from total world domination. It’s making big inroads in Europe apparently, but gosh I think that’s a whole ‘nother post right there.

    They just need to come up with another Hello Kitty: she’s popular in Japan because she’s foreign (British), and she’s popular overseas because she’s Japanese.

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    I know! Until I read that note I didn’t realize how important the placement of just one or two strokes was > _ <

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    Everyone at Tofugu headquarters, y’all have a kawaii day now!

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    そうです・・・

  • Juanpy

    LOL that video is so hilarious koichi!

  • HatsuHazama

    Wrong, kawaii will probably not spread. However, kowai probably will.

  • Juanpy

    What a kawaii article with all the kawaiiness lol xD,found really interesting the tatemae and honne faces.

  • HatsuHazama

    Wow. That first paragraph alone changed my view on cute in Japan. I never look at Hello Kitty in the same way thanks to that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kendra.k.coffey Kendra Kaye Coffey

    dude wtf happened to the 90s anime chick, it looks like someone rolled her over with a bus LOL

  • linguarum

    Thanks – great article. Does anyone know where ぶりっ子 comes from? The dictionary tells me “buri” is 鰤 = hamachi (yellowtail). But how did it come to mean fake? (Fishy = fake?) I’ve also heard it’s onomatopoeia from ふりふり – the sound of cutesy girls batting their eyelashes.

  • mitsuho32

    Kawaii! 🐷🐶🐱🐰

  • atupomaruru

    According to my dictionary it’s the stem of ぶる – behaving like. Which kind of makes sense, ぶりっ子 = “behaving like a child”. That’s another theory at least, I don’t know either what the actual origin of the expression is.

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    From what I’ve read, you’re correct! ^_^

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    Job done! ^_-

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    I know, it’s like “Let’s see how big we can make the eyes before it freaks everyone out!”

  • linguarum

    I once heard a statistic that about 80 percent of the Internet’s commercial child pornography originates in Japan. When I think about that, I begin to think that Japanese girls trying to appear 13 in order to be attractive to men may not be an entirely healthy thing.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    I once heard a statistic that 95% of the Internet’s supply of statistics were made up on the spot.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Context is what I would like. 可愛い強飯 sounds awfully… こわい. Although, this may be due to my fear of words that sound like other words.

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    Had to do a double take until I realized my mistake. Me bads!!!! こわい~~~~

  • Hibs

    As someone who skirts around the darker corners of the internet I can say those figures are pretty skewed. Russia has a huge problem with that sort of thing, but I rarely see Japan contributing anything on that front.

    But Japanese women of any age seem to face a lot of sexual pressures. What I don’t understand is why ever female AV star ever has this semi-pained, wholly fake orgasm routine. I used to think japanese guys must like the “pained” part but seeing this fascinating cultural marshmallow salad that Japan has imploded into I think it might be the “fake” part now. The more plastic the better. Very Huxleyian, second-order simulacrum kind of thing.

  • Hibs

    The Trouble with Tribbles, anyone?

  • hikaru1412

    もう一ついい記事ですね!ありがとうございます!:D

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Why am I a small city? :(

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    いいえ、こちらこそありがとうございます ^_^

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    No need to be sad, koichi, size doesn’t matter.

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet
  • http://twitter.com/hiroko_nakamura hiroko nakamura

    Like the article a lot.
    p.s Nobody says “marui-ji”. It’s 丸文字(maru-moji) or 丸字(maru-ji) to be correct. ;)

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Ouch!

  • fee_fi_Fiona

    Thank you, I’ve corrected it now! ^_^

  • Tora.Silver

    I just started to be able to read hiragana and katakana rapidly and accurately, and then… BAM. Maru-ji. I’m just going to lock my self in my room and cry.

  • Uguu

    The 90’s anime chick looks like she got run over by a car. The ukiyo-e girl wasn’t cute but at least she wasn’t as weird looking as the 90’s girl.

  • Emi

    Now I know to pronounce Nyan properly. ^.^ Fiona’s avatar is also Kawaii!

  • Ivy @ Pathway to Asia

    What a kawaii article!

    I’ve seen the word “kawaii” a couple of times already (since I’m fond of reading mangas and watching animes and I like to use it in my daily conversations) and I really thought it just means “cute”. Now I know that there’s something more to “kawaii” than just being cute. This way, I’ll be able to use it more properly to describe people and things.

    Thank you for this information! :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1434168513 Juan Fernando Castellón

    ごめん、こいち君でもお前の名前の漢字は何ですか。

  • DAVIDPD

    For a related, but separate article one could attempt to address “kawaii’s” kissing cousin, “moe”.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    It’s definitely on our radar!

  • 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.