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Kawaii Culture – The Origins and Meaning of Cute in Japanese

Japan loves all things kawaii, it’s deeply ingrained in all aspects of modern day living. But what is kawaii? And where did it come from? Read on to discover why kawaii is so much more than just a word.

Llama plush toys.

Word Origin and Meaning

The modern day word is derived from the Taisho Era (1912-1926) “kawayushi”, meaning embarrassed, pathetic, shy, vulnerable, lovable and small. Kawaii retains a lot of this meaning. It’s a multi-faceted word, and though we generally take it to mean “cute”, to simply state this as its only connotation would be incorrect. Kawaii refers to a feeling of love, care, and protectiveness. Based on the sweet physical features of small children and baby animals, it has a surprisingly Western influence: the big, round eyes are an import from the West, with the kawaii common today a result of the Japanese and American interaction during World War II. 

Kawaii itself can mean the following: Childish, innocent, round, rebellious, lovable, pathetic, western, and acknowledged. It also denotes a person that bears no undesirable traits.

Lambo figure, from the anime/ manga Katekyo Hitman Reborn!

Integration Into Society

The very first traces of cute can be seen in Edo period art (1603-1868), with woodblock prints known as “dijinga”, literally: “beautiful person picture”. 

Kawaii became mainstream with three major developments: Girl’s Illustrations, Shojo, and Fancy Goods Marketing. Girls Illustrations go back to the same era as woodblock prints. The first shojo illustrator was Yumeji Takehisa in 1914. During this time, kawaii referred to folk of a lower standing in society, a stigma that didn’t dissipate until the 1980’s. It’s said that kawaii culture was born with Takehisa’s work. His designs merged East with West, he used round eyes in his illustrations (a practice considered vulgar at the time), and was the first to use kawaii to refer to his “chiyogami” work. “Chiyogami” refers to flat woodblock print on paper, it was used for origami and other crafts.

An example of Takehisa’s work. (Image in the public domain.)

The dawn and culmination of the 1970’s saw more female illustrators enter the fray, depicting kawaii girl characters with much the same features as the male artists did, but with hidden depths. The characters often had strength and an adventurous spirit, and the shift saw what was defined as cute change. Kawaii is the absence of negative traits, meaning anything kawaii is held in high regard, a transient trend that sees change with time. Strength and confidence soon became positive traits in cute girls. Prior to the 70’s, most of the target audience were elementary age girls. The inclusion of teens and young women changed its definition.

READ MORE: Things to Do on Takeshita Street, Harajuku

Shojo was also used as a way to market and develop fashion post World War II. During this time, fashion publications never targeted teens, that is until full body drawings of shojo characters in chic trends were introduced. Shojo, and by extension, kawaii, culture encouraged girls to identify with a group. It’s done in many ways, including wearing certain accessories or objects, or a specific type of clothing. What cute things a girl likes forms part of her identity, with simply liking and/or wearing a character making her part of a larger group. 

An example of kawaii fashion, in the Lolita style. Photo by KazumiVIP via Wikimedia Commons.

Kawaii’s Modern Icon

Hello Kitty is perhaps the best known kawaii icon. Its creator, Sanrio, has kept her alive and kicking by changing the design annually, playing into the love of teens to keep looks fresh and new. Commodification of kawaii isn’t a new thing. Takehisa had a stationary shop back at the dawn of kawaii culture, selling kawaii goods to young girls. Hello Kitty is the modern embodiment, selling cute to generation after generation. 

Hello Kitty


Kawaii handwriting

Kawaii handwriting is one of the few non-commercial examples of kawaii culture. In 1974, girls started to write in a horizontal (instead of the usual vertical; Japanese script is often written vertically, read from right to left, up to down) fashion, with rounded, soft characters, with English as well as little sketches forming part of the script. This was a little head nod to the West, seen as free and cool, a break from rigid tradition. It was a way to allow teens to express themselves through writing, something previously unheard of. 

Types of Kawaii

As I said previously, it’s multi-faceted. There are many sub-cultures of kawaii, some of which I will cover here. 

Guro-Kawaii: Grotesque-cute. It’s cute with a dark twist, usually achieved with sharply contrasting make-up. 

Kimo-Kawaii: Creepy-cute. It’s cute with more than a hint of creepy. Think Kewpie dolls. 

Busu-Kawaii: Ugly-cute. Sort of a contradiction, it plays more on the pity feelings often associated with kawaii. 

Ero-Kawaii: Sexy-cute. Think risqué dress up; French maid, saucy cat girl, that type of thing. 

Shibu-Kawaii: Subdued-cute. This refers to daily trends. Being cute without being over the top about it. Think a cute hairlip, or phone charm, as opposed to full on Gothic Lolita. 

Example of kimo-kawaii

Fashion On The Front Line

Harajuku became a hub for teens to see and be seen. Post World War II, it was an American housing quarter called Washington Heights (this is after it was destroyed during the firebombing of Tokyo). It was associated with foreign and different. In 1977 it became a pedestrian district known as a “hokoten”, launching it as an epicentre for street fashion, an eclectic mix of gothic, street and cosplay, kawaii interlaced between it all. Harajuku was also a bit of a drug haven, sadly, and after a huge crackdown in 1996 by police, Harajuku was closed down. The heyday was over. Harajuku was also a cosplay hub between 1980-2000. 

Typical Harajuku fashion. Photo credit: Peter Van den Bossche via Wikimedia Commons.

Permeations In Every Day Life

It’s no longer just girls and young women, kawaii penetrates every aspect of Japanese life. Businesses use cute mascots (everywhere from hair salons to car sales employ this tactic), official signs and utilities have a hint of kawaii (on Okinawa, the barriers used to segregate traffic during road works have adorable shisa dog faces on them, and you’ll find cute characters on manhole covers), cross walks often have chirpy alarms, social media specific to Japan is thick with kawaii (download LINE, you’ll see what I mean).

Pop stars, both male and female, wear kawaii clothes, act in a super cute way, and write in a strong kawaii script (May’n is a great example, her signature includes a mini cute drawing of herself), snacks and foods are either marketed in bright, cute packaging, or are cute themselves (you’ll see a lot of treats endorsed by popular characters), games of all genres often encompass some element of kawaii, and of course you have games that are all about it, such as the hit neko atsume (kitty collector), a game whose aim is for you to collect adorable cartoon kitties. The list is endless. When you first visit, it feels a little like you’re drowning in a sea of adorable, but after a while, it’s so central you hardly notice it. It adds a soft element to the harshness of daily life! 

Cute sponges
Manhole cover

The Future of Kawaii

Honestly? It’s perpetual. Ever changing and deep rooted, it’s a symbol of individuality not just for Japanese teens, but teens the world over, and since its filtering into most other aspects of society, it has no retirement plans just yet. So sit back and embrace it, kawaii is here to stay! 

Kawaii wish board
Anime girl on car

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