K is for Kawaii

Chances are, if you’ve even scratched the surface of Japanese culture, you’ve stumbled across that word. Well, I’m here to tell you that if you live in Japan, you’re practically smothered in it’s cutesy, high-pitched, rainbow-colored arms every day. If you take what ‘cool’ means to us Westerners, add it to ‘sexy’, and multiply it’s prevalence by about, ooh, 50, that’s how dominant kawaii-culture is in Japan.

It’s everywhere, even in all the mundane everyday things like roadblocks (see below) helped in no small way to the fact that ‘cute’ doesn’t hold the same infantile stigma as it does in western countries. The Tokyo Metro uses the mascot of two cartoon raccoons. Their military had cute mascots for their recruiment plan. Police boxes have kawaii characters. Practically everything advertised on TV is accompanied by jingle sung by a cute kid, along with just as many talking animals.

And this is just fringe material we’re talking about here. Take a step into mainstream consumer Japan and the kawaii-level steps up about twenty gears. There’s nowhere you can turn without bumping into Hello Kitty merchandise of some kind. and if it’s not that, then you’re probably being bombarded by another of the Cute Crew; doraemon, pokemon, stitch, the disney gang, and a whole host of doe-eyed, unreasonably proportioned manga characters.

The Japanese lap it up, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Of course, many of the franchises mentioned above and more export around the world to great success, but there’s no doubt that ‘kawaii’ rules the roost in it’s native Japan. Kawaii is more than just an adjective here: it’s a way of life.

he question is: why? Why should Japan of all places, with such a feudal, mythically dense past give itself over so readily to the over-saturated invasion of cute? There’s been much debate about this, both positive and negative. See, the Japanese are by nature group-orientated people, and value conscensual harmony over their own individual desires. Kawaii-characters are, by nature, non-threatening and non-assertive, and instead win you over with an onslaught of benevolence and sweetness, something that appeals to the national psyche greatly.

But this doesn’t answer the question: as said, how did it jump from samurai and bushido to technicolour aborableness? One argument is that it’s down to the Second World War, an era recalled by the older generation as ‘the black nightmare’. Their defeat brought a great deal of self-inflicted shame of their actions, the horror made further entrenched by the bombings. As such, there was a feverish repositioning of Japan as a (and I repeat) non-threatening, benevolent force on the world stage, that wins you over without resorting to aggression. The scars of Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave birth to the kawaii-culture, as an innocent-faced plea for peace. Of course, this is merely a theory, but I have to admit it’s a fascinating one (another theory is that post-bomb Japan, followed by American occupation, has forever been left in the role of the USA’s emasculated little brother).

Well, that is all in the past. Whatever the origins of kawaii-culture, it has now moved well beyond that, and for the younger generations it is all part of the fabric of their lifestyle, just as much as festivals, school and driving on the left is: you don’t question it, it just is.

In my humble opinion, there are upsides and downsides to the kawaii-culture. There’s no denying that it’s sweet and endearing, and on the whole it’s a lifestyle that I find far more attractive and appealing than the aggressive, pseudo-intimidating style that Westerners generally prefer. It’s also quite liberating: it’s perfectly alright for adults to talk freely about anime and enjoy things that seem otherwise childish or feminine in the West; in the UK or USA, the overbearing need to seem masculine (for guys, at least) often ringfences topics into cars and hot girls: anything beyond that will stigmatise you. Okay, I’m generalizing, but you get the idea.

The trouble I have with kawaii-culture is just how dominating it is here in Japan, to the point it can be suffocating, and stamps out other aspects and ideas. For example, the over-powering demand for girls to be cute (not sexy, cool or any other aspect of their own personality) sees them donning frilly doll-house dresses, big ribbons in their hair, dangle a huge mass of furry characters from their phones and put on a squeaky voice. They will submit to the aspects of cute – submissive, non-aggressive, sometimes deliberately air-headed too – simply because it’s desirable, and like I said before, they won’t question it, because that’s the way it is in Japan. And I’ve often heard squeals of ‘Kowai!’ (scary – a word ironically close in sound to kawaii), at something that isn’t actually scary at all, but just not cute. Which sums up the downsides nicely: cuteness is the holy grail, everything else is yucky. And in Japan, if you’re out of the group, you’re a nobody.

Whatever you think, though, kawaii is here to stay, and will be a keyword in 21st century Japan as much as Meiji was in the 19th century. For better or for worse, we’ll have to wait and see…



  1. Another theory is that due to their peculiar work culture, where salarymen spend most of their time working their asses off, kawaii is a source of relaxation and relief. No wonder idol groups are coming up 10x faster than their economy.

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