Understanding Japanese Kawaii

Japan is weird and wonderful and it’s the Japanese kawaii which made me love this country even more. You can find Japanese kawaii everywhere you are, on signs, posters, shops and restaurants. Before I get ahead of myself, you are probably wondering: What does kawaii mean?

Kawaii is the Japanese word for cute. But Japanese kawaii is a whole new level of cute. In fact, you will notice that everything is, in a way, cutified in Japan. A walk around a shopping mall and you will discover a variety of Japanese kawaii products. Even the most mundane items have been transformed to be cute, colourful and incredibly appealing.

Japanese kawaii bear

What does kawaii mean?

Kawaii was first associated with pitiful qualities in The Tale of Genji written by Lady Murasaki. Nowadays, the word evolved quite a lot and it is now referred to as blushing, embarrassed and adorable.

In fact, the Japanese kawaii came to life around the 1970s and was associated with a new style of writing. Teenagers in Japan started using mechanical pencils which in turn introduced fine lines on the paper, totally different than the traditional Japanese writing. Girls will now use big and round characters and also add characters to their writing such as small hearts, stars and faces.

What is even more interesting is that Kazuma Yamane studied the development of cute handwriting which was also called Marui Ji (round writing) or Kaneko Ji (kitten writing). Kazuma-san concluded that this new trend emerged due to the rounded writing widely available in comics and the new technical means (mechanical pencils) available.

Japanese kawaii ocean seal

When did Japanese kawaii become a thing?

It is believed that Japanese kawaii can be traced back to the Edo Period and the use of Netsuke. Netsuke are miniature sculptures invented in the 17th century. As the kimono or kosode had no pockets, the Japanese started using netsuke, where they could store their belongings and attached them to their obi (robes’ sashes). Money, medicines, tobacco could all be stored in netsuke. Needless to say that a quick search for the word netsuke and you will truly understand why Japanese kawaii could be associated with these incredibly cute sculptures.

But there is more… in 1974 the first true Japanese kawaii character emerged: Hello Kitty. In 2017, Hello Kitty is over 40 years old and worth about $7 billion a year.

In the 1980s, Japanese kawaii saw the rise of new idols such as Seiko Matsuda. Japanese girls started imitating her cute fashion, which eventually became a market on its own. Today, Japanese kawaii is no longer limited to teenagers only but it is a booming market which targets people of all ages.

Japanese kawaii chick

Is Japanese kawaii accepted?

The short answer is yes. Japanese kawaii is not only accepted but encouraged and it’s fine for both, men and women. Some suggest that cute is now taking over the Japanese idea of beautiful and refined. In fact, Nobuyoshi Kurita, a Tokyo based sociology professor has ever stated that the word cute is a “magic term” that encompasses everything acceptable and desirable in Japan.

Japanese kawaii oven glove
Japanese kawaii whale

What about kawaii stuff?

One glance around any Japanese shop and you will be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of kawaii stuff available for sale. You can get anything from sweets, through clothing to household items.

Nowadays, Japanese kawaii merchandise plays an important role in Japanese culture and products. Everything cute is now pursuing a global market.

Japanese kawaii household items

What type of Japanese kawaii may you encounter?

For one, you will definitely come across “street kawaii”. A walk around Harajuku and you will see plenty of teenagers dressed incredibly cute. Girls nowadays take kawaii very seriously and associate cute with innocent. As such, you will find many teenagers wearing large contact lenses to amplify their eyes which is (especially in manga and anime) associated with innocence. Some even go through drastic eye cosmetic surgeries to make their eyes bigger.

Japanese kawaii is used as a selling point for many products. For example, my favourite mascara in the whole world is called Heroine Make and it uses cute manga on the packaging.

Japanese kawaii octopus

Japanese kawaii can be found in all shops. In fact, I noticed kawaii plush toys, cute phone covers, adorable accessories, all for sale.

I was even surprised to see an array of Japanese kawaii in serious establishments, such as museums and galleries. But then again, who doesn’t love adorable characters and products.

The part that shocked me the most was the use of Japanese kawaii in educational posters and day to day educational videos which could be found throughout the city. For example, there were various subway posters which employed the use of cute. At first, I felt treated like a child, by being presented with cute things which usually target children. But then, after spending a couple of months in Japan, I learned to like them and started appreciating them. I noticed that Japanese kawaii combined with educational messages were more likely to stick with me than any other poster which used words only or real-life models.

Japanese kawaii plush tous

Hey Japan, what’s the deal with all that Japanese kawaii?

This may sound funny but I remember asking a Japanese friend what’s the deal with all this kawaii everywhere. First, I asked about the lolita girls and cute maids cafe scattered all around Akihabara. Second, I asked why Japanese people like such adorable things which are seemingly targeting kids or teenagers.

The answer to the first question was somewhat coy. From what he explained, only “certain” type of Japanese people go to a maid cafe. If you are a foreigner and interested in adult things to do in Japan, going to a maid cafe is considered ok. However, the society seems to frown upon Japanese people visiting maid cafes establishments. Ultimately, my friend added, these maid cafes are not really true representations of Japanese kawaii, but more of a “burikko” which is viewed as being false and unauthentic.

super cute japanese kawaii

In regards to all adorable things in Japan, I’ve been told that the world of kawaii is totally different than the harsh reality in Japan. Things are strict and not at all viewed as cute, adorable or playful. So much so, that seeing all things nice and kawaii is rather entertaining and uplifting. After a full day of stressful work, going to a shop which sells Japanese kawaii merchandise is a nice change of scenery and a great antidote to an otherwise potentially dull existence.

Super cute Japanese pillow

Examples of Japanese kawaii

To understand Japanese kawaii, one has to visit Japan. I still remember spending days exploring various shopping centres and malls. Everything was exciting, adorable and well packaged.
As you may already know, customer service in Japan is the best in the world. Japan is the perfect example of a capitalist society who takes you, as a customer, and the business seriously. One glance at a Japanese shop and you will want to splurge on all products available. Everything is well presented, perfectly packaged and beautifully arranged. To top it all up, you are always guaranteed top-notch service and a tailored experience. When you buy something, whether it’s Japanese kawaii or not, you will receive a greatly wrapped present; so when you get home (or to your hotel) you will feel like a child, opening up, your newly purchased present.

Japanese kawaii notebook

As an inner shopaholic, I can’t imagine anything better than spending time around shops in Japan. Just be careful, as adorable as everything is, they all come with a price, and it’s only a matter of time, until your credit card too, will start cutely squeaking, like all Japanese kawaii products available to buy.

Japanese kawaii stationary

Are you a fan of Japanese kawaii? Are you interested in purchasing kawaii stuff? Would you like kawaii to go mainstream in the Western countries as well? Let me know by leaving a comment below!

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Cory from You Could Travel entering Senso-ji in Tokyo, Japan

Cory Varga – Cory is a published travel writer and award-winning photographer. She travels full time with her husband and is passionate about creating in-depth travel guides. Cory published her first book on Japanese customs and manners because she’s obsessed with everything Japan. She has visited hundreds of destinations and has lived in 7 different countries. Cory is multilingual and an alumna from The University of Manchester.


14 responses to “Understanding Japanese Kawaii”

  1. Annie Avatar

    Aww this takes me right back to my visit to Japan and the harajuku girls. Not sure the surgery for enlarging the eyes sounds like a good idea… do any other cultures have this? Does it vary by region in Japan or just a Tokyo thing? Would love to know!

    1. Cory Avatar

      Hi Annie, I would say Kawaii is pretty much everywhere in Japan. Of course, it’s a little more obvious in Tokyo.The eye surgery is crazy, sometimes they take it to the next level, don’t they?!
      I think from this point of view, Tokyo is a little more crazy 😀

  2. Faith Coates Avatar
    Faith Coates

    Okay now all that cuteness makes sense, it’s a reaction to the strictness of Japanese culture. This is why we travel to learn things about other cultures and gain insights into a greater understanding of things beyond our day to day knowledge.

    1. Cory Avatar

      It’s fab, isn’t it? All the little things you learn when you travel. So interesting to know more about kawaii, I really loved learning about it.

  3. Eva Avatar

    I’ve never been a hardcore appreciator of Japanese art and culture (for some reason where I grew up you either are hardcore or nothing), never read mangas or Japanese literature nor listened to j-pop, but I love this one feature. This shameless appreciation of all things cute and round and slightly embarassed. And I totally feel as you explained: sometimes life is so stressful that I, as an adult, take pleasure in disconnecting and enjoying the small pleasures that a cute plush toy can give you, as if I was 8 years old. Retreating to a less mature and more infant part of oneself, even if just for a moment, is a real form of therapy and I will always advocate the freedom to act like children from time to time, get that adult mask off and just let stress flow away. Kawaii works!

    1. Cory Avatar

      I think Kawaii works for sure. I remember the first time we went in one of the Japanese stores, I think it was a Loft. We spent 4, maybe 5 hours just going around wanting to buy everything cute and pretty. I mean, everything was adorable. I just love Japan, I can’t imagine a better place in this world.

  4. Sarah Avatar

    I love it, my favourite stationary shop in Australia, sells Kawaii stationary. I purchase some as gifts every christmas.

    1. Cory Avatar

      YES to this! It’s all about kawaii haha

  5. Clazz Avatar

    I swear this is half the reason I want to visit Japan!! I’ve always said I need to go there with a lot of money and an empty suitcase so I can fill it up with novelty stuff, hahaha!

    1. Cory Avatar

      Honestly, Clazz, Japan is unique and wonderful. The best place on this planet!

  6. francesca murray Avatar
    francesca murray

    I learned quite a bit from this post. I was familiar with Harajuku culture and knew the word kawaii but wasn’t quite sure where it came from. There are plenty of Daiso Japanese stores in the USA that carry a lot of kawaii stuff! I love it

    1. Cory Avatar

      I think kawaii is so incredible, I wish we would have more stores like this in Europe. I’m glad you learned about the history <3

  7. Jen Avatar

    Known about “kawaii” culture for 20 years, finally will get a chance to go to Japan in January. I don’t much care for the netsuke, don’t find them to be cute at all, except for an occasional rabbit here and there. There seems to be a lot of erotic (to put it gently) netsuke still in almost pristine condition. I can’t think of the Japanese as being uptight if you picture them back in the day walking around with those things…lol.

    1. Cory Avatar

      Hi Jen,
      I hope you will enjoy Japan in January. It’s going to be great. I think netsuke are awesome but ultimately it comes down to personal preference. The neko (cat) costumes can be predominant in the manga and anime world, but you won’t really see people wearing them on a day to day basis, especially not in commercial and business neighbourhoods. The Japanese are definitely shy, and they are very serious about their manners and customs. I wouldn’t say they are uptight though, just very considerate and well mannered.

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