Thursday, June 13, 2024

The Kawaii culture of Japan

by jagath
May 19, 2024 1:01 am 0 comment 988 views

Words: Bhanujith Wijesinghe

If you’ve had even a passing interest in Japan, you might be aware of its nationwide obsession with all things cute and adorable, influencing everything from their pop culture, toys and clothing to even their food, appearance, and behaviour.

The term “kawaii” translates to “cute” or “adorable” in Japanese and encompasses a wide range of products, characters, and aesthetics that evoke feelings of innocence, sweetness, and charm.

Kawaii is deeply embedded in Japanese culture and goes beyond the boundaries of typical demographics like age or gender, with cute aesthetics being used in settings that would generally be considered inappropriate outside of Japan, like in the office, government, or military.

The origins of kawaii culture is understood to have taken root during the tumultuous post-war period in Japan when the country underwent rapid modernization and urbanization. Amidst the challenges of rebuilding and recovery, people sought comfort in simple pleasures and nostalgic imagery. The earliest recorded example of kawaii as a significant cultural movement came about around the 60s or late 70s.


Schoolgirls across Japan took to writing in a cuter style, with more rounded characters, and pictures included.

This style, called maru-moji, was difficult to read and became such a problem that there was nationwide backlash with some schools banning the practice. Created in 1974 by Yuko Shimizu, Hello Kitty was introduced by Sanrio and its immediate success helped bring the cute ideal into the mainstream through heavy merchandising, soon even bringing it to the world stage as representation of Japanese culture.

Another major player in the popularization of kawaii were manga, specifically shoujo manga which introduced staple characteristics of the aesthetic, such as characters with large eyes and rounded, soft faces.

Today, the kawaii aesthetic extends beyond entertainment and permeates almost every aspect of Japanese society. It is quite obviously seen in modern fashion, where the kawaii style is characterized by its emphasis on childlike innocence and playfulness, with oversized bows, pastel colors, and frilly details being common elements. Fashion trends like “Lolita”, with its lacy Victorian era like dresses, and “Decora”, with its vibrant colors and many accessories, have achieved worldwide appeal.

Food in Japan also embraces the kawaii aesthetic, with cute and colorful treats known as “character bento” or “kyaraben” becoming a popular trend. These elaborately decorated bento boxes feature rice balls, vegetables, and other ingredients arranged to resemble adorable characters, animals, or objects. Kawaii cafes and dessert shops offer a wide variety of sweets, including fluffy pancakes, adorable pastries, and character-themed drinks.


Japan’s obsession with mascots is also a direct extension of their kawaii culture. It’s quite popular outside of Japan as well, with certain mascots like Kumamon and Chiitan going viral on social media every once in a while. Japan’s mascots, known as “yuru-chara” or “kawaii characters,” play a huge part in raising awareness and engaging with the public, with each prefecture having dozens of official mascots promoting anything from train stations, to annual events, to even local jails.

However, as beloved as it is, kawaii culture has not gone on without its fair share of backlash and controversy, even from within Japan. Some have called it out for idealizing an infantile mentality, and supporting conformity. It’s also created toxic expectations of women, who are socialized into needing to emulate childlike cuteness but also get ostracized as burikko if they take it too far. It’s a major problem in the Jpop and idol industry where adult women need to eternally project an image of being young and cute to be successful.

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