Kawaii (可愛い) is one of those Japanese words that when you listen it for the first time you will never forget it. And you will not stop listening it, using it and finding the concept that it represents embedded in Japanese society.
What does it mean
There is not a perfect translation for kawaii but maybe the adjectives “cute”, “adorable”, “pure”, “honest”, “sensible” or “immature” could be used. In some novels (Snow Crash for example) I’ve seen that some writers and translators just leave the adjective kawaii in Japanese.
Kawaii represents the concept of looking like and behave like a kid. People considered as very kawaii are very very innocent, shy, they were very colorful and childish clothes, they walk and sit down as if they where kids (If you travel to Japan take a look at how some girls walk and sit down). There are clothes and accessories considered as “kawaii fashion”, these are have very vivid colors and some of them look like princess clothing:
Kawaii clothes and accessories.
Kawaii clothes and accessories.
Girls sitting in a very kawaii position and wearing kawaii clothes.
Kawaii phenomenon origins
The word kawaii is a neologism that appeared in the Japanese language around 1970. Kawaii derived from the word Kawayui that means more or less the same. Kawaii started to be used for the first time to describe a writing style used by adolescent schoolgirls. The writing style was called burikko-ji, the main characteristic of this calligraphy is that it had to look like it was written by a child. The characters where very rounded and there where even pictures and happy faces between lines (Maybe this is way nowadays Japanese they love emoji-emoticos so much). It seems that during the 80s almost 50% of the Japanese girls between 12 and 18 years old wrote using burikko-ji.
The tendency moved from the youngsters and became a mainstream phenomenon, typography en banners, ads and commercials became more rounded and sometimes even childish, it started to affect adult women trends etc. The adjective kawai was born at the same time that burikko-ji was born, both concepts are intertwined, both appeared in Japanese schools during the 70s becoming a national wide trend. During the 80s the concept started to be exploited by companies, there are many Japanese products with a serious version and also a kawaii version. There are tons of anime characters who are kawaii, mascot characters are kawaii… nowadays there is a whole industry making money around the concept of kawaii and related stuff.
Pokémon are kawaii characters created by Nintendo. In Japan there are even planes decorated with pokémon!
Why is kawaii so popular in Japan?
Some people say that the kawaii culture was born as counterculture movement against the traditional Japanese cultures, against the social pressure that many young people feel when they finish their university studies and they have to become “adults”, they have to be responsible persons, they have to earn money and create a family. Many adults look for ways to escape from this social pressure and one of those ways is to be kawaii, to act kawaii in the case of girls, buy kawaii stuff, dress kawaii clothes etc. It is a way to negate your adulthood, it is a way to try to evade typical adult boring responsibilities.
Some other people theorize that the kawaii culture is embedded in the Japanese society since a long time ago, in is inside the Japanese subcontinent. Kawaii surges from the Japanese amae nature, from the desired to be cared of and to be loved, that we all humans have (Kids do have it a lot) but in Japan sometimes it is socially accepted to “show your amae” in public much more than in other societies. Childishness evokes empathy and emotional connection, objects and people who have “kawaiiness” are able to project good feeling into themselves from others. And innocent and vulnerable image is a way to express and receive friendly feelings from and to others.
I Japan you can see truck drivers with Hello Kitty figures in their trucks, the “Japanese FBI” mascot character is kawaii (Yes, if you follow that link you will see a part of the OFFICIAL Japanese FBI website!!!!, although it looks like a kindergarten it is not), banks also have kawaii mascot characters, there are 747 planes adorned with kawaii characters, there are even condoms with kawaii characters, the 47 Japanese prefectures they all have a kawaii mascot character, you can see businessmen wearing a tie but also having a Doraemon figure hanging from their mobile phones. I could find endless examples, it is just amazing, Japan is a Kawaii country!
¡Even some condom brands are using kawaii characters to sell more!
Kawaii mascot characters
Mascot characters are considered kawaii if they have a big head, if their body has curved shapes, if their arms are short, if they have few fingers or they don’t even have, if they have short legs. Also, kawaii characters usually have little mouths and noses and big eyes, sometimes they don’t even have a mouth like Hello Kitty.
Hello Kitty is one of the most international Japanese kawaii characters. It was also born during the 70s together with the burikko-ji calligraphy and the “kawaii” concept.
Hello Kitty is the prototype kawaii character.
More kawaii characters, these don’t even have legs and arms.
Kawaii characters are everywhere!
Difference between kawaii and beauty
Something kawaii and something beautiful can be very different. I’ve seen discussions among Japanese talking about if a singer is beautiful or if she is kawaii. Something or someone is considered beautiful when it is elegant, when it has stylized lines and when it emits a serious and mature aura. On the other hand if something is childish, if it has a vulnerable aspect, if it has rounded lines… then it is kawaii. For example a little young doggy is kawaii, but if it is a breed that grows and becomes big then it will become a beautiful dog or maybe not, but for sure it will stop being kawaii when it is a big dog.
This girl has tons of kawaii accessories and she is in a very kawaii position but I don’t think she is very beautiful
Kawaii fashion models
One of the “big” problems of Japan with their fashion models is that most of them are more kawaii than beautiful. Most of them have a rounded and very kawaii face, they have very smooth skin, but they have shorter legs than their international models competitors. Many Japanese models become famous in Japan but they can never start a career outside of Japan. For example, one of the most famous Japanese fashion models is Yuri Ebihara. She is very popular in Japan because she is SOOO kawaii-beautiful, but she is only 1.68m tall, and that is a big drawback for her to become internationally well known. It seems it doesn’t bother her at all, she is very proud of being the kawaii ideal, if fact she confessed in a TV show that while become older she is getting more and more worried about not loosing her kawaiiness, she said that she will do everything to be even more kawaii when she reaches her thirties.
Yubi Ebihara is considered by Japanese men as one of the most desired women in Japan. Her face and her expression is beautiful and kawaii at the same time. In Europe or in the United States I think that men like more beautiful and strongly sexy girls than girls with innocent and kawaii faces.