What is kawaii?
What Is Kawaii?
The word "kawaii" has the root word "kawai" which is formed from the kanji "ka" (可), meaning "acceptable", and "ai" (愛), meaning "love". The term kawaii has taken on the secondary meanings of "cool", "groovy", "acceptable", "desirable", "charming" and "non-threatening".
Tomoyuki Sugiyama (杉山奉文 Sugiyama Tomoyuki?), author of Cool Japan, claims cute fashion in Japan can be traced back to the Edo Period with the popularity of netsuke.
Because of this growing trend, companies such as Sanrio came out with merchandise like Hello Kitty. Hello Kitty was an immediate success and the obsession with cute continued to progress in other areas as well. The 1980s also saw the rise of cute idols, such as Seiko Matsuda, who is largely credited with popularizing the trend. Women began to emulate Seiko Matsuda and her cute fashion style and mannerisms, which emphasized the helplessness and innocence of young girls. The market for cute merchandise in Japan is driven by Japanese girls between 15 and 18 years old.
No longer limited to teenagers, however, the spread of making things as cute as possible, even common household items, was embraced by people of all ages. Now there are airplanes painted with Pokémon characters on the side, and each of Japan’s 47 prefectures, the Tokyo police, and even the public broadcaster NHK all have their own cute mascots. Domokun, the unique-looking and widely recognized NHK mascot, was introduced in 1998 and quickly took on a life of its own, appearing in Internet memes and fan art around the world. Currently, Sanrio’s line of more than 50 characters takes in more than $1 billion a year and it remains the most successful company to capitalize on the cute trend.
Perception in Japan
Shinkansen E3 Series train with Pokémon decorations.
As a cultural phenomenon, cuteness is increasingly accepted in Japan as a part of Japanese culture and national identity. Tomoyuki Sugiyama (杉山奉文 Sugiyama Tomoyuki?), author of "Cool Japan", believes that "cuteness" is rooted in Japan's harmony-loving culture, and Nobuyoshi Kurita (栗田経惟 Kurita Nobuyoshi?), a sociology professor at Musashi University in Tokyo, has stated that "cute" is a "magic term" that encompasses everything that's acceptable and desirable in Japan.