Kawaii is one of the most frequently used Japanese words. People of Japan often says “If you learn only one Japanese word, learn kawaii. If you learn only two words, learn kawaii a second time.”
Although kawaii is very hard to translate the closest and the widely accepted meaning is cute or cuteness, with the long disclaimer which include detailed explanations why the concept of cuteness is so important in Japanese contemporary culture.
Japanese concept of kawaii explores delicate cuteness, where a weak, tiny thing and characters are metaphor or rather embodiment of all positive values. In this broad article, we will try to explain all the complexity and importance of the kawaii with emphasis on its influence in art and other related practices, in Japan and worldwide.
The meaning of the word KAWAII is cute, cuteness when used in the language itself, but in relation to the Japanese culture it refers to something being lovable, adorable, innocent-looking, non-threatening, even cool in certain connotations. Thus, kawaii is bearer of the whole set of values that are assigned as desirable or at least preferable. The idea of good within Japanese culture is inseparable from the concept of non-threatening, innocent and even fragile existence.
The etymology of the word kawaii goes back to the original insulting phrase 顔映し kao hayushi, which means “one's) face (is) aglow” referring to the shame or pity blushing in encounter with the something pathetic or irreparable bad. Some of the etymology theories believe that the word’s meaning from pitiful/pathetic to cute, developed with the rise of the feelings and emotions, and the sense that being small and weak is not a bad thing, but a value of innocent creatures such as tiny animals and babies. Today, the word can be written using two ideograms with the Chinese reading -ka可 meaning „passable“ and ai- 愛 meaning love, affection, but it is usually written using a simplified writing system written as follows, かわいい . It became a prominent aspect of the modern Japanese culture embodied in the entertainment industry, toys, fashion, food as well as personal appearance.
The beginning of the kawaii culture many speculate began in the 1970s when young girls started to incorporate letters that stood out from the traditional vertical writing style that was only defined by the thickness of lines. These girls started to use fluffy hiragana, meaning they wrote their hiragana letters in such a way that they considered it to be cute. It also enabled them to express their individuality by breaking away from the norms. Apart from the roundness of the lines, the letters would also feature texts with hearts, stars, cartoon faces. Because of all this, reading them wasn’t an easy job and they were even band from schools at a certain point. However, in the 1980s there popularity reappeared thanks to the magazines and mangas that rapidly caught onto the new trend. Apart from the hiragana letters, one of the first artists that popularized the cute graphic style was Osama Tezuka, but the kawaii trend begun with the invention of one of the most recognizable staples on earth, and that is Hello Kitty.
Althought the origins of cuteness in Japan could be find in many historical eras and tracked trough netsuke (the small format sculptures of animals) from Edo period, the kawaii as we know it today is the phenomenon inseparable from the mass and popular culture in twentieth century. In 1970s, the Japanese toys industry gigant Sanrio, produced for the first time the legendary fictional character – Hello Kitty, a tiny white cat with a red bow, all dressed in girly fashion and it became the real synonym of the kawaii and it appears on everything from coffee mugs to customized cars. The very creation of the Kitty character is closely connected to the cultural exchange between east and west, as she named after the cat from the Lewis Carroll novel “Through the Looking-Glass” and it owes her popularity to the pro-British trends in contemporary Japan, back in 1970s. After the Kitty, which is one of the most popular fictional characters worldwide, Sanrio and many other manufacturers produced the whole lines of kawaii comic figures and the whole esthetics has gripped the whole world. Of course, it is not a coincidence that kawaii fever outbreak happened just at the time of the fastest global development of consumerism and the peak of the pop culture.
While there is a diversity among the kawaii characters, they all follow a basic pattern; they are mostly portrayed with a big head with little or no facial expression, wide eyes, tiny nose. Hello Kitty does not have the basic characteristic of wide glittering eyes, that are seen latter in the anime characters, but her head is the dominant feature as well as her lack of any emotion. Psychologically speaking, not showing any emotions enables the viewer to project themselves and the unproportional body, which is that of an infant or small animal, awakens in us the need to nurture and care for things which are physically weaker than us.
It’s interesting to note that the Japanese had a completely different view on big eyes in art before the western influence. The Nio Guardians that stand in the Todaji temple in Nara, are depicted with big eyes for the sole reason to ward off evil spirits from the temple. Big eyes were used to express strong emotions. Thus, women depicted as having big eyes in artwork wasn’t seen as feminine. In Budist tradition, the big eyes were considered as the demonstration of the unearthly power of the fantastic creature or power saints and godlike creatures, similar to the “look of the Gorgona” in Antic tradition or the all-seeing icons in Christianity. The switch of the meaning of the big eyes comes with the colonial time and Japanese opening to the western world, as well as from the modernist concepts of the virtue of the emotion instead of conservative masculine concepts of power and fear.
The western concept of the baby schema introduced by ethologist Konrad Lorenz in 1949, also affected the kawaii characters creation. The set of infantile physical features - the large head, round face and big eyes are perceived as cute not only in Japan but worldwide. Furthermore, the set of baby features evokes emotional and caretaking behavior which lays in the very concept of kawaii. Although the first scholarly researches on cuteness dates from 1950s, it is of great importance today. The latest contribution to the cuteness phenomenon go in the direction that in addition to causing gentle and friendly feelings the cute figures - babies, animals, and all fictional kawaii features causes and increases aggression, which is very motivating in working and or stress conditions.
The kawaii concept set on basics of baby schema considers the proportionally large head and contrasting shrinked tiny body. Within the normal human development, the brain is the organ that reaches adult size when the body is only half complete and the reproductive organs are only 10% developed. Following the logic of the human, kawaii figures are superficially infantile characters with large head and shrinked face, exceptionally small body and undeveloped or unexisting sexual organs or behavior. The latest feature is very important to the understanding of Japanese concept that the innocence and cuteness is predominant over the open sexuality or sex appeal. To be appealing is to be kawaii in terms of conceptual and not literal values, and in western world it is frequently mistaken with the infantile sexuality, even to an illegal juvenile sexuality. This discrepance between east and west understanding of the kawaii body is, thus a broad field for development of kawaii concepts within the adult and porn industry.
It’s no lie when said that the Japanese are obsessed with cats. Cats have influenced the arts from the earliest of times, and their greatest influence is found on the woodblock prints that are called ukiyo-e. In Japan, cats have their own shrines, even an island, so the kawaii world wouldn’t be what it is without their influence. Especially is important the concept of the maneki-neko (beckoning cat) which is originaly a common Japanese talisman bringing the good luck. The famous figurine of welcoming cat depicts a cat with an upright paw, and is placed both in private and public spaces. When we take a closer look to the faces of animals especially those considered as kawaii (baby animals, cute dogs and other mamals), most of their appereance fit to the baby schema because the animal's face features are close to each other. As the cute animals are dominating internet world in past ten years, some of their influence we definitely could link with kawaii culture.
Kawaii in manga is said to appear in the works of Makoto Takahashi and his shojo girls in 1950s were the first to have the sparkling doe-eyes with accentuated eyelashes. The main reason why the Western-like big-eye look was incorporated in the drawings of the Japanese artist was the visual power that enhanced the facial expressions of the characters, enabling the readers an instant connection to their character’s thoughts which made the reading all the more powerful.
As in whole Japanese culture Kawaii is crucial conceptvof the popular culture as well. It is part of every extension of the pop concepts and it appears everywhere from the clothing and fashion, to the food and porn. Here is some of many examples.
Almost all fashion industry styles in Japan have some hallmarks of kawaii, since the values it promotes are always in vogue. First and the most important dressing style is Lolita and it has numerous variations from Sweet to Gothic, Punk or Classic to Kodona which would be the boys’ style, men fashion answer to Lolita. Kuroi Niji style is literally the black rainbow and as the name suggests it means combining black with rainbow colors to get a “cute and creepy” attitude. Decora and different glam styles are also popular depiction of kawaii, since these styles are exaggerating in use of cute details and accessories and are closer to the stage appearance than to the everyday fashion.
It is important to mention the story of the cosplay for understanding the widespread of kawaii in all segments of Japanese life. Cosplay is costume play performance of wearing costumes of popular culture characters, frequently from manga and anime. Although the term cosplay is not Japanese-only, from 1990s on with the boom of the pop culture in Japan, it became a hallmark of contemporary Japanese culture. Highly detailed costumes accompanied with numerous fashion accessories and the appropriate performing and body minutia makes the this cultural practice complete. While in Western world this type of activity is reserved for carnivals and Mardigras parades, in Japan cosplay has many extensions – fan conferences, street style, photography, fashion, sex fetish scene and so on. Cosplay could also be understood as massive everlasting trend and a very important youth subculture in Japan.
In music world, kawaii is present mainly trough the J-Pop (Japanese) and K-Pop (Korean) genres but also, inspired many western performers. Although the roots of the Japanese pop music dated from the beginning of the 20s century in the works of Ryūkōka, Enka and Poppusu, as well as Japanese jazz and blues, similar as in the case of Euro-American pop – the new music started in 1960s with the extensive influences of the Beatles. Since 1990s, J Pop term is coined to assign the mainstream genre of commercial music that face enormous popularity and wide cultural impact. The Japanese idol and idol groups are subgenre of J-Pop focused on young stars, girls or boys bands idolized for their cuteness, kawaii in other words. The kawaii style and concept of Japanese pop has notable appropriations within the field of mainstream global pop in works of Gwen Stefani, Avril Lavigne, Miley Cyrus and many more.
As the kawaii culture is based on manga and anime world of fictional characters, in real life it is connected to comic con events and different kawaii parades and gatherings organized in Japan, Philipines and Korea, as well as in the rest of the world. Cosplay events, parades and walks, fan panels, karaoke competitions, design fests and exhibitions are only few features of endless universe of the kawaii events in real life.
The common food in Japan is mainly differentiated than the image of the Japanese cuisine present in the western world. While sushi is the hallmark of the Japanese specialties, bento would be more regular single meal consisted of rice, fish or meat and vegetables usually served in lunch boxes. In bento preparation, kawaii culture influences could be read throughout the very important process of decoration which could be different, mostly in one of two most popular styles - kyaraben (character bento) or oekakiben (picture bento). The art of food, the masterpiece of the packed lunch reaches the values of kawaii since its usually depicted as inevitably cute, complex and delighting.
As the kawaii esthetics is widely recognized and connected to the certain values, as well as globally popular, it largely affected the Japanese graphic and product design and packaging. It is especially important to emphasize the commercial character of the kawaii and the fact that everything could be attributed as kawaii induce the emotions and the feelings of joy and happiness. While the extensive cuteness overload within the various fields of commercial design, from the other hand provoke frequent associative linking of kawaii with abject, bizzare motifs and horror imagery in contemporary art. That emerging practice could be seen as the sharp critique of the commercialization of the concept of cuteness and naïve selling of the delicate kawaii values.
In 2015 Sony launched selfie digital camera model Cyber-shot™ DSC KW11 that is inspired and named by kawaii. On a first glance this camera is associated with kawaii as it comes in pastel tones of white, pink, purple, and green, with designed details by Swarovski and the product itself is inspired by perfume bottle. When it comes to performances, it has five different beauty effects - Skin Toning, Skin Smoothing, Eye Widening, Face Slimming, dan shine removal, as well as Toy effects, which brings kawaii to the photography.
Although there were billions of video and console games that could be regarded as kawaii – the fairly most important is recent gaming phenomenon Pokemon Go. Created as the reaction on the contemporary critics on the isolated indoor gaming world, Pokemon Go makes the outbreak by combining mobile game application with real life experience. With enormous popularity of the Pokemon Go game in 2016, the kawaii characters of Pokemon world once again went global and boost other Pokemon features such as cartoons, comics, music and even porn in many different cultures. Unfortunately, harmfulness of the kawaii culure was compromised by various incidents while playing the game and several international bans of the game.
The contemporary culture of the internet and hyper-developed world of social networks transferred the kawaii style into this broad field of presence. All the cute apparel in photo booth applications could be considered as kawaii since it is adding the cute effects of big eyes, long lashes, funny animated bows and hairclips. When snapchat evolved into a mix of private messaging and public content, their kawaii filters start being global trend. Regarding the contemporary technologies, the kawaii involvement of the PewDiePie – the most subscribed user on youtube – has significantly contributed to the global expansion and understanding of the kawaii and its values.
Japanese pornography has a long tradition, but in recent times it introduces new genres widely known as manga/hentai and video games/eroge. Although we all know how the world of hentai porn takes on the world, the latest trends in the Japanese porn industry include not only kawaii values of cuteness, infantile Lolita appearance or even cosplay, but the specific practice of using kawaii things as sex toys. And it rocks all the porn and adult sites all over the world. In last year's videos with cute girls wearing kawaii accessories and using sweet animal-like or cartoon-character action figures while having sex exploded like global trend. This is no wonder if we know that porn trends just follows popular culture and its presence in the mass segment of the audience, and from 1990s kawaii has widespread out of Japan.
Within the world of contemporary Japanese art, there are many artist figures somehow connected to kawaii concepts, from the esthetics and appearance to the core values of kawaii – cuteness, harmfulness, benevolent virtues and naïve existence, beauty and innocence of youth and the presexual world that is lost by growing up. Also, kawaii become a strong cultural association and the hallmark reference of Japanese art and culture so it is frequently present in the work of Japanese artists abroad, within the context of the western world of contemporary art. Trough the stating the most important artists relating to kawaii we will just ajar the door of the enormously sumptuous world of kawaii.
The dame of Japanese avant-garde and the most prominent figure of contemporary Japanese art, Yayoi Kusama is perceived in the western world as kawaii although she distancing herself from the inevitably commercial character of the kawaii word. On the other hand, the distinctive aesthetics of her work, the iconic polka dots and the infinite psychedelic worlds of repetitive motifs could be seen through the values of kawaii - cuteness and harmful caring safe places. Dealing with the themes of feminism, psychological terms of obsession and self-reflection, as well as strong sexual connotations makes her work lays in a wider field of avant-garde and contemporary abstract art.
The most famous Japanese contemporary artist, Takashi Murakami is inseparable from kawaii culture, as his work is described as fusion of commercial and fine art and attributed to Japanese pop art. His work is deeply rooted in Otaku culture and obsessive interest in anime and manga, as well as different kawaii representations. In 2000s Murakami developed personal style called Superflat, characterized by the mix of Pop, animé and Otaku content which later has evolved to recognized movement in Japanese contemporary art. Murakami’s artwork was recognized by super famous fashion and lifestyle brands such as Louis Vuiton even though his work is criticizing the “shallow emptiness of Japanese consumer society.”
Japanese painter Aya Toshikawa introduced the manga characters to the contemporary and Japanese painting, as her artistic practice is focused on oil on canvas depictions of female manga figures. Coming from the animation to fine art, Toshikawa explores the themes of Lolita sexuality constantly transgressing borders of kawaii cuteness in favor of salaciousness and seducing properties of manga world. Her paintings depict the provocative female figures in simplified abstract surroundings, pointing the ambivalent body expression and youth sexuality as both inviting and abject.
Besides it could be understand as kawaii – the work of Eddie Kang is part of the wide Animamix movement that embrace the artworks with in bright colors and electronic media light, inspired by popular culture characters, whose images posses a strong narrative character with interdisciplinary media in animation, comic books and video games. His main character is comic bear and it’s juxtaposed to robots and white little dolls and various other creatures. Although his primary focus is on painting and sculpture, Kang frequently works in mix media and the experiments with sound and light, as well as electronic media.
Under the Japanese neo-pop movement, Yoshitomo Nara created world of narrative paintings with children and animal characters which lay on the principles of kawaii culture. Figures with large and sinister eyes have strong expressive power of the main kawaii values – cuteness, love sharing and adorable, innocent-looking creatures that evokes emotional response. In his work, Yoshitomo Nara explores contemporary issues of alienation and desolation within global society and search for the lost innocence and pure emotions. His work is widely recognized, as his artworks are included in some of the greatest collections - MOMA in New York and MOCA in Los Angeles.
There is numerous interpretations and critiques on kawaii omnipresence in Japan and forming of Japanese "cute culture" - from the seeing kawaii as an export good, a mighty tool of cultural world domination to the potential embarrassment of the country abroad, with the kitschy pink world of cuteness as sole identification. The one thing is clear, kawaii is much more than "cuteness overload". It is hard to summarize the wholeness of the kawaii concept, especially to the audience out of Japan, but after the listing some of the meaningful manifestations and embodiments of kawaii, we hope we shed a light on this enormously important Japanese word.
Featured images: Yoshitomo Nara - Your Dog, 2002; Yayoi Kusama- Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away; Takashi Murakami - Superflat and Man of War, 2002, detail