Research paper written by Jeremy Read, March 2005

Introduction to cuteness

Kawaii, meaning "cute" or "childlike", is the term used for the phenomenon of the Japanese obsession with cute characters, toys, foods, games, houseware and fashion. This affinity for kawaii has grown at a tremendous rate over the past three decades and has become an integral part of Japanese society. This paper will explore the history of the kawaii culture, the role of Japanese females in its promotion and the extent of its presence in modern Japan and the rest of the world.

Hello Kitty Hato Bus

History of kawaii

The modern term kawaii emerged in the 1970s when Japanese teenagers, mainly female, began using an informal and "cute" style of writing. This new style was more westernised than traditional Japanese, using a left-to-right format as well as many English terms. The writing was decorated with things such as hearts, happy faces and multiple exclamation marks. There were also many slang words created during this time by using childish pronunciations of regular words. This new "cute writing" and speaking was not well received by most adults and was even banned in some schools, which is seen as a rebellion against traditional Japanese culture (Kinsella).

In the 1980s kawaii gained enormous popularity, dominating Japanese pop culture throughout the decade. Many young people felt that adulthood was too harsh and strict, requiring too much responsibility; they viewed it as a loss of freedom. Instead of rebelling by aggression or being sexually provocative as in the West, they rebelled by being cute and childlike, cherishing immaturity and fun.

Mito Komon Hello Kitty Natto

Companies such as Sanrio (creators of Hello Kitty) and a few others decided to capitalize on this, and began experimentally by creating products that would appeal to this younger population. These kawaii products ended up being a huge success and were the beginning of a huge new industry in Japan. Cute goods were developed to add fun and happiness to ordinary household items, cute clothing was created to make adults look more childlike, and foods such as ice cream, candies and cakes gained popularity since they were associated with children (Kinsella). The use of kawaii characters was also to dress up otherwise non-enjoyable things such as dentist's offices or medicine packages (Roach).

The 80s also saw the emergence of cute idols, such as pop singer/actress Seiko Matsuda, who is credited for greatly contributing to the popularity of kawaii culture. Matsuda made practical use of the burriko girl look to win the affection of males and the admiration of females. Burriko is defined as a "woman who acts like a child", and Matsuda was excellent at this. She wore clothing that made her resemble a child in a woman's body, was bow-legged and talked in the accent of a "Kyushu country bumpkin". She used these aspects to her advantage, charming her audiences with her childish cuteness (Schilling). Matsuda paved the way for what would be a very female-driven kawaii culture in Japan;
other young women admired her independence and nonconformity, and millions began to emulate her.

Japanese Women and kawaii

The major force behind the popularity of kawaii culture is that of Japanese women. As was mentioned earlier, the burriko style created by pop idol Seiko Matsuda was widely adopted by young women across the country. These women, who went to great lengths to mould their speech, dress and mannerisms to fit this style, embraced the idea of the helpless, submissive and cute look of a young girl. The burriko style also appealed to men in Japan as it could be related to the idea of lolicom, or Lolita complex. There is a phenomenon in the country of the little girl being seen as a sex object, as can be observed by the sale of schoolgirls' panties in vending machines as well as pornographic magazines illustrating junior high school girls (Roach). Given this observation, it is possible to assume that the "childishness" of kawaii girls was not entirely innocent and it has been noted that many of these young women used this to their advantage, dating multiple boys who took them out to dinner and bought them fancy gifts.

The young women taking part in kawaii culture effectively evolved it into a form of power and independence for Japanese females. Many of them were unmarried and used it as a means to express their freedom from married life, which could be very oppressive and boring for Japanese women. These women, many of whom were O.L.s (office ladies) and had their means of support, would spend a great deal of their income on the latest kawaii fashions. They became a subculture that valued consumerism and materialism and were seen as rebels against the more conservative traditional Japanese society. Critics of kawaii accused many of its followers of being self-centred and avoiding growing up and becoming real adults. They felt that this younger culture did not have the betterment of society in their best interests due to their refusal to conform (Kinsella). This criticism did not affect the views of kawaii by young people, though, as seen in a poll administered by Sharon Kinsella in 1992. This poll showed that 71 per cent of young adults in Japan between ages 18 and 30 liked or loved kawaii-looking people, while kawaii attitudes and behaviour were enjoyed by 51 per cent.

Though kawaii had most of its representation in Japanese females, the males in the country were also beginning to become involved. The "Peter Pan" syndrome began to afflict many Japanese men who wanted to be included in this return to youth. The presence of kawaii in today's Japan shows a substantial number of men participating in the phenomenon (Roach).

Kawaii Products In Present Japan

Kawaii has gone from a smaller subculture in Japan to be an integral part of Japanese culture as a whole. There is an overwhelming amount of modern items featuring kawaii themes, ranging from anime and manga to actual municipal buildings. Mary Roach's article on Japanese cuteness mentions All Nippon Airways' decorating of three Boeing 747's with Pokemon characters, inside and out, as well as "backhoes painted to look like giraffes and police kiosks fixed up like gingerbread houses." Cuteness has also found its way onto items such as ATM cards, cellular phones and even prophylactics. It is believed that much of this increase in popularity in kawaii items is due to the Japanese tradition of gift giving . Many Japanese feel that kawaii gifts are best in business or guest situations where the items can make the atmosphere more fun. Formal gifts do not seem to be as effective at lightening the mood of an otherwise more serious atmosphere (Roach).

The characters associated with kawaii have astounding popularity these days. Pokemon revenues are up to $5 billion, and Hello Kitty appears on more than 20,000 products (Roach)(Terrell). Teenage girls in Japan even treat kawaii characters as if they were celebrities, writing them fan mail and decorating their walls with the characters' pictures. These characters win their appeal by maintaining a cute and submissive demeanour, often having stubby arms and legs as well as lacking mouths (Roach). Also, the appeal of kawaii is not limited to young girls; Japanese people of all ages, genders and social classes are participating in the kawaii craze. The kitsch value of kawaii makes it possible to create products that appeal to both young people and adults, and it seems that Japanese grown-ups long to return to the days of childhood, whereas adults in countries such as the United States prefer the exciting memories of adolescence (Tosca)(Roach).

Kawaii has also begun to spread out of Japan and into the rest of the world. The Internet has made it possible for people in other countries to become involved in kawaii culture and companies marketing the products have started to take advantage of this. Many products in Japan are being marketed in the United States where they are very popular with children, though they have not quite caught on with the adult population. This is predicted to change in the future, though, as there are more stores providing kawaii products targeted to adults in the U.S. (Roach).


The kawaii culture is a very interesting phenomenon to study. It has gone from a form of rebellion and a statement of individuality for Japanese women to a multi-billion dollar industry with worldwide consumers. Whether or not the day comes when we all drive our Pikachu car to our pink home with kitten ears, we can say that kawaii has done a great job of making the world a cuter place.

Works Cited

  1. Hjorth, Larissa. "Textperts and other Thumbomena: Mobile phones and cute Japanese culture" (PDF); Natural Selection Magazine – New Zealand and Australian Art Reviews 2004. 23 Apr. 2005
  2. Kinsella, Sharon. "Cuties In Japan", PDF (1995). 19 April 2005
  3. Roach, Mary. "Cute Inc." Wired Dec. 1999. 01 May 2005
  4. Schilling, Mark. "Matsuda, Seiko." The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture. New York, NY: Weatherhill, Inc., 1997.
  5. Terrell, Kenneth. "Art That's Seriously Cute" U.S. News & World Report. 05 Jan. 2004: 72. Academic Search Premier. SEU Library, Austin. 01 Apr. 2005
  6. Tosca, Susana P. "The Appeal of Cute Monkeys" (PDF). Google Scholar. SEU Library, Austin. 25 Apr. 2005.
Keyword: kawaii, 可愛い.