By Jessica Hutchison

 

As you start to learn more about Japan and its modern culture, you will probably run into one word a lot: kawaii.

 

Chances are since you’re on the internet, you’ve already heard this word. Maybe even in real life you’ve seen a gaggle of middle school girls in animal-themed hoodies walking around and pointing at things saying “Kawaii desuuuu~” (emphasis on the “u” sound). I know I have.

 

But what does kawaii mean? And more importantly, why does it come up so much with modern Japanese culture?

 

Kawaii Culture

The actual word kawaii (可愛い) means cute. This is not to be confused with kowai (怖い) or kawaisou (かわいそう) which mean very different things”scary” and “pitiful” respectively.

 

Since about the 70s, the idea of cuteness has become so popular in Japan, an entire culture has been developed around the idea. This is known by scholars (yes, real scholars) as “Kawaii Culture.” The basic idea is that cute things are attractive and desirable. Everyone wants to look, act, and be cute. And everything around you can and will be cute.

 

You’ll hear a lot of Japanese people coo this word about pretty much anything. I even had some Japanese friends tell me that my given name was very kawaii, which surprised me as “Jessica” is probably one of the most common American names ever. Also, I’m not sure how a name can be cute, but they thought it was.

 

There’s a lot of different ways to be kawaii, so I’ll break them down for you by category.

 

Writing and Texting

As far as I can tell, this is kind of how Kawaii Culture started. Girls started writing in big bubbly letters to try and come across as more cute.

 

Honestly, we do this in America as well. Remember in middle school when every girl would have the exact same super bubbly handwriting? Most of us got past that phase because it’s hard to read when all the letters look like circles.

 

Japanese girls today will usually try to keep their handwriting cute. It works though. They have the most adorable handwriting. And it certainly gives off a young, feminine vibe when you read it.

 

This idea of cute writing has also extended into texting. The biggest example of this is emoticons. (‐^▽^‐)

 

When you text in Japan, you have to use emoticons. You have to. If you don’t, people will think you’re mad at them. (´;Д;`)

 

There are literally thousands of different emoticons you can use, and your phone will come preloaded with a ton of them. If you add a Japanese keyboard on your English phone, it may even automatically give you some too. Mine did. (◎0◎)꒳ᵒ꒳ᵎᵎᵎ

 

The key here is learning what the different faces mean. I try not to use them unless I can tell exactly what vibe they are giving off. There are some good online databases to show you different types and the emotions they portray, so if you wanna use emoticons, get looking. ╭( ・ㅂ・)و

 

Fashion

This is probably what comes to mind when most people think of Kawaii Culture. You might think of different fashion styles such as Harajuku or Lolita. While those certainly do fall under the category of Kawaii Culture, it’s a bit more widespread than that.

 

Most Japanese girls try to dress cute. Oversized sweaters, shapeless dresses, cute bows, and ribbons are all common in everyday Japanese fashion for girls. From what I could see in Japan, most girls tried to look cute before looking sexy. Sure, they would show a lot of leg, but they would usually pair tights or leggings with really oversized sweaters or shirts.

 

I loved shopping for accessories in Japan because of Kawaii Culture. They always had really cute hair clips with bows on them. I kind of felt like a five-year-old when I wore them, but a really cute five-year-old. A lot of high school girls go for fun, colorful hair clips. That’s probably because they have to wear uniforms, and hair accessories are an easy way to express yourself when your wardrobe options are minimal.

 

An interesting thing in Japan is that men aren’t really afraid of having cute things too. I saw so many men with pink phones. It’s kind of a little thing, but can you think of a guy in America having a pink phone? It doesn’t really happen here, yet it was totally normal there. They wanted cute pink phones too. I also saw a lot of guys carrying around purses. Not “man purses,” I’m talking legitimate Gucci purses, definitely designed for women. Kawaii culture is definitely more female-oriented, but men have their place there too.

 

Speech and Mannerisms

This is a pretty stereotypical category of Kawaii Culture. A lot of girls will talk and act in a cute way. This usually means talking in higher voices (though some of them just have high voices) and using different language patterns to show how adorable they are.

 

Girls will often use different mannerisms with their body language too. One I noticed was that girls tend to turn their feet in when standing. While an American woman might take a stronger standing position, her feet turned out and maybe her hip popped, Japanese girls don’t do that. Standing with your feet in is a bit more vulnerable-looking, and it looks cuter. I’m not sure if it was subconscious for the girls I observed in Japan, or if girls just want to be cute so they stand like that.

 

Products

When you go shopping in Japan, you’ll notice there’s a lot of cute things you can buy. Lots of notebooks and phone cases will have flowers or animals on them (mine has cats on it right now). You’ll find a lot of pinks and pastels with ribbons or lace on them. You can see this on office supplies, kitchenware, home decor, pretty much anything you want to buy. I even got a coin purse shaped like a bear.

 

Another thing you may notice while out shopping is the vast amount of adorable characters. You can often get entire sets of kitchenware or office supplies with a specific character on everything. The characters are designed to be cute and sellable and are often animals like cats or bears (Hello Kitty, Doraemon, and Rilakkuma). Disney and Studio Ghibli are also cute, so you will see a lot of those characters around too.

 

Folklore and Culture

Shopping isn’t the only place you’ll find characters. Every town in Japan has its own mascot (My favorite is the one for the Osaka Airport. It’s so cute.) and you’ll usually see it in the train station or around town. You can also see characters as decals on trains or set up in front of shops to draw people in.

 

My favorite example of this was when I went to Gobo in Wakayama Prefecture. In the train station, there was a picture of an adorable little girl dressed in traditional Japanese clothes. Later, we were biking around and we ran into this truly terrifying old statue of a woman (she had black paint running from her eyes in the worst way). I asked who the woman was and my friend informed me it was the town’s character. This horrific statue was meant to be the same girl as the one in the train station. I realized that if they could somehow make that statue into some sort of cute character, they could do it to anything.

 

And boy did they. A lot of Japanese folklore has been made cute by Kawaii Culture. A good story about this is when I learned about kappa. A kappa is a river demon that drowns children and eats their intestines. Sounds adorable, right? I didn’t think so either. But I kept seeing really cute depictions of Kappa everywhere. So I finally asked my Japanese friend if kappa were cute or scary. She answered without hesitation that they were cute. And that’s because Japan has managed to portray even a river demon as an adorable character.

 

Conclusion

So the moral of this story is that everything can and will be cute in Japan. From your clothes to your name, you can be absolutely adorable, even if you are a terrifying river demon. And that is Kawaii Culture.

 

This is a really fun part of modern Japanese culture, and it’s one of my favorite things to bring into my own life. But you don’t need to walk around in an animal hoodie and call everything “Kawaii~” to enjoy this part of Japanese life.

 

One of my favorite things to use is Japanese emoticons. They also make your texting more exciting. I also like using cute stationary when I send letters, just because it’s more interesting to get a letter covered in cute pictures of ducks. You can get yourself a fun phone case and maybe some colorful pens to use at school or work.

 

Just because you’re an adult (or a man), doesn’t mean you have to avoid cute things. The Japanese certainly don’t.

 

If you want to learn more about modern Japanese culture, check out my articles on Japanese holidays or learn why Japanese people wear masks. You can also learn more about adjectives like kawaii and how to use them while speaking Japanese by checking out our daily podcast.

 

Have fun learning more about Japan, and stay kawaii~! (^ _ ^)/

 

 

Photo Courtesy: Gordon Cheung, Flickr.com