A very brief look at the culture of kawaii
Updated: Feb 4, 2019
The word ‘kawaii’ is Japanese for ‘cute’ or ‘lovable’, but most people who aren’t familiar with the term can probably still identify something adorable that matches the description. Think of the characters from the books or cartoons of your early childhood, and at least one of them will be considered kawaii.
The wider kawaii culture we know today (and how this moved into popular iconology, rather than fashion and behaviour) started in 1970s Japan, when teenagers wanted to break away from their conservative, traditional upbringings.
Writing was one way this subculture started to challenge the norm: messages were written horizontally (as with Western language) and the text also became more childlike, rounded and stylised. Illustrations were added - a star here, a cute face there, some pastel-coloured highlights - adding to the childlike nature of the culture.
It was proving popular and, by 1974, stationery firm Sanrio got in on the act and introduced us to Hello Kitty. She epitomises what kawaii is: she’s cute, has simple facial features, and dresses in pastels. Kitty White - her real name - is also from London, a trendy detail for her early fans in Japan.
She shares the stage with other kawaii Sanrio characters too - such as My Melody (a sweet forest-dwelling bunny), Gudetama (a lazy egg) and, most recently, accountant Aggretsuko (who even has her own series on Netflix).
But what do these lovable friends have in common? The look.
Kawaii is a celebration of “sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine, gentle, vulnerable, innocent and weak”. And what’s more pure than a simple face?
Most kawaii characters have two eyes, a small nose and (sometimes) a mouth on a large head, with a black outline, usually in pastel colours and with very few features. They’re childlike, even - mirroring the stylised text made popular by Japan’s 70s teenagers.
Miffy (who predates modern-day kawaii by nearly 20 years) is another defining character of the culture. This bunny has the eyes and nose, black outline and simple design - and she’s of primary or elementary school age (just like Hello Kitty).
Pikachu (the cute face of the Pokemon franchise) is a development of the kawaii look: the species still has a look that’s easy for children to imitate, but also has extra highlights - check out the rosy cheeks and sparkly eyes, for example. But his electric superpowers means he’s less vulnerable than a young bunny. Or a cat.
Pusheen is more traditionally kawaii. This tabby-grey cat has similar features to Hello Kitty and Miffy, but does express a wide range of emotions in her comics (see how fellow cat Pip thinks about what can be eaten - and it’s not Pusheen’s delicious biscuits).
But why do people like kawaii today? With its 90s revival spearheaded by the likes of Hello Kitty, Tamagochis and Pokemon, some said at the time that kawaii was an outlet for caring - the sociologist Merry White stated “Hello Kitty needs protection”, and that's what attracts people to the subculture. Juvenile cats need to be cared for, as do infant rabbits and mice-like fantasy heroes with superpowers. And those digital pets we haven’t fed since 1998.
Some believe it’s more to do with people wanting to feel connected to their childhood. The nostalgia of that feeling is comforting - do we see these characters as transitional objects, like we would our favourite teddy bear or blanket? Maybe: some of us (such as me) first encountered these characters when we were small children.
And maybe that’s the point. Kawaii makes the world a little less scary - and there’s no harm in that.
This is my opinion: do you agree? Let me know your views on this or how I write these articles - I'd like to hear what you think!