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(Research Paper) Kawaii: Culture of Cuteness

Discussion in 'All Things Japanese' started by jread, May 3, 2005.

  1. jread

    jread 先輩

    Hey everyone :) This is my research paper for my final grade in the "Introduction to the Culture of Japan" course I'm taking at St. Edward's University. I thought I would post it here if anyone was interested in reading it. There are very few sources on kawaii culture, so finding enough research for this paper was no easy task. Also, please ignore my lack of writing abilities... I'm a computer science major, lol.

    Jeremy Read
    Dr. Thomas M. Evans
    A-JAPN 1310

    Kawaii: Culture of Cuteness​


    Kawaii, meaning ツ“cuteツ” or ツ“childlikeツ”, is the term used for the phenomenon of Japanese obsession with cute characters, toys, foods, games, house wares 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.

    History of Kawaii

    The modern term kawaii emerged in the 1970s when Japanese teenagers, mainly female, began using an informal and ツ“cuteツ” style of writing. This new style was more westernized 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 ツ“cute writingツ” and speaking was not well received by most adults and was even banned in some schools, being 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.

    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 very large 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ツ’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 effective use of the burriko girl look to win the affection of males and the admiration of females. Burriko is defined as a ツ“woman who acts like a childツ”, and Matsuda was excellent at this. She wore clothing that made her resemble a child in a womanツ’s body, was bow-legged and talked in the accent of a ツ“Kyushu country bumpkinツ”. 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 through great lengths to mold 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ツ’ 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 ツ“childishnessツ” 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 own 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-centered 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 percent of young adults in Japan between ages 18 and 30 liked or loved kawaii-looking people, while kawaii attitudes and behavior were enjoyed by 51 percent (1).

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

    Kawaii Products In Present Japan

    Kawaii has gone from a smaller subculture in Japan to being 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ツ’s article on Japanese cuteness mentions All Nippon Airwaysツ’ decorating of three Boeing 747ツ’s with Pokemon characters, inside and out, as well as ツ“backhoes painted to look like giraffes and police kiosks fixed up like gingerbread houses.ツ”(1). 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 of 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 an 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ツ’ pictures. These characters win their appeal by maintaining a cute and submissive demeanor, 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 is possible to create products that appeal to both young people and adults, and it seems that the 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 definitely say that kawaii has done a great job of making the world a cuter place.

    Works Cited​

    Hjorth, Larissa. "Textperts and other Thumbomena: Mobile phones and Japanese cute culture." Natural Selection Magazine - New Zealand and Australian Art Reviews 2004. 23 Apr. 2005 <http://naturalselection.org.nz/archive/2/2.4_Larissa_Hjorth.pdf>.

    Kinsella, Sharon. "Cuties In Japan." (1995). 19 Apr. 2005 <http://basic1.easily.co.uk/04F022/036051/Cuties.html>.

    Roach, Mary. "Cute Inc." Wired Dec. 1999. 01 May 2005 <http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/7.12/cute_pr.html>.

    Schilling, Mark. "Matsuda, Seiko." The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture. New York, NY: Weatherhill, Inc., 1997.

    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. Keyword: kawaii.

    Tosca, Susana P. "The Appeal of Cute Monkeys". Google Scholar. SEU Library, Austin. 25 Apr. 2005. Keyword: kawaii.
    • Like Like x 1
  2. Iron Chef

    Iron Chef Villain

    Interesting read. Glad you managed to find the information you were looking for to be able to finish this paper. Hope you get an A! :)
  3. Pachipro

    Pachipro JREF Resident Alien

    Enjoyed the read. Thanks. Well written. :)
  4. jread

    jread 先輩

    Thanks guys :D
  5. Glenn

    Glenn 一切皆苦

    From rebellion and statement of individuality to multi-billion dollar industry, you say? Wow, that sounds a lot like the music industry in the US (and I'm guessing all over the world). Makes me think of post-modernism....

    By the way, that's a killer paragraph. I especially love the last sentence! :D:D
  6. Prizm

    Prizm 先輩

    I found your article very interesting, well done!

  7. Raidenmaru

    Raidenmaru 後輩

    Interesting paper, I'll have to quote you sometime as a reference. Google Scholar, however, is not a publisher last time I heard, and should Never be heard in any reference list.
  8. Iron Chef

    Iron Chef Villain

    I doubt his professor will hold him to MLA-style criterion given the nature of the course and the subject matter at hand, heh. Where exactly would one find scholarly sources or other published academia on this topic except the web for that matter? 8-p
  9. ralian

    ralian 長靴をはいた猫やねん

    To Jread

    I just remembered when I was a teenage girl.
    I used to go to Sanrio shop to buy some kawaii goods.
    Those days are gone......... :bluush:
  10. alexriversan

    alexriversan Sempai

    i appreciate this constructive research paper for its usefulness
  11. jread

    jread 先輩

    Thanks for all of your compliments! I'm glad that you guys found the paper interesting and please feel free to use it as a source for your own research if you so desire. There are very, very few academic sources on the kawaii phenomenon.

    I was not listing Google Scholar as a publisher but rather the database used (note the listing of library and city where the article was accessed as well as the keyword used). I apologize if the formatting is wrong as I can't stand the nitpicky MLA formatting rules and was never good at them :smoke:
  12. A5573A

    A5573A 先輩

    As I know, White-collar female in H.K buy lots of Hello.Kitty products.

    H.K=Hong Kong=Hello. Kitty :)
  13. Kama

    Kama Okama XD

    I read article on this matter in Polish. except 2 last paragraphs, it's almost exactly the same. That's too bad. :(
  14. jread

    jread 先輩

    Just a bump post. I had forgotten about writing this thing :)
  15. Gentleman10

    Gentleman10 Sempai

    Thanks for the read :)
  16. LisaT

    LisaT 後輩

    Good stuff! Never heard of the 'Peter Pan' complex
  17. MorisT

    MorisT Banned

    Japan's "kawaii" (cute) pop culture style is making an impact on Britain's youth and influencing the wider society, according to experts.
    Over the last 10 years, the country's youngsters have started to embrace the whole spectrum of kawaii ツ― from the extremes of "cosplay" (costume play) down to the purchasing of accessories adorned with cute "anime" and manga characters.
    Kawaii has also crept into mainstream art and fashion, even though members of the public may not actually be aware of the fact, according to analysts who recently attended a panel discussion in London on the kawaii craze.:p
    But observers are divided on the extent to which kawaii has taken hold and argue that Britain's cute culture is more superficial than Japan's.

    The cute phenomenon in Japan took off in the 1970s and is typified by Sanrio Corp.'s Hello Kitty brand of products. But it also includes people dressing up in "Lolita-style" Victorian clothing and fans of cute "moe" manga and anime characters.
    Helen McCarthy, a British-based expert on Japanese popular culture, said that over the last 10 years ツ― with the growth of the Internet ツ― this culture has become more visible in Britain, particularly in urban centers where there are more opportunities for people to purchase kawaii items and dress up.
    "Kawaii has made inroads but is not embedded yet," she said, adding that its influence can be seen in TV shows and subway posters.
    Fashion and accessory designers have also been affected by kawaii, according to Carri Mundane, who created the Cassette Playa range of clothes that were on display in London's Barbican arts complex Jan. 20.
    Mundane, who draws great inspiration from Japan and describes her bright clothes as "cartoon couture," believes cuteness is becoming more mainstream in Britain, saying that "kawaii is a phenomenon, look at the popularity of the Alessi (kitchen utensils) range of products. It's all about play, fantasy, color and imagination."
    She thinks kawaii can be subversive and dark ツ― often empowering young women ツ― and because of this it flourishes in traditional countries like Britain and Japan.
    A London evening newspaper last year claimed the kawaii trend was gripping the capital, making reference to adults' desire to become children again by eating cupcakes and watching cute animals on YouTube.
    But McCarthy doesn't think the trend for manufacturers to adorn utensils with cute characters really amounts to Britons embracing the cute culture, whatever the marketing men might want us to believe.
    "Kawaii motifs are used as an accessory in Britain, rather than embedded into a lifestyle, and I think that people tend to see them as a counterpoint to something," McCarthy said.
    "The idea of cuteness as a philosophy of living ツ― that softness, openness and childlike attitude ツ― really hasn't made waves in Britain at all.
    "We (British) are still quite a masculine and patriarchal culture, and we have never embraced the cute, soft side like France and Japan. We are not ready to go full-on cute yet and whether we ever will be is a moot point."
  18. Half-n-Half

    Half-n-Half 先輩


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