Kawaii: Cuteness is a way of life

With Kawaii popularity at an all-time high, let’s explore its effect and importance on geek culture

For most of my life, I’ve had a collection of cute things, mostly stuffed animals, that I felt “close” to. That I felt needed to be taken care of, nurtured, loved. I often joked about my “problem” in being unable to resist being taken in by a cute stuffed animal. When I met my husband, I discovered that he, too, “suffered” from the same malady. We have both embraced this trait in ourselves and in each other since; shrugging off feelings of shame we used to associate with liking these cute things, and filling our home with adorable, joy-giving cuteness.

One culture that unabashedly embraces cuteness in all stages of life are the Japanese. They even have a word for it: kawaii. Kawaii basically means “cute” (but also has connotations of shyness and vulnerability), and has become a pervasive cultural aesthetic that’s embraced by Japanese people of all ages. Indeed, many consider it an indelible part of their cultural identity. They decorate their trains with anime characters. They declared Hello Kitty and Pikachu the Ambassadors of Japan. Cuteness equates with youthfulness and fun.

“Kawaii is a pure feeling of unabashed joy taken in the undemanding presence of innocent, harmless, adorable things.” – Joshua Paul Dale

For someone like me, a lover of all-things-cute, learning about kawaii was a revelation: you mean it’s ok to be an adult and like cute things!? Sign me up!

Where and when did Kawaii emerge?

Many people place the beginning of kawaii with a Japanese youth trend from the early 70s. Teens began developing their own childlike system of handwriting, called burikko ji, which combined bubbly styled kanji with cute symbols like hearts, stars, and drawings of animals and cartoon faces. Students were often banned from writing like this in school. Regardless of this fact, the trend took off and was picked up by companies as an effective way to market to the younger generation. Sanrio was one such company, who came out with their character Hello Kitty in 1974. Since then, and likely because of the monumental success Sanrio’s had with Hello Kitty and their other characters, other companies followed suit.

Kawaii isn’t just limited to cute cartoon characters; this world-wide phenomenon has managed to make its way into almost all aspects of daily life. At its core, kawaii is about endowing seemingly mundane things with their own personalities. Because the Japanese don’t associate liking cute things with being childish, like we often do in the US, it has been embraced in all aspects of Japanese culture, from what the Japanese wear, to how they present their food. Kawaii culture is all about celebrating these adorable things as the embodiment of positivity; kawaii is fun, innocent, and joyful. This is part of its mass appeal.

Kawaii Fashion

The most popular fashion trend in the kawaii subculture is called Lolita fashion, based on Victorian and Edwardian children’s clothing–think petticoats, parasols, and lots of lace, ribbons, and bows. It is divided into several of its own substyles, the most popular of which are gothic, sweet, and classic. Interestingly, the popularity of Lolita fashion in Japan has waned as its popularity worldwide has grown.

Another popular kawaii fashion trend is known simply as Decora. Decora is short for “decorations,” so the main idea here is that you wear any and all accessories you can get your hands on; the more colorful, the better. Kawaii accessories like furry phone cases or animal backpacks also fit into this style, and just like larger kawaii culture, kawaii fashion is for both women and men.

Kawaii Food

It should come as no surprise that the quintessentially Japanese bento boxes are often adorned with cute, kawaii characters. But to truly embrace kawaii in your food, it’s possible to take it a step further and turn your food into a kawaii work of art! This is exactly what many Japanese do – shaping rice or boiled eggs into cute characters and giving them faces and body features with other bits of food. This food-cuteness isn’t limited to the home; though they originated in Japan, there are now dozens of kawaii cafes all over the world.

Kawaii isn’t limited to the food we eat, either! The prevalence of a food-themed kawaii art style is extremely popular, as well, from artwork on clothing, stationery, or even emoji and chat-stickers. Imagine any food item, put a cute face on it, and, voila, you’ve got a kawaii food masterpiece! You can even turn your creation into a pillow, keychain dongle, or squishee.

Before I learned about kawaii culture and decided to embrace the joyful cuteness in my own life, I felt a degree of shame for how much I liked my cute things. I knew that part of it had to do with the perceived immaturity associated with toys and cute things, since these are things with which children play. There’s a stigma against adults in America (and possibly Western cultures in general) behaving too much like children. There are acceptable ways to “play” as an adult and carrying around stuffed animals just isn’t one of them. There’s a biblical maxim, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Many of us are hardwired to put away the toys and trappings of our youth and step out into the world, mature and serious.

Kawaii is “an escape into the infinite time, space, and promise of childhood”  Hui-Ying Kerr

And yet, the appeal of kawaii is felt all over the world, including in the US. It’s become increasingly easy to find cute things with which to collect, wear, or adorn our phones, notebooks, or even houses. Who doesn’t love the idea of a giant plushie pillow in the shape of a piece of french toast with a cute little kawaii face on it?  

We all have something cute in our lives, so what is your favorite kawaii possession? Share the cuteness in the comments below!