“Cuteness is not just a fad in the fashion cycle of Japanese pop culture; it is more of a ‘standard’ aesthetic of everyday life” An excerpt from Wearing ideology, Brian J. Mcveigh
Hello Kitty, Decotti, Angelic Pretty, Baby the Star Shines Bright; from toys to clothing to cute policeman and government announcements, Japan has been known as the founder of Kawaii (可愛) (the Japanese word for cuteness) since the 1970s. What makes a nation put in an effort to produce cute things? I will investigate the power of cuteness based on my thesis research, “Power of Cute” to try to explain this phenomenon as a foreign graphic designer in the United States.
What is Kawaii (Cute)?
“Kawaii is a derivation of a term whose principle meaning is ‘shy’ or ’embarrassed,’ and whose secondary meaning is ‘pathetic’, ‘vulnerable’, ‘darling’, ‘loveable’ and ‘small.’
Kawaii can also be characterized as sweet (amai), adorable (airashii), innocent (mujaki), pure (junsui), simple (kantan), genuine (shojiki), gentle (yasashii), vulnerable (kizutsukeyasui), weak (kawaiso), and inexperienced (mijuku). It has been well-described as a style which is “infantile and delicate at the same time as being pretty,” according to Cutie in Japan
When did Kawaii Start?
“The culture of cuteness emerged during the 1970s. The ‘girl’ became the central target of a new consumer culture, and variety of ‘character goods’ and other items were produced. A girl’s private room became her sanctuary, separating her from the rest of the world, encouraging her identification with cute objects, and impelling her to project the self-image of the ‘cute, innocent I.’ In that process, the word kawaii, meaning ‘cute’, began to incorporate its classical meaning, kawaiso (pitiful). Otsuka argues that a girl’s perception of herself as ‘cute’ and the ‘innocent (pitiful) I,’ who survives only in the security of a closed room, encourages a closed mode of communication in which its participants share a homogenous emotional time-space, excluding others from their haven.”
Taken from a quote by Midori Matsui
Other research pointed out that Kawaii started to flourish in the 1970s through cute, creative underground writing by teenage girls:
“Many teenage girls began to write laterally using mechanical pencils. These pencils produced very fine lines, as opposed to traditional Japanese writing that varied in thickness and was vertical. Also, the girls would write in big, round characters and they added little pictures to their writing, such as hearts, stars, smiley faces, and English letters. These pictures would be inserted randomly and made the writing very hard to read. As a result, this writing style caused much controversy and was banned in many schools. During the 1980s, however, this cute new writing was adopted by magazines and comics and was put onto packaging and advertising. From 1984-1986, Yamane Kazuma studied the development of cute handwriting, which he called Anomalous Female Teenage Handwriting, in depth. Although it was commonly thought that the writing style was something that teenagers had picked up from comics, he found that teenagers had come up with the style themselves, as part of an underground movement.”
“Later, cute handwriting became associated with acting childish and using infantile slang words. Because of this growing trend, companies, such as Sanrio, came out with cartoon characters like Hello Kitty. Hello Kitty was an immediate success and the obsession with cute continued to progress in other areas as well. The 1980s also saw the rise of cute idols, such as Seiko Matsuda, who is largely credited with popularizing the trend. Women began to emulate Seiko Matsuda and her cute fashion style and mannerisms, which emphasized the helplessness and innocence of young girls. No longer limited to teenagers, however, the spread of making things as cute as possible, even common household items, was embraced by people of all ages. Now there are airplanes painted with Pikachu on the side, and each of Japan’s 47 prefectures, the Tokyo police, and the government television station all have their own cute mascots. Currently, Sanrio’s line of more than 50 characters takes in more than $1 billion a year and remains the most successful company to capitalize on the cute trend.” Taken from wikipedia about kawaii
What’s the difference between Kawaii and Cuteness in the west?
The American version of cuteness is different from Kawaii, and as a result, cuteness in the West isn’t as popular as the Japanese Kawaii aesthetic in Japan. People in the West want to be independent as early as teenagers, which conflicts with Kawaii‘s meaning of being childish and having the hope of not being responsible or independent: a “kidult,” or part of the Peter Pan Syndrome. It links to the Asian culture where people only move out of their houses when they get married and are actually being independent. This is contrary to America, where people move out and become independent as early as when they reach 18 years old, and believe that they have better control of their lifestyles as adults.
“Cuteness is not an aesthetic in the ordinary sense of the word and must by no means be mistaken for the physically appealing, the attractive. In fact, it is closely linked to the grotesque, the malformed.”
“The aesthetic of cuteness creates a class of outcasts and mutations, a ready-made race of lovable inferiors whom both children and adults collect, patronize, and enslave in the protective concubinage of vast harems of homely dolls and snugglesome misfits. Something becomes cute not necessarily because of a quality it has but because of a quality it lacks, a certain neediness and inability to stand alone, as if it were an indigent starveling, lonely and rejected because of a hideousness we find more touching than unsightly.”
“[Cuteness] generates enticing images like these ugliness and dejection, cuteness has become essential to the marketplace, in that advertisers have learned that consumers will ‘adopt’ products that create, often in their packaging alone, an aura of motherlessness, ostracism, and melancholy.” Taken from a quote by Daniel Harris
Why Kawaii being popular?
In Asian culture, Kawaii became popular due to the popularity of the ‘female as princess’ syndrome, where women grow up and miss their childhood and believe that they should be treated like princesses. This entails them the right to be irresponsible and stay home all day daydreaming of being a princess. They tend to follow Kawaii objects or fashion trends because of childhood nostalgia.
Bunny said, “I am beautiful princess!”
Monkey replied, “Ohhh no, her ‘female as princess’ sickness appears again!”
“Cute style is anti-social; it idolizes the pre-social. By the pre-social world otherwise known as childhood cute fashion blithely ignores or outright contradicts values central to the organization of Japanese society and the maintenance of the work ethic. By acting childish Japanese youth tried to avoid the conservative’s moral demand that they exercise self-discipline (enryo) and responsibility (sekinin) and tolerate (gaman) severe conditions (kuro, kudo) whilst working hard (doryoku) in order to repay their obligation (giri, on) to society. Rather than working hard cuties seem to just wanted to play and ignore the rest of society completely. The overwhelming desire of young Japanese wrapped up in nostalgic cute culture were to escape from the restrictions governing their lives. Ultimately, for Cuties, as for Sid Vicious, there was NO FUTURE; in fact, there was not even a present.” Taken from a quote by Sharon Kinsella
Many more Asian people suffer with princess and prince syndrome, or peter pan syndrome, than Westerners. But Kawaii seems to grow more strongly rooted inside the Asian culture every day, even going as far as to soften up the relationships between people business situations.
Tsuji (Sanrio CEO) explains why cute is always appropriate in gifts. “A formal gift makes you stiffen up,” he says. “It may make the receiver feel a need to return the favor. Something humorous is like you’re making fun of the person. It’s hard to maintain friendships if you’re giving them skeleton heads and silly things. Something cute,” he pounds his sternum with his fist, “gets you right here.” Taken from a quote by Mary Roach.
Perhaps if Kawaii continues to put a smile on everyone’s face, the trend and the people who follow it will stay forever young.
About the writer
In 2006 I founded my own graphic design company Skinniwini, a design firm that designs objects and graphics with a smile and a focus on Kawaii style. Also, there is research about random cuteness which I write about on my blog Skinni inner inspiration outter space. I opened my Kawaii store Skinniwini to sell my version of Kawaii goodies. As a Chinese girl who was forced to soak in Japanese popular culture in the 80’s, the cult of cuteness dominated my childhood and teenage years. Because the economy was flourishing in the 1980s, many countries around Japan were the target market of the cuteness. Hong Kong was one of them.