Kawaii: Japan’s Cute Cultural Phenomenon

Kawaii: Japan’s Cute Cultural Phenomenon

Kawaii 101

When we watch anime, read manga, or immerse ourselves in Japanese pop culture, we often hear the word “kawaii”. The word is loosely translated as “cute” but today it encompasses the meaning of “one’s face is aglow” and “the ability to be loved”.

It connotes lovability, embarrassment, shyness, and vulnerability.  The cute culture emerged from a national trend to a global happening. Now, it encompasses everything that is adorable and spreading through modern life – Jpop, games, social network, technology, entertainment, art bento box, kawaii fashion, and more!

What do we know?

The world, being immersed in Japanese pop culture, has various interpretations of the word kawaii. That being said, the following interpretations surfaced: as a pause filler in girls’ conversations, a person with minimal Japanese vocabulary uses it to describe everything that is cute (since it is the most ordinary form of praise) and it is also an alternative way to say “I love you”.

Debunking Our Kawaii Ideas

Even various meaning has emerged from such simple word, it does not constitute the following ideas or perceptions:

  • Although this unique cultural marker originated from Japan it continues to attract audiences and fans all over the world. As a matter of fact, it is highly celebrated in many international events such as Hawaii’s Kawaii Kon, London’s Hyper Japan Festival, and Kawaii parades in Korea and the Philippines.
  • Japan’s cult of cuteness is a long story that lasted for a century but it does not stop there for it is continuously evolving. Recently, unconventional use of the word has surfaced and now being used as adjective conjunctions where the meaning is different from cute. Examples are:

Guroi (grotesque) + kawaii= guro-kawaii

Kimoi (disgusting) + kawaii= kimo-kawaii 

  • Kawaii is closely associated with pastel colors, giant cutesy eyes, disproportional bodies, huge heads with minimal facial expressions. Thus, in order to create something kawaii imperfection and asymmetry is the key.
  • Fresh creation. Even if we are exposed to this culture recently, it is something that existed as early as the Taisho era (1912-1926) when a painter and poet named Takehisa Yumeji created the first-ever fancy goods for ladies.

Roots and evolution (History and Background)

The concept of kawaii first started in the late 1960s when university students refused to attend lectures and preferred to read manga over university textbooks. They wrote like a child where it featured curvy noodle-like lines and doodled stars, hearts, and cartoon faces. These teenage girls even wore cute dresses as a form of rebellion against traditional Japanese culture. And from there transpired the famous character in the world of kawaii, Hello Kitty!

Modern kawaii culture and how it translates today

The kawaii as we know it today is a phenomenon inseparable from the mass and mainstream society in the 20th century and it appears everywhere-clothing and fashion, music and entertainment, food, and many more.

Due to its popularity, there is a massive widespread of kawaii in all segments of Japanese life. Cute mascots are used to market businesses; kawaii aesthetics largely influenced the graphic, product design, and packaging (there is a hint of kawaii even in official signs and utilities plus you can even find cute dog faces engraved in manhole covers).

The contemporary culture of the internet and the world of social networks are packed with kawaii stickers and filters - cute effects of funny animated bows and hair clips, big eyes, and many more! (I’m sure you know LINE).

Japanese idol and idol groups, both male and female, incorporate the cuteness in their kawaii clothes, actions, style, concepts, and even in a kawaii script.

Moreover, games in different genres never fail to incorporate a hint of kawaii and of course there are games that are totally adorable just like Pokemon Go and Neko Atsume.

The snacks and foods in Japan are endorsed in cute packaging and oftentimes formed to copy a popular character and then there is Kawaii Bento box which is a masterpiece that embodies the values of kawaii because it is delightful, cute and enticing.

Furthermore, kawaii public events like cosplay involved men and women dressed up in cute kawaii clothing as a character from manga and anime.


The kawaii culture of Japan is deep-rooted yet ever-changing, it spreads its wings in every aspect of Japan’s society and it’s more than ready to take on the world (as if it didn’t already!).  It’s a symbol of individuality and self-expression, a meaningful manifestation and embodiment of Japan’s colorful culture.