The culture of kawaii is taking the world by storm. What is it? What does it mean? What is kawaii and what isn’t kawaii? Today, we’ll learn the various aspects of the Japanese kawaii aesthetic so that the next time you throw “Kawaii!!” into conversation, you can do it with confidence!
How to Use Kawaii: A Field Guide
Kawaii (cute) in written Japanese usually looks like this:
You might also see it written in its kanji form:
The concept of kawaii dates all the way back to the Heian period with the word 顔映し (kawa yushi), which meant “a flushing red face.” The word has evolved into modern Japanese to mean “able to be loved.”
And what better image to convey the historical and modern meanings of the word than the face of a child?
In essence, that is where kawaii and the culture surrounding it lies, in the cute and childlike.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of kawaii presents itself in Japan today.
The Lowdown on Kawaii
The flowchart of the kawaii hierarchy goes something like this:
|Very Kawaii||Normal Kawaii||Not Technically Kawaii, but Still Has Its Charms||Neutral||Not Kawaii|
|Babies, children in nursery school, puppies, kittens, alpacas, etc.||Elementary school children, beautiful women, feminine men, googly-eyed anime characters, a Hello Kitty-shaped rice ball, etc.||A mug with a Starbucks label (fashionable to the Japanese but not kawaii), an Android phone (because only iPhones are kawaii), Studio Ghibli characters (cool and masterfully drawn, but not kawaii), etc.||A salaryman, the prime minister, white walls, etc.||Dirty old men, yakuza members, ghosts, cockroaches, (you get the point).|
Since the concept of kawaii originates from innocence and a childlike appearance, it makes sense that babies, toddlers, and cute fluffy animals top the list at “Very Kawaii.” These are the kinds of kawaii that will stop people in their tracks.
If you’re out walking your new teacup poodle in the park, rest assured people will stop you at least ten times before you make it to the end of the path.
“Kawaiiiiiii!!!” you’ll hear them squeal, making the ears ring of anyone standing within 10-feet. You might even hear, “Chou kawaii!” (“Very kawaii”), just like it says in the chart!
The same goes if you’re out with your baby in a stroller or another little one who is still getting used to their legs. Heads will turn, faces will smile, strangers will stop and let you know how kawaii your child is.
This is kawaii in its most general sense, which can mean a variety of things. Sometimes it only very loosely pertains to innocence and childlike in appearance.
Elementary school children are still young and say funny things, but they’re not as innocent as they once were. Therefore they’re still kawaii but won’t draw people out of their daily routine.
Kawaii can also be used to describe an attractive woman. Kawaii women can be anything from cute and innocent to ravishing beauties to bikini-clad beach babes. It’s all lumped under the same word! That’s why it can be confusing for a westerner to come over to Japan. One word can encompass a whole array of types and styles.
As far as the female body, the Japanese are particularly stringent on features that are considered kawaii. They’re so strict that there’s practically a checklist where you go back at the end and tally up the score to see who’s the most kawaii.
- Small face
- Big eyes
- Long/thin nose (resembling a non-Japanese westerner’s nose)
- A single or double crease in their eyelids (also resembling a westerner’s)
- Having features that make them look mixed, or not 100% Japanese (i.e. looking like a ハーフ [haafu])
- Long eyelashes
- Light-colored skin
Of course, everyone is different, and one person’s idea of kawaii can differ from another’s, but these are the most universal within Japan and are often the features that modeling and talent scouts seek out.
Feminine men are also considered kawaii and tend to be popular with women. These men often not only keep their faces clean-shaven and baby-soft, they’ll go so far as to wax their entire bodies so that the only hair left is on top of their head! These men also tend to be thin and have little to no muscle tone. They also wear jewelry, makeup, and spend hours in front of a mirror styling their hair and practicing pouting their lips. Some even get eye surgery to make their bottom eyelids look puffier so that it looks like they cry a lot (called namida bukuro—literally “tear bags”).
The true cherry on top for the kawaii man, however, is his attitude and personality. Kawaii men act like innocent little boys but lean more toward the feminine realm. They usually have a higher-pitched voice and tend to be very animated with their reactions to cute and exciting things. They also have a more tender and bashful side that women go nuts over. Who’s into cuddling up with a blanket and binge-watching Doraemon episodes with a bag of gummy bears? This guy!
And, of course, we can’t forget the ubiquitous kawaii characters of Japan on every wall, signboard, and corner of the country. Hello Kitty, Pikachu, Rilakkuma, Kumamon, Gudetama…I could give you a laundry list, but you already know your favorites. Even the government commissions artists to design characters for campaigns, public service announcements, or for just decorating the boring walls of city hall.
Need to file your taxes? Bunny!
Did you know that almost all towns and cities of Japan have their own unique mascots? My favorite is Funabashi’s Funassi, a dancing pear.
Cute character design follows the same culture of kawaii as above: the more childlike and innocent the more popular they become, and the more people remember them.
Kawaii culture is beloved throughout the world. So much so that even the word “kawaii” has entered our vernacular. While kawaii has its roots in cute, childlike innocence, in modern times it means something completely different to everyone. So, next time you stumble upon something that you find cute, go ahead and belt it out for everyone around to hear.
Do you have any favorite Japanese kawaii characters? Is there anything about Japanese culture that you find kawaii? Participate in our Bondlingo community by posting your favorite kawaii things in the comments section below! Brighten all of our days by sharing your flavor of kawaii!