NIPPONIA No. 40 March 15, 2007


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The Cute World of Kawaii

Have you ever heard the word "Kawaii "? It is now a big part of Japan's pop culture, used for example when admiring clothes, or describing characters from manga, animé or video games. The power of kawaii is almost mystical, influencing business trends, facilitating human interaction and soothing the soul. The following pages tell how kawaii adds pizzazz to everyday life in Japan.

Kawaii — How Deep Is the Meaning?

Discussion members: Ishihara Soichiro, columnist   Obata Kazuyuki, columnist
Kanno Kayoko, editorial designer
Edited by Tsuchiya Komei

Super doll Rika-chan hit the market in 1967 and has never looked back, with about 50 million sold to date. Owners can give her a new outfit from time to time. (Photo credit: The Yomiuri Shimbun)

Ishihara: Japanese people today tend to say "Kawaii! "("How cute!") to describe almost anything they find somewhat appealing. It's funny how we use the same kawaii to describe Ebi-chan the fashion model,1 Takamisakari the sumo wrestler,2 and the Ungirls comedy team.3 A few decades ago, kawaii was considered suitable when describing a cute baby or animal, but the meaning has expanded to apply to all kinds of things. It's all rather disconcerting. I can understand that a human baby is "cute" in more or less the same way the character Hello Kitty is, but...

Kanno: Well, Kitty and the cartoon character Doraemon are both short and plump, and their heads are about the same size as their bodies. That makes them cute.

Obata: It was probably toy manufacturers who figured out that cute sells. The kawaii phenomenon was first seen in the toy section of department stores, in the shape of cuddly stuffed animals. Then the Rika-chan doll craze began in 1967. Rika-chan was a Japanese original, and she grabbed the attention of young girls.

Ishihara: There was a big evolution in the kawaii mindset between the Rika-chan dolls and Kitty, 20 years later. How can we explain that?

Obata: Kitty was a fashion statement, not a toy — she came to represent cuteness in fashion. Kids who thought Kitty was cute grew up into adults still thinking her cute. And Japanese social attitudes also evolved, to permit adults to become enthralled with anything they happened to decide was cute.


Could affluence have added kawaii to the everyday vocabulary?

Ishihara: Some time ago, adults would hardly ever say "kawaii " without blushing. It's only in the last 10 years or so that adult women bandy the word about when talking to older men. They might even say to the company president where they work, "Your eyeglasses are so kawaii," and to their manager, "I think your beer belly is really kawaii."

Kanno: Now it's considered perfectly OK for women to get enthusiastic about something and exclaim, "That's so kawaii! " In the old days most would keep that type of comment to themselves. Social values and expressions of aesthetic feelings are quite different now.

Ishihara: Yes, some years ago a woman would never say "kawaii " when talking to an older person or her superior. She might want to say it, but she'd keep it bottled up inside. I wonder why...

Obata: Back then, the social norm was that everyone must grow up, everyone must pitch in to lift the country to a higher economic level. Well, Japan more or less reached that level, so the social pressure to be mature, to talk maturely, is not as strong. That could be part of the reason why.

Ishihara: Good point. I guess the same thing applies to salaried men — they were expected to become more and more mature as they aged. Whereas now, the ideal is to remain young.


How cute is kawaii ?

Bringing Up a Child in Kawaii-obsessed Japan

By Obata Kazuyuki, columnist   Photo by Tsuchiya Komei

Cute character goods crammed onto shelves at a retail toy outlet.

The kawaii boom changed design concepts in Japan around the time I was becoming an adult, and today, at the age of 42, I am the father of a 3 year old, and our home is full of cute things for the little one — toys, clothes, dinnerware, crayons and drawing paper, all decorated with those sweet little faces of animé and manga characters.

Frankly, I'm a little tired of them all. The problem is that stores in Japan carry practically nothing else for young children. A parent would have to search high and low for kiddy things not illustrated with those saccharine characters. And even if I find something non-kawaii, the grandparents are bound to bring "something cute for the little one."

You can't refuse a cute little gizmo from a well-meaning friend. Parents have no choice in kawaii-obsessed Japan — we simply have to grin and bear it.

I'm the type of guy who can't feel at ease around cute media-hyped things. Don't get me wrong — I've had cuddly pets since my childhood. But I don't want to be surrounded by cute animal illustrations.

Animals are part of the natural world. They might appear cute at first sight, but if you observe them carefully you will see what they can do with their claws and teeth. Their cute faces on consumer goods hardly represent the real animal world, with all its complications beyond our knowledge. No matter how sweetly illustrated, they are still nothing more than figments of someone's imagination.

I'm not saying that the cute animal character fad is good or bad — but I do want to give my child an appreciation of the real world of nature. My problem is that we live in Tokyo, the most important and biggest metropolis in Japan, far from the natural world. So I installed a fish tank in our living room for the crucian carp I caught in a river in the country. It's my way of rebelling, good-naturedly of course, against today's craze for cuteness. Unfortunately, I haven't yet seen my child admiring my microcosm of nature in the fish tank. Maybe crucian carp aren't cute enough. But I won't give up — I'm going to try something else.