NIPPONIA No. 40 March 15, 2007


Special Featuresp_star.gifThe Cute World of Kawaii

The beginning of the kawaii phenomenon

Left: Nameneko poster used recently by Tokyo's Metropolitan Government in an anti-motorcycle gang campaign.
Right: In the 1980s, kittens dressed as hoodlum motorcycle gang members were a big hit. They were known as nameneko. (Photo credit: Mainichi Shimbun).

Ishihara: So when did people stop feeling inhibited about saying "kawaii "?

Obata: I'd say it was around the time of the nameneko boom in 1980. Boso-zoku hoodlum gangs4 were in the news a lot back then. Their girlfriends liked flamboyant, somewhat unsavory styles, but being girls they naturally liked cute things, too. They found the nameneko kittens, which were dressed in costumes like their boyfriends, really cute. If the guys didn't agree with this appreciation for cuteness, they ran the risk of losing their girlfriends. So the young men had to start saying "kawaii " too.

Ishihara: So it was around then that the word "kawaii " become more widely used?

Obata: In December 1983 a women's magazine ran a special feature article called "Get Him To Take You Out On a Date for Christmas." The columnist Horii Ken-ichiro has quite rightly said that until then, magazines had generally ignored Christmas, but that feature article sparked a new fad that even some men's magazines picked up. The big social change was the emphasis on men having to go along with what their girlfriends wanted to do, which meant entering a world where kawaii was important.

Ishihara: It was around then that female university students and newly hired female company employees kept bandying about the three words Uso! Honto? and Kawaii! ("I don't believe it!" "Really?" and "It's so cute!") They were known facetiously as san go zoku (three-word groupies). I remember one women's college in Tokyo tried to ban the word "kawaii " on campus.

Obata: The kawaii phenomenon really took off among young people around 1983 and 1984. And it was around then that companies began realizing that cute products sell.


The magic behind the word

Ishihara: There's often an unconscious reason for saying "kawaii! " — it's an easy way to show approval, it's a way to appear young and hip, and it's a way to deny we are growing older. This could explain why the word is used so much.

Obata: Here in Japan, if you say something is cute, everybody feels they have to agree with you.

Ishihara: Well, kawaii certainly is a convenient word. If you say a thing is beautiful you run the risk of someone disagreeing with you. But kawaii doesn't have aesthetic connotations people would dispute, even if they don't see the cuteness themselves.

Obata: Yes, if you say something is cute, nobody is going to contradict you. And cute products certainly sell well in these times of affluence.

Kanno: Affluence has made it possible for almost all consumers to buy the same types of products. The difference is in the design, the level of cuteness. That's why companies began selling electric appliances decorated with, say, floral illustrations, and cars designed to appeal to women.

Ishihara: Yes, around 1987 cute cars like the Nissan Be-1 created quite a stir. Products once manufactured without any consideration to cuteness suddenly took on added value by being cute.

Obata: So maybe an important way for manufacturers to be more competitive is by making their products cuter. Praising something by saying it is cute has given the word "kawaii " magical power. Another interesting trend is to give the adjective
"kawaii " a prefix, like erokawaii 5 or kimokawaii 6. The way things are going, other similar adverb-adjective combinations might develop as well. Things have gone that far in Japan, the land of the ultimate in kawaii.


The Be-1 car sold in 1987. The curvaceous look was a big selling point. (Photo credit: Nissan Motor Co., Ltd.)