‘Kawaii’ is one of the most often heard Japanese words outside of Japan. I would argue that it is now essentially part of the English lexicon. It is a word that connotates a particular aesthetic, which encapsulates cuteness, naivete – in other words, general tooth-rotting adorableness. If you asked a Westerner to name a fictional character from Japanese media, it is likely your brain would drift to Pikachu or Hello Kitty, both of whom epitomise this aesthetic. Lolita is also an iconic subculture in the Japanese fashion scene, drawing inspiration from kawaii as well as Victorian and Rococo clothing styles. So, where on earth did this culture of cuteness come from?
‘Kawaii’ is written in Japanese as かわいい or 可愛い. The former is written in hiragana, which delineates the word’s phonetic spelling. The latter is a special form of kanji, characters borrowed from the Chinese alphabet, which literally translates to ‘lovable, able to/can be loved.’ The word is originally derived from the phrase 顔映し (kao hayushi) which connotates a blushing face. It was used in The Tale of Genji (written in the 11th century by Lady Murasaki and generally considered to be the world’s first novel), where it originally referred to pitiable qualities.
Now we’ve covered the etymology of kawaii. But how and where did the cuteness culture surrounding the word begin? Well, the short answer is, teenage girls! In the 1970s, it became increasingly popular amongst Japanese schoolgirls to write using mechanical pencils. Traditionally, Japanese is written vertically using the art of shodo (calligraphy), which uses brushes dipped in ink to paint characters varying in line-weight. By contrast, the girls wrote sideways, with mechanical pencil nibs that produced fine lines of a consistent thickness. They also decked out their handwriting with randomly dispersed emoticons and doodles – think smiley faces, stars and hearts. This, unsurprisingly, made it difficult to read. In classic spoilsport fashion, the style was banned from many high schools. Some students were even expelled for using it.
During the 1980s, many within Japan sought to understand the origins of the kawaii cultural phenomenon, believing that students had drawn inspiration from manga or comic books. Japanese researcher Kazuma Yamane sought to understand the origin of what he called ‘Anomolous Female Teenage Handwriting’ and concluded that it had been entirely spontaneous, spreading amongst teenage girls as an underground movement. Like ‘Beatlemania,’ and other fandoms spearheaded by teenage girls, the birth of the kawaii aesthetic shows their unparalleled influence on popular culture. Arguably, their interests and hobbies repeatedly make them the world’s foremost trendsetters.
However, in recent years, feminists have begun to think more critically about kawaii and what it means for women. In her article ‘What is kawaii – and why did the world fall for the ‘cult of cute’?’ Hui-Ying Kerr points out simply that “Hello Kitty has no mouth.” She highlights the aesthetic’s negative connotations of weakness, submissiveness, flawlessness and being child-like, and therefore the problematic nature of encouraging such qualities to be seen as attractive in women. She also points out the inherent capitalist immorality in large-scale marketing directed at young girls. Indeed, the commercial potential of the kawaii aesthetic was realised in the 1980s and companies consequently began integrating it into advertising campaigns.
Nevertheless, although it is important to be critical of certain aspects of kawaii, the aesthetic now has universal appeal and Japanese stars, of all ages and genders, are embracing it. It has been integrated into almost every aspect of everyday Japanese life, from fashion, to videogames to manhole covers. In a world full of horrible things, it is nice that a mainstream aesthetic places such a value on sweetness and softness. We all need a little escapism sometimes.