Kawaii Culture: A Japanese Phenomenon
By Richard Young. November 25, 2020
Whether it's accessories for a cute bag, a smiley face traffic cone, or a fluffy toilet seat cover, kawaii (かわいい) finds a place in just about every aspect of Japanese society and is showing up more and more in the West.
A term for cuteness, kawaii is expressed in pop culture, fashion, mannerisms, food, and entertainment and is accepted by both men and women in Japan. But kawaii doesn't mean just cute and adorable objects. The trend represents a way of life for people who commit broad aspects of their days to living in a cute, adorable way.
The kawaii trend became popular during the 1970s, particularly amongst school girls. As a nation obsessed with cats, it's perhaps not too surprising that Hello Kitty became the face of the culture's rise when Sanrio designer Yuko Shimizu created this adorable kitten in 1974. Other characters soon followed, like My Melody, Cinnamoroll, and Pompompurin. Soon, a whole culture was born around them.
Kawaii is everywhere, from a Hello Kitty thermos to pink rabbit barriers on a construction site.
Fashion: A Kawaii Statement
Harajuku(原宿) is a placename on the tip of every Tokyo fashion lover's tongue. Here, the kawaii trend permeates almost every corner of the busy streets, where fashion is a religion. Pink and other bright colors, large eyes, and small figures are the signals related to a kawaii look.
Decora fashion is a popular sub-genre with its pink bows, glittered faces, and baby blue hair, standard features for a kawaii trend. The name comes from an abbreviation of the word 'decoration' and the trend lives up to its name, with endless use of decorative accessories to choose from. The aim is a look of innocence with a soft, cute touch while being entirely over the top, as inspiration often comes from popular anime or manga characters, while others create their own styles. As a trend accessible to both girls and boys, the ideas and possible variations are endless.
Rather than the sexual connotation associated with the title of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita lolita fashion (ロリータ・ファッション) can be described as kawaii fashion with a Victorian twist. The style became popular in Japan during the 90s as a statement by Japanese youth and, with its spread broadcast over the new medium of the Internet, the dramatic look gained worldwide fame.
The trend has many styles but breaks into two areas: the Gothic Lolita and the Sweet Lolita. Gothic is dark-themed with mainly black and white dresses and accessories, while Sweet Lolita sports pretty pink, bright colors with feminine features. Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita may have christened the name but the fashion has grown into a part of Japanese society and taken a life of its own with its cute, adorable kawaii spin.
In short, the cuter the better with kawaii fashion.
Examples (L to R) of Decora, Sweet Lolita and Cosplay fashions.
Kawaii in Everyday Use
Kawaii's origins began during the 1970s as students' handwriting started to incorporate smiley faces and hearts added to curvy hiragana characters. As the trend grew, this type of writing became difficult to read and was banned by schools in Japan. But during the 80s the style was picked up by several Japanese magazines, who used the technique to help give their advertising youth appeal. Cute was now a trend in Japan, and kawaii stepped into the Japanese mainstream.
Today, it doesn't take long to notice a touch of kawaii in the streets of Japan. In the UK or US walking past a construction site with pink, smiley-faced barriers would seem bizarre, but not in Japan. On top of everything else, Hello Kitty managed to break into the building industry. The kawaii culture makes construction look cute. It's a way to excuse any inconvenience caused by the structure for passing pedestrians.
Up in the sky, Kawaii also spreads its wings. Airlines market themselves with a cute twist. Hello Kitty's cute face and Pikachu's adorable smile can be seen, decorating the craft of airlines like All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Taiwan's EVA Air.
I've mentioned just a few of the multitude of examples, and kawaii can be found in places you would least expect in Japan. It's a way of making otherwise mundane aspects of daily life seem a bit more friendly while attracting a younger audience and having fun at the same time.
Sanrio characters decorate an Eva Air plane; Visitors throng Hyper Japan in London.
Kawaii in the West
Kawaii conventions take place all around the world. Trend lovers come and celebrate Japanese anime, manga and showcase their unique and often homemade fashion for each gathering. Anime characters like Attack on Titans, Mikasa Ackerman, or Shirayuki of Snow White with the Red Hair are all on display, so the list is endless for characters to dress up in cosplay.
In Europe, the biggest event is the annual Japan Expo, held near Paris, France. Since its launch in 1999, the event has grown to attract around a quarter of a million people annually. In the UK, Hyper Japan has taken place in London every year since 2010. And Anime Expo produces a sizeable worldwide following as kawaii lovers come from far and wide to attend the Los Angeles-based event. Honolulu stages Kawaii Kon each year, a 3-day celebration of Japanese culture, anime, and pop-culture, showcasing various artists like J-pop singer Diana Garnet and the pop-idol group I Ris (カバ☆リス). The event features cosplay events, manga libraries, and art competitions. A fantasy lover's dream.
These events showcase aspects of Japanese anime, gaming, manga, culture, and fashion, and of course kawaii features very heavily. The online community is kept up to date with kawaii news while staying connected with fellow fashion lovers. This year's major events were postponed due to the pandemic, as the kawaii community pray for dates to be announced for future events.
Kawaii culture comes as a surprise to some visitors to Japan and is an obsession with others, while kawaii continues to grow as more people commit to a life filled with cuteness and fluffy, Totoro charm bags. Japan is known for its excessive work rate, so perhaps kawaii culture is a way of escaping from the country's demanding lifestyle. Kawaii represents the innocence of childhood, thus rejecting the responsibility of growing up. Kawaii's idea is to show the world how peaceful and adorable life can be, therefore letting go of conflict and responsibilities. It's a strange logic in an adult world, but there must be something appealing amongst the rainbow-colored glitter, as its culture is growing in popularity worldwide. At the very least, it's an excuse to have fun with a fantasy world in an adorably cute way.
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