Photo from Pixabay
You could argue that kawaii culture is perhaps Japan’s biggest influence on the world. The over-the-top colourful childlike cuteness typical of all things ‘kawaii’ can be seen far beyond the country the culture took its first breath in. Its impact is felt the whole world over. Even if you don’t know what the word means, you will have encountered it in some shape or form.
What exactly is ‘kawaii’ though?
adjective – denoting a Japanese artistic and cultural style that emphasizes the quality of cuteness, using bright colours and characters with a childlike appearance
noun – (in Japanese art and culture) the quality of being lovable or cute
(source: Collins English Dictionary)
Put simply ‘kawaii’ is anything cute, adorable and childlike. Think cute puppies and cuddly teddy bears. It is though something much more than this too. For something to be truly kawaii, there can be nothing negative about it. It creates feelings of protectiveness, care and love. Kawaii culture isn’t simply about looking cute and adorable though. It is a form of rebellion, a protest against the pressures of adulthood and the real world faced by young people in the rule driven society of Japan.
With its roots in a much less positive meaning dating back as far as the Tale of Genji in the 11th century, kawaii took on its current meaning in the 1970s and 80s. Bizarrely it started with a ‘cute’ writing style used by teenage girls of horizontal writing with hearts, faces and picture elements. This was adopted by magazines as a nod to the cool West against the tradition and rigidity of post war Japan. The introduction of cute simple characters such as the ever popular Hello Kitty closely followed. And kawaii culture was born.
Kawaii culture is now fully part of the way Japan works and lives. It has taken over, it is everywhere. No longer only the realm of teenage girls. You can see the influence of kawaii in fashion, food, toys, household goods and even signs on construction sites.
To the outsider kawaii can seem a little overwhelming, a little over-the-top-and-in-your-face. Let me guide you through the culture of kawaii that has broken out from Japan and gone from national obsession to global phenomenon.
Characters and Mascots:
Kawaii culture is responsible for the zillions of cute and colourful characters you will see gracing everything from mugs to earthquake guidance. Characters such as Hello Kitty and Pokemon are kawaii trailblazers spreading cuteness across the world.
These characters have certain characteristics in common – they are simple and childlike in design. Often with big eyes and facial expressions such as smiles and winks, they are designed for maximum cuteness appeal. Anything can get a kawaii makeover with animals, food and objects being especially popular.
Character goods are serious business in Japan where you will find stores full of goodies practically everywhere. Many characters have their own themed stores where fans can part with their cash from an ever-changing range of products.
If you fancy indulging in some character goods shopping, here are some top spots in Tokyo.
Character Street – located underneath Tokyo Station, this cluster of 21 shops is kawaii heaven. There are stores for both Japanese and international characters. You can find rare items specifically linked to the Tokyo station location. Shops here include Donguri Republic (the official Studio Ghibli store), Pokemon, Hello Kitty, Rilakkuma, Moomin and one of my personal favourites Kapibara-san.
Kiddyland – toy store extraordinaire located near the Harajuku kawaii clothing hotspot of Takeshita Dori street. 5 floors of kawaii goodness. Website
Pokemon Center Mega Tokyo – you can find the biggest Pokemon shop in all of Japan in Sunshine City mall in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. Here you can find Pokemon on more things than you would believe possible – even curry sauce packets. Seriously.
Check out our guide to shopping in Tokyo for more.
However it doesn’t stop at big known characters. You will find cute characters on nearly everything from household products to stationery. A stroll round any of the ubiquitous 100 yen stores or shops such as Loft or Tokyo Hands will show you a huge assortment of colourful cute characters trying to entice you into buying their product.
It’s not only things you can buy either. It seems like every sign, poster, company…like everything has a cute character attached to them. A cute little character will warn you about getting your fingers caught in train doors; another will guide you through instructions on how to do something. They will give you information on earthquakes and warn you about being careful on construction sites. Towns have their own mascots as do many government organisations and tourist attractions.
Eats and Drinks:
Kawaii culture has had a massive impact on the world of food and drink in Japan. Whether eating in or out, snack or meal – some things will be so cute, you won’t want to eat or drink them.
Themed cafes for the host of cute characters loved by the Japanese are very common and hugely popular. Not only are they styled in the manner of the character, you can get themed food and drink too and it is usually extremely kawaii.
Popular cafes in Tokyo include:
Cafe de Miki – a British themed ‘Hello Kitty’ cafe in the DiverCity mall on Odaiba. Sweet snacks, desserts and drinks all served with a Hello Kitty twist. Website
Peanuts Cafe – devoted to all things Snoopy and the Peanuts cartoon strip, this cafe offers a more subtle approach to the character cafe experience. Website
Pompompurin Cafe – Pompompurin is a Sanrio character who is a golden retriever dog wearing a brown beret. As dogs do. His favourite food is crème caramel pudding (the Japanese word for this is ‘purin’ hence the name. And you can order it at this cafe in Harajuku along with all sorts of sweet and savoury treats. Website
Kawaii Monster Cafe – picture a cafe where someone had got hold of the kawaii gun and covered everywhere with colourful, bright kawaiiness and you have got Kawaii Monster Cafe. Even the food is mega colourful. Website
Maid cafes are another aspect of the kawaii culture in Tokyo. To the eye of an outsider, these may seem a little sleazy. This is far from the truth. They are very family friendly and full of light cuteness. You can visit one for a bit of ‘moe magic’ that will make your food taste better whilst you wear rabbit ears. Not your thing? You can try out one of the similar type cafes such as butlers, owls and of course cats – all fitting under the kawaii cafe umbrella.
After a snack? Well don’t fear. Kawaii has got it covered. All manner of snacks, drinks and food products have an adorable little character helping to bring a little bit of kawaii magic to your consumption. You can often find special items linked to kawaii characters or celebrities too!
The kawaii culture has also invaded the home and kitchen too. Cooking at home? There are products galore to help you make your meal kawaii. From character themed chopsticks to cute cutters for your bento items and colourful animals on glasses. Mealtimes need never be boring again.
Idols are the queens and kings of Japanese pop and entertainment culture. Springing up in the 1970s, Japanese idols (from the Japanese word ‘aidoru’ アイドル ) are manufactured and presented in a way that puts the Western girl and boy bands to shame.
To be a kawaii idol, you don’t necessarily have to be especially good or talented. Being an idol is more about presenting the right attitude and public image. The image of cuteness and innocence often portrayed by idols is heavily controlled. The faintest whiff of scandal can be enough to end a career. The right image though will inspire devotion amongst fans – and there is no devotion like that of the fan of a Japanese idol!
Idols often perform multiple roles aside from their singing. They pop up on television shows (especially the ever popular panel shows), adverts, modelling and acting. It is usually quite a short lived career for an idol though. The ‘retirement’ age for an idol is around 16-18 years,
Popular and current idols include:
Seiko Matsuda – known as the ‘Eternal Idol’, Matsuda had her first number one single when she was 18 years old – in 1980. She went on to have 24 consecutive number one singles in the Japanese chart Oricon. A record she held for many years. Matsuda is still hugely popular and successful.
AKB48 – named after Akihabara, the Tokyo district the group have their own theatre. AKB48 bring a new meaning to the words manufactured girl band. Created as ‘idols you can meet’, girls are auditioned and then perform as part of team. Each team with their own theme or characteristics. The number of members in AKB48 varies and has been as high as over 120 though never lower than 48 split over the three teams.
Babymetal– the unusual yet strangely effective combination of JPop and metal has proved hugely successful for this metal idol band. Three kawaii girls, one live band and outfits combining the gothic and punk lolita fashions has led to rare worldwide success for a Japanese artist.
Hatsune Miku – proof that you don’t even have to be real to be an idol. The character for the Vocaloid singing synthesizer software is huge in Japan. Hatsune Miku has a whole host of merchandise to her name including rhythm games, anime, manga and she even performs concerts with a live band.
Fashion and Behaviour:
You can see the impact of kawaii culture in the fashions of teenagers and young adults in Japan. As in many countries, fashion here is seen as a way of expressing who you are, what group you belong to and the values you hold. It is part of identity and some people want to identify as kawaii. So they reflect this in their clothes, mannerisms and even sometimes how they talk.
Kawaii culture has led to several genres of fashion. Perhaps the most known one is the Lolita style. This is full of feminine Victorian and Edwardian style dresses, petticoats and ruffles. There are sub genres a plenty including gothic, punk, sweet and kodona. Other genres of fashion include Fairy Kei (cute childlike pastel coloured style), Decora (accessory upon accessory) and Gyaru (garish street fashion).
Some don’t limit themselves to the clothes they wear. They may write in a cute style, speak in a high pitched giggly voice and adapt their eyes so they have the wide eyed kawaii look (sometimes only with make-up, some though go as far as surgery).
You probably have already heard of Harajuku – the best known area in Tokyo for kawaii fashion. It was at the forefront of cutting edge kawaii style for many years. Whilst the fashion scene there has declined in recent years, it is still a cool place to head to in order to feed your kawaii fashion urges. There are clothes and accessory shops galore and still some amazing street fashion to spy. For more on shopping in Harajuku, see our Tokyo shopping guide.
Although kawaii is literally everywhere you look in Tokyo, there are some hotspots well worth a visit for cuteness overload.
Sanrio Puroland – home of characters such as My Melody, Cinnamoroll and of course the world famous Hello Kitty. Hugely popular indoor theme park on the outskirts of Tokyo complete with shows, parades, rides and a character themed food court. Website
Studio Ghibli – devoted to the work of Japanese animation giants Studio Ghibli, this museum with a difference is home to kawaii character favourites Totoro and the Catbus plus so many more. A place to explore and wonder at. Website
Fujiko F Fujiyo Museum – informally known as the Doraemon museum, this houses work by the manga artist Fujiko F.Fujiyo – the creator of the hugely popular kawaii character Doraemon (a time travelling blue robotic cat). It has a massive artwork collection, small theater showing short films, manga reading room and several play rooms. Plus of course a themed café. Website
It’s not all cuteness and happy things
Although most see kawaii culture as something fun and cute, it is not without its critics. Especially in terms of what it says about the appearance and behaviour of women. Some say it is too girly, that it reduces women down to ridiculous, childish objects. That it encourages the role of women as second class to men in Japanese society and contributes to holding back equality.
Fans of kawaii culture though argue that it is not about the sexualisation or holding back of women. It is about holding on to something instead. Holding on to childhood fun, an escape from the realities of adult life. The enjoyment of cute, simple things gives an escape from the rigidity of Japanese society facing many adults.