Kawaii Culture Craze

‘Kawaii’ means ‘cute’ in Japanese and is a very useful word to know in Japan because you can use to describe practically anything and everything. As in, ‘Look at that dog in a Mickey Mouse costume! It’s so kawaii!’ Or, ‘Look at that man’s cell phone charm shaped like a hot dog! Kawaii!’

Everything here is ‘cute’. Japanese marketing companies are talented at transforming products not traditionally thought of as adorable or cuddly, (like dog poop key chains!) into the latest ‘kawaii must-have’ trend. They even have a word for it, ‘grotesque-cute’.

A golden pile of dog poo. Perfect addition to your collection of key chains, no?

This Ipod cover is made to look like meat. Is it ‘grotesque-cute’ or just plain gross?

Nothing is safe from the attack of the cute. Not police stations, (which have their own cartoon mascots) or airplanes (Nippon Airline’s 747’s are decorated with colorful anime characters) or even government posted ‘beware of danger’ signs which feature cutsey teddy bears, raccoons, or penguins engaging in risky behavior, (like standing too close to a train platform edge).

Although, to be fair, not everyone in Japan is cute-obsessed. I’m certainly not. The sight of rows upon rows of plush Stitch dolls in display windows makes me cringe. And I’m not a fan of lacy, pastel-colored baby doll dresses, which appear to be the latest trend here in women’s clothing.

In fact, none of my Japanese friends are either. It’s unfortunate that a lot of Westerners mistakenly assume that all Japanese have Hello Kitty collections or are avid comic book readers. Many consider Japan’s love affair with everything kawaii to be childish, superficial, materialistic and just plain silly.

But it’s interesting how even the most unlikely people are affected. Today, on the train home from work, I was surrounded by smartly dressed businessmen in well-pressed designer suits. And dangling from each of their cell phones was a darling little charm. These charms weren’t manly or macho (like a football or miniature pitcher of beer), either. One had a pink (yes pink!) cheeseburger, another had a fish, frog, and alien and yet another had two dainty figurines and a string of jingle bells. Kawaii culture isn’t a ‘girls only’ cultural phenomenon, men have been hit hard by the fad too.

I have to admit, I really love the food charms that look so life-like you could eat them! Is it a sign that I’ve been in Japan too long, that I really want to buy one?

Even my 11 year old male students, who I’d assumed would shun anything remotely ‘girly’, are obsessed with kawaii stickers! Every class, I give out stickers as part of attendance, and I swear, both the girls and the boys go positively gaga over them. They actually thoughtfully examine each and every sticker before they make their selections. Even my adult and high school students, (although not quite as gung-ho) never fail to remind me when it’s time to distribute the stickers. It’s both completely baffling and amusing.

Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a doll-world and all of Tokyo is a giant Barbie’s Dream House-inspired city. Everything here is miniature. From the narrow sidewalks, to the short doorways. Add the florescent, brightly-lit signs, cartoon billboards, plastic anime figurines that stand guard in front of every store and it’s like I’m living in Disney’s Toon town. Then there’s the fact the streets are always immaculately clean, and everyone is exceedingly stylishly-dressed, heavily made-up, not a single hair out of place. Sometimes I can’t believe that it’s all real.

I love the Disney Store in Shibuya by the way. It’s a lot bigger than it looks in this picture. There’s a winding staircase that’s right out of Sleeping Beauty and each floor is designed so that you feel like your wandering around a Disney movie set.

Particularly interesting, (but not surprising) are the hordes of adults you find ogling Cinderella sleepwear or Minnie Mouse pencil cases. The amount of teenagers and young adults outnumber the number of children.

So what I’ve been wanting find out is this: How did Kawaii Culture embed itself so deeply into Japanese culture? Afterall, it’s not exactly new. Supposedly it all started with the creation of Hello Kitty in the 1970s. Advertising companies then jumped on the trend and it all sort of snow-balled from there. Now, nearly every commercial features a squeaky-voiced cartoon, upbeat jingle or costumed character. Are the ad companies the culprits responsible for keeping the trend alive? Or has it now become such a permanent fixture in pop culture that it’s a part of the national identity and ad companies are only responding to that?

Some equate the cute fascination with a desperate desire to hold onto childhood. People are overworked and stressed and the cute culture is a way to tie them to the carefree, happy days of their youth.

I’m not so sure about that…it seems too simplistic. What do you think?

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Comments ( 7 )

  1. Tamar

    I love your blog! Why are there no comments?? I am about to change all of that single-handedly! :-)
    Re the 'adults and cute gadgets' thing, when I was working at an excruciatingly stressful job in a call center a few years ago, I bought a Tamagotchi and I think it may have saved me from losing my mind.
    On a separate note, some article I read talked of police officers in Bangkok who broke the rules being forced to wear hot pink Hello Kitty armbands as punishment.

  2. Reannon

    I don't know why more people don't comment! But thanks for taking the time to do so.

    I guess it's because I don't really do a lot to promote this blog...I should stop being so lazy but honestly, between work, Japanese classes and trying to have a life, writing posts is about all I have time for.

    Anyways, somewhow I think wearing a hot pink Hello KItty armband wouldh't be considered much of a punishment here in Japan. : )

  3. Tamar

    I've had my blog for 2 years, and sometimes the 2 people that read it regularly help me to keep writing. You're a really good writer with a lot of informative and cool insights. Being a person who received a birthday gift from her brother one year of little stuffed animals from chinatown, SF in the forms of common parasites, I doubt my life would have been complete if you hadn't published that photo of the golden poop charm! Keep up the good work! :-)

  4. Harriet

    I really love what you've written! A lot of people write about kawaii culture in a needlessly sarcastic and negative way but even though you state that you don't like it yourself, you don't give a biased account of the state of things in Japan!

    I must confess, I've just come back from a year of studying in Japan and I've succumbed to kawaii culture in a big way! Lace, frills, ribbons - I love them all and when people said I was kawaii, it was the biggest compliment they could ever have paid me!(^_^)

  5. Reannon

    Aww thanks Harriet for saying I'm not biased! That means a lot because I try to see it from both sides. Sometimes that's tough because Japanese culture is still new to me and a lot of aspects of it are pretty different and even a little strange.

    But yes, even though I'm not in love with the cuteness of it all, I can see how you could get sucked into it. It's slowly growing on me...

  6. Annakadabra

    This article is something I always think about. I'm sadly a victim of it too though, haha. I absolutely love Hello Kitty, she's ALL OVER my room. but like Tamar said, I love your blog and I don't know why people don't read it more. it's so interesting !

  7. Anonymous

    Actually, Sanrio began Hello Kitty and the gang because of the underground Kawaii movement in the 70's. Hello Kitty is the reason it exploded, not the reason it came to be.