When Kawaii (Cute) Becomes Kowai (Scary) : Cuteness Overload in Japan

November 14th, 2012By Category: Culture

One impossible thing to ignore in Japanese society is the obsession of everything cute. Walk into a Japanese female’s apartment and prepare to be bombarded by a cuteness explosion.

The stuffed animals, pink bunny clock, and fuzzy slippers are what you might expect. But it gets even cuter. The soap bottle is wrapped to look like a teddy bear, the chopstick holder is a lounging kitty, and a picture of Winnie the Pooh stands guard over the bed, ever vigilant against cold feet and nightmares. The surprise comes when you find out that this isn’t normal just for young girls, but 30 year old women as well. In Japanese, the word for cute is kawaii. With so much kawaii in Japan it is a little overwhelming. As such, it is my firm belief that it is more than mere coincidence that the word for scary, kowai, is similar to the pronunciation for cute. The Westerner needs to quickly learn proper pronunciation of these words, lest he end up telling the whole world how scary his girlfriend is!

“The word kawaii was originally used to describe only babies, small animals, and dolls, but in recent years, it has come to symbolize Japanese pop culture” (Integrated Approach To Intermediate Japanese, Miura and McGloin 278). Now everything and everyone must be cute. Women spend a significant amount of time and money on their appearance through cosmetics and fashion. Although this is done in other countries, other countries tend to seek a beautiful, sexy, or smart image over a cute one. Commercials on television, restaurant windows, construction signs, and prefectural mascots maintain the cute magic. So much delight and joy was bound to escape the island nation sooner or later. Younger Westerners have probably heard of Hello Kitty (Kitty-chan in Japan), viewed Japanese anime or manga (comic books), or experienced video gaming with cute Japanese characters like Kirby or Sonic. The cuddly goodness of kawaii has even conquered the skies: All Nippon Airways’ growing fleet (currently five) of Boeing 747 jets is smothered with images of Pokémon (literally “pocket monsters”) characters along its exterior. Cuteness in Japan traced its more modern origins from Disney films like Bambi and Fantasia and has since spread and taken over Japan in many ways. Set to conquer the world, I recommend you to become allies with the cuteness.

As expected, kawaii culture is more obvious, important, and dominated by Japanese females over males. School girls are the biggest trouble makers, purely buying shelves of merchandise “because it is cute”. Babies are taught from an early age to be cute. Cute is a learned and taught gender stereotype in Japanese society. Most babies are just plain cute, but when children grow up, they learn techniques to stay cute. First is artificial beauty. Makeup, clothes to make the wearer appear slimmer, cosmetic creams and the like help combat aging. Globally, the media is telling everyone to be more beautiful, or in the case of Japan, cuter. This goes a step too far in the following example. In arcades or amusement parks, patrons can find the cute-intensifying purikura machine. Purikura is a photo sticker booth; its name comes from a shortened version from the English words “print club.” The favorite photo booth of Japanese school girls allows customized pictures and backgrounds to be added to photos, but the most striking feature is automatic eye enlargement. Most machines will have the option to automatically enlarge the eyes of the print to sometimes comical proportions. Larger eyes are considered cute and that is why many anime characters or plush dolls have large eyes. In addition to women participating in artificial beauty, women turn to their inner child to portray cuteness. When the outsider is dating a Japanese woman, he needs to be cute too.

Men must also adapt to the kawaii sphere of influence in Japan. By no means however should they become overly cute themselves because that would be seen as unmanly. Japanese males are skinny and dress nicely. Slimming down and styling up is the “cute” method for men to follow. Of course we men call it being cool. Easy cute conversation starters, such as owning a pretty pet, having a cute (but not too girly) cell phone charm, and just having a cute face all score points with the ladies. Although men’s commitment to cute is less than his female partner’s, he is expected to support the cuteness. This means complimenting your girlfriend’s fashion, agreeing with her which things are kawaii, and buying into consumerism on the purchasing of unpractical, yet cute presents from time to time. Evidenced by its export, the kawaii way of life is growing and wedging itself comfortably across the nation and the world.

What’s the cutest thing you have seen in Japan?

Photos by Stéfanmegadem and anjuli_ayer via Flickr Creative Commons

The above article is a slightly modified snippet from my recently published book: Ai. Love You? Finding Friendship, Romance, and Heartbreak in Japan available in paperback or EBook on Xlibris.com. Also sold on Amazon, and 2500 other online retailers.

Author of this article

Justin Velgus

Justin Velgus is in love with Japan. In addition to his over 60 published articles about Japan, he is author of "Ai, Love You? Finding Friendship, Romance, and Heartbreak in Japan." Buy it on Xlibris (http://bookstore.xlibris.com/Products/SKU-0122262049/Ai-Love-You.aspx) or on Amazon. With a stay on a military base near Hiroshima, study abroad in the wintery northern Tohoku, and travels through Sapporo, Sendai, Akita, Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and more, he has lived the Japanese experience. He enjoys sharing his passion through writing about the culture and people of Japan, being featured on media outlets such as Japan Tourist, Japan Today, and GaijinPot. He is continuing his Japan studies and is currently working on his next feature book.

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  • bitwize says:

    When I was in Japan, Stitch — the ugly-cute alien character from Disney’s Lilo and Stitch — was all the rage. I saw Stitch posters, Stitch stuffies, and other Stitch merch turn up in some very odd places.

  • TokyoWomenAreAmazing says:

    “Of course we men call it being cool.” -> Sorry to say, but that’s called being metrosexual, not cool. 🙂 Although, I mean no offense to you.

    I have been to Tokyo many times & although there are plenty of beautiful ladies xD Cute indeed! Some of what you call “cool” men are more-so metro-sexual urban-types (IE: picture an asian San Franscisco – except in public, during business hours most men in Tokyo (99%) are simply wearing suits, which is perfectly manly).

    Other than that, great article! Just don’t want you to confuse metro with being cool xD If a girl is calling you cute (yes, even in Tokyo), 99% of the time that’s a far cry from cool!

  • leslie nguyen says:

    I wonder how often people confuse those two terms in Japanese!

  • Pamela Diaz says:

    good article! I live in Chile, I own a kawaii store, they’re a lot of them here, first they were anime related stores that sold characters that where cute, but now, stores with just rilakkuma, hello kitty and kawaii characters in general are very popular! don’t even have to like anime anymore, just the kawaiiness of it! I’m 24 so at first people saw me weird for liking such girly things, but now it’s quite common!