Meaning of Kawaii – Culture of cuteness in Japan

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Do you know him kawaii meaning [可愛い]? This Japanese word means something cute, beautiful and things like that. Kawaii also involves sweet, kind, lovely, charming, precious, sweet and even tiny things. 

This word is known internationally thanks to Japanese pop culture and anime. It serves to designate objects, accessories, clothes, animals, and people who are beautiful and attractive. In this article, we will see a complete overview of Kawaii culture in Japan.

The origin of the word Kawaii

It is believed that the origin of the word comes from kawayushi [かはゆし] which refers to the feeling of sympathy for the other person’s misfortune. We can see this usage today in the expression kawaisou [可哀想] which means poor, pitiful, poor thing.

The origin of kawaii also comes from the ancient word itawashii [労わしい] which means moving; unfortunate; overwhelming; pathetic; heartbreaking. Some synonyms found in other dialects are megushi, menkoi and megoi.

The word kahayushi was established in the abbreviated form of “kahohayushi“, and the verbal word was“kawayui“, Which was later changed to“kawaii“. It originally meant "embarrassing" with the feeling that "the other person is incredibly superior.

Over time, the word began to refer to the feeling of caring for a partner in a sorry state. It is complicated to understand the origin and changes that this word has had over the years, or how it achieved this opposite meaning.

The word is composed of the ideograms (可) which means acceptable and (愛) which means love.

Meaning of kawaii - cuteness culture in japan

What is the meaning of Kawaii?

We already know that this word can mean something related to cuteness. To be more specific, it is a Japanese adjective used to describe a person’s feeling of affection, such as primacy or love, in some sense.

Derivatives include Kawarashii [可愛らしい] which means charming, sweet and cute. We also have the verb kawaigaru [可愛がる] which means loving, caring, being affectionate, treating with tenderness, pampering, showing favoritism, being partial, caressing and mocking.

The word "kawaii”Has a strong connotation of expressing affection or attachment to young or small things. For this reason, in the past it was considered rude to use the word for adults, mainly because of its origin, except when it was used among lovers.

With the growth of kawaii culture, the term ended up becoming common for any use, be it from people or lovely objects. Young women often use the term with those who are somehow superior to her.

Meaning of kawaii - cuteness culture in japan

What is considered Kawaii?

In modern times, even artificial objects that do not have the characteristics of humans and living beings can be recognized and evaluated as "cute". We can easily come to a conclusion about something cute without any explanation.

Even the shape of things in Japan can be considered kawaii. Curved shapes, such as circles and spheres, are more likely to be rated “cute”, so even the style of scissors can be labeled as kawaii scissors.

According to an evaluation experience between men and women, it was concluded that there are cute colors like yellow. It has also been scientifically proven that small things tend to be cuter.

Objects with textures that evoked soft tactile sensations were classified as "cute" instead of hard things. A teddy bear or something fuzzy is naturally considered to be cute internationally.

Sometimes "kawaii" is used as an expression of attachment to some personal object, even if it is not pretty. Generally, personal tastes may not be understood by the vast majority, unless it is related to a niche or hobby.

In addition to the original meaning of the word “kawareru“, The verbal form of“kawaii”Also refers to the act of favoring or caring for someone of a lower level, or in a lower situation. Does that meaning make sense? We will see?

A baby's characteristics, morphology and behavior are instinctively "protected" and "loved" by humans. The same happens with animals, when they are small and defenseless, we think they are cute, we love and we feel like protecting them.

Meaning of kawaii - cuteness culture in japan
Japanese bowing to Kawaii

The History of Kawaii Culture

The first vestiges of this culture appeared in the Edo period (1603-1868), where woodcuts known as dijinga they represented pretty girls. At the end of the Edo period, some artists were already making illustrations that give rise to the term.

Yumeji Takehisa and Katsuji Matsumoto were one of the great fathers of the shoujo illustrations of cute girls. They drew cute girls with big eyes, which was often considered to be commonplace. Even because the word has already been used to refer to people of low social class.

Meaning of kawaii - cuteness culture in japan

Kawaii as an aesthetic concept started in the 70's, with the growth of the Japanese economy and the commercialization of products related to mascots and characters from anime and manga. The illustrations of cute girls, shoujo manga and product marketing were responsible for this phenomenon.

The great representative of the boom cuteness is the character Hello Kitty. Japanese people like cute things, no matter the age! Cute elements can be seen almost everywhere in Japan, in large companies, markets, advertisements, TV advertisements, video games, airplanes, cars, etc. 

This word can also come from China, since they use it there Kě'ài [可爱] to designate something pretty, cute or lovely.

It's not common to call a man kawaii, women often use the term kakkoii [かっこい] for that.

Meaning of kawaii - cuteness culture in japan

Kawaii and the Burikko culture

There is a Japanese sub-culture called burikko, it became popular with girls 12 and 18 years old in the 80s. About 50% of the girls of the time wore something related to burikko culture.

The burikko [ぶりっ子] is a term used to refer to women who act and speak in a childish or innocent way to attract attention. This culture even affects the way girls write.

The original word burikko is composed with an ideogram [振] which means agitation, gaiato and swing. Nowadays it is written only with hiragana. The word can be translated as a false child.

The adjective kawaii appeared at the same time as writing burikko-ji and maru-ji, koneko-ji, manga-ji became popular. This writing was used by teenagers who wrote rounded figures and happy faces (emojis).

Kawaii - what is the meaning of this Japanese cultural term?

So, nowadays everything that is rounded and happy can be considered kawaii. We can see that most characters in anime and manga have big eyes and rounded heads. Mainly the characters Chibi.

Childish, innocent and naive behavior is also considered kawaii. It does not mean that they are childish, they are just trying to be cute and use innocent expressions that can even indicate eroticism.

If you want to know more, we recommend reading our Article on Burikko - The Japanese who have too much cuteness!

Different types of Kawaii

The word youth of the 1990s gave rise to different terms related to kawaii, which may be somewhat unknown in the West, but which deserves to be highlighted:

Erokawaii - Cute and sensual

Erokawaii [エロかわいい] is a compound of “erotic” + “cute”, a concept of cuteness that includes sensuality and sexual attractiveness. This term is believed to have come up in 2003 in forums when someone called Sophie Star Ocean 3 Erokawaii.

Around 2004, singer Kumi Koda expressed her own sexy fashion called “Erokawaii“, and it was recognized as a general term in the fashion world, so that term was born. Erotic beauty is popular in fashion magazines, giving rise to other expressions like “erotic cool” and “erotic cool cute”.

The clothes called erokawaii mix the sexy with the cute. As a sexy element, there is a lot of skin exposure, lingerie style design, use of transparency, black and others. Cute elements include the use of flashings, bows, lace, polka dots and pink.

Meaning of kawaii - cuteness culture in japan
Some styles of Lolita can be called Kawaii

Busakawaii - Ugly but cute

The term Busa-kawaii [ブサかわいい] is a word composed of “ugly” + “cute”. It is generally used for pets and women. It refers to a woman who is beautiful and charming even though she may look ugly at first.

When the term “ugly kawaii”Is used on pets, it usually describes the beauty of a pug or bulldog or other animals that are apparently ugly but are actually cute and have their charm.

Kimokawaii - Cutest disgusting

Kimokawaii [キモかわいい] is a word composed of “kimoi”Which means disgusting, scary or strange along with the word“kawaii“. That is, it is something that although disgusting and strange, can be considered cute or cute.

The term was first used by young people in the late 90s, and came to refer to characters like dancing babies. Initially, the term was not used for humans, but when comedian Angirls became popular in the 2000s, his surrealist behavior was described as "frighteningly cute".

Although “scary” and “cute” are contradictory adjectives, there have been many cases of “monsters” like Godzilla being called kawaii. Even outside of Japan, there were examples, like the Gremlins and SpongeBob, who despite being strangers are cute.

Other kawaii terms

In addition to the main ones mentioned, we have some others like:

  • Yurukawaii - Junction of something relaxed and loose + cute;
  • Kakkokawaii - Junction of cool + cute; Used for compact cars and keicars;
  • Kireikawaii - Junction of cute + cute;

How the West views kawaii culture

Even though this is prevalent throughout Japan, Westerners view kawaii things as childish or feminine, not understanding or accepting the way that this is pervasive in Japanese culture.

Yet the West is heavily influenced by kawaii culture. Westerners are not entirely wrong in saying that this culture is childish, in fact it is based exactly on children, animals and babies.

It turns out that the rounded characters with big eyes, colorful clothes and hair, thin voice, strange attitudes and gestures and different styles end up bothering westerners who consume certain media such as games, drawings and manga.

Westerners end up thinking that these media are made especially for children. The Japanese, on the other hand, do not discriminate things by saying that something is childish or feminine, they accept it with open arms and consume the content as they are.

In fact, both games and Anime Japanese, are made with us adults and teenagers in mind. There is no such thing as a cute thing to be Childlike, Japan breaks that taboo, and does it very well. In fact, the prejudiced view of cuteness in the West reflects your safety.

If cuteness is instinctively linked with the will to protect and love, cultural absence causes love and affection to be left out, so we have in the West a growing passion for violence and a great ignorance when it comes to cuteness.

Meaning of kawaii - cuteness culture in japan
In Japan workers' barricades are cute

Why do Japanese people like cute things more than the West?

Kawaii culture was, in many ways, shaped by the desire to end the aggressive militaristic past. The media and trade effort ended up culturally strengthening the Japanese taste for cute things.

Cuteness is sometimes associated with fantasy and immortality. Being cute about the illusion of positive health, which is totally opposed to mortality. Most Americans value the freedom to enjoy life, regardless of the extreme danger.

East Asians in general are not very good at expressing their real emotions in public because of fear and shame, in which they were strongly influenced by Confucianism that emphasized the importance of harmony between people.

Cuteness served as a buffer for a person to hide their true intention from within. Westerners, on the contrary, need to express their true opinion in order to gain respect and trust, thus generating a little hypocrisy and two faces.

Cuteness is a kind of positive image that gives a person a happy, safe and relaxed feeling about the harsh realities of life, especially in Japan, where you always have to follow strict rules anywhere and work overtime. This kind of generates profit for the market, further increasing the reach of kawaii.

Meaning of kawaii - cuteness culture in japan

Kawaii Culture Subcultures

In addition to burikko, there are several other sub-cultures, types or categories related to the kawaii phenomenon. Let's see some sub-cultures or kawaii fashion styles:

  • Gurokawaii - It refers to something beautiful and grotesque at the same time. People who wear heavy makeup can fit into this sub-culture.
  • Kimokawaii - Refers to something cute and scary at the same time.
  • Busukawaii - Something that is ugly and beautiful at the same time. Probably someone who, in an attempt to look kawaii, remained ugly.
  • Erokawaii - Something cute and sexy;
  • Shibukawaii - Refers to the more casual kawaii style. Every day the person is beautiful without doing much, just using a simple piece daily.

Most other types and styles of fashion use aspects that go into kawaii culture like lolitas. You can find these and other kawaii fashion styles by visiting the neighborhood of Harajuku.

Kawaii is also strongly linked to Moe, a word that can also be used to refer to someone adorable, cute and beautiful. The word is often used for girls who have the following characteristics: Shyness, Kindness, Beauty and Innocence.

Meaning of kawaii - cuteness culture in japan

In addition to participating in every country with culture, the population collaborates with the following other styles and culture:

  • Most young Japanese people love to decorate their cell phones with stickers and pendants;
  • There are many cars filled with stuffed animals or printed with some type of character;
  • The fashion Kigurumi, Cosplay, Decora style and also the japanese lolitas they are part of this concept;
  • Even Japanese cuisine is cute:

Kawaii - Examples of cuteness in Japan

Kawaii culture is quite exposed in Japan everywhere. Just enter a gift shop to find thousands of kawaii things. It's not just the products on sale, but even the advertisements are cute.

Believe it or not, this is a police poster asking people to report a crime:

Meaning of kawaii - cuteness culture in japan

Many companies, small and large, use “cute” pets to expose their products and services to the public. Let's see some examples below:

Meaning of kawaii - cuteness culture in japan
  • Characters of Pokémon adorned the side of All Nippon Airways jets;
  • Banco Asahi used Miffy, a character in a Dutch children's picture series, at some of his ATMs;
  • Monkichi, a little monkey, can be seen on the packaging of a line of condoms;
  • All 47 prefectures in Japan have a cute mascot.
  • Slogan of almost everything has to have something cute;
Meaning of kawaii - cuteness culture in japan
  • Japanese mail also uses other pets, for example, on stamps;
  • On Japanese roads, we can see trucks stamped with figures from the Hello Kitty and other cute characters;
  • There are several Trains personalized with anime and cute things;
  • In Japan, there are islands called Rabbits Island and Cat Island, which attract many visitors, due to their inhabitants;
  • Each police force in Japan has its own mascots, many of them adorning the front of the kōban (police stations);
  • There are several Maid Cafe and Cat Cafe throughout the country;
  • The barricades used in building and renovating roads in Japan are cute and have some character. Search for [単管バリケード] images.
Meaning of kawaii - cuteness culture in japan

Why do Japanese people like Kawaii things?

Some say that this culture was born as a movement against traditional Japanese culture and the social pressure imposed on young people when they finish their university studies. Others believe that kawaii culture was born out of a desire to be cared for and to be loved.

At a time when people isolate themselves more and more and has less time for fun, consumption of cute products is a way of decrease loneliness and relieve stress. On the other hand, the excess of products with characters ends up to confuse a little the limits in between what is a joke and what is not.

Meaning of kawaii - cuteness culture in japan

Despite sub-cultures and fashion styles, they lose strength every year. The cute things remain firm and strong in the media and advertising across the country. Increasingly reaching greater acceptance from the West, thanks to anime, games and manga.

What do you think about this gigantic aspect of Japanese culture? Did you know its meaning?

The most Kawaii anime of all time

I hope you enjoyed this article, if you did, share it and leave your comments. Before finalizing I will also recommend some Kawaii anime to give you an idea of this concept:

K-On - A anime music almost mandatory for anyone who wants to watch something cute and moe. It tells the story of a band of cute girls who are in a light music school club.

Kimi ni Todoke  - One of the cutest and most innocent novels of all time. In this story you follow the romance of a girl named Sawako who is bullied for her name that resembles the girl from the movie Called.

Meaning of kawaii - cuteness culture in japan

Ao Haru Ride - Another very popular and cute anime that tells the story of two young people in love, but things didn't go very well. After being reunited the girl tries to approach him but he apparently has indifferent feelings.

Other cute anime I recommend:

  • Acchi Kocchi;
  • Akagami ga Shirayuki Hime;
  • To Haru Hide;
  • Bokura ga Ita;
  • Clannad;
  • Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu ka?
  • Golden Time;
  • Hanamaru Youchien;
  • Hetalia Axis Power;
  • Hibike! Euphonium;
  • Kaichou wa Maid-sama !;
  • Kimi Ni Todoke;
  • Love Live and other idol anime;
  • Lovely Complex;
  • Mikakunin de Shinkoukei;
  • Minami-Ke;
  • Nana;
  • Non Non Biyori;
  • Ore Monogatari;
  • Romeo x Juliet;
  • Shigatsu wa kimi no uso;
  • Shinryaku! Ika Musume;
  • Sukitte II na yo;
  • Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu;
  • Toradora;
  • Yuru Yuri;
  • Yuyushiki;
  • Zero no Tsukaima;

Cute Aggression - Kawaii Wish

We can’t talk about Kawaii without mentioning the Cute Aggression [キュートアグレッション]. It is a need, craving or desire to pinch, squeeze or eat something cute. What explains the use kawaii in the Japanese media and trade.

When a person sees something that is very beautiful, they may feel like biting or squeezing. This is explained as the brain’s defense reaction when it comes into contact with something that is very cute, like an out of control reaction.

Things like cute animals or puppies with their heads out of the car feel overwhelmingly cute. Japan uses Kawaii as its main form of marketing and lifestyle, which also results in a peaceful culture without violence.

What did you think of this long article talking all about Kawaii? I hope he explained a lot about the term and its culture. I hope you understand why Japan is such a peaceful and friendly place, thanks to the culture kawaii. What do you think? Do you agree with that opinion?

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