Roughly translated as “cuteness,” kawaii is one of the most frequently used Japanese words. In a broader sense, it describes the culture of celebrating all things adorable and embracing fictional characters as the embodiment of positivity. Originating as a distinctly Japanese cultural trend, the concept soon evolved into the world-wide phenomenon it is today, spreading through many aspects of modern of life, including art, fashion, technology, and even food.
Japan’s kawaii culture is believed to have begun in the 1970s when teenagers developed their own childlike handwriting. Given a variety if names, including marui ji (round writing), koneko ji (kitten writing), and burikko ji (fake-child writing), the stylized script featured curvy, noodle-like lines next to hearts, stars, and cartoon faces. Some believe that trend was in response to the rigid culture of post-World War II Japan, and that this new cute style allowed the youth of the time to express their individuality. While most schools banned marui ji, the playful style gained popularity among advertisers in the 1980s, and led to the invention of one of the most famous kawaii characters of today.
Famous kawaii characters
In 1974, Japanese stationary brand Sanrio launched their iconic character, Hello Kitty. Designed by Yuko Yamaguchi, the super-cute white cat—with no mouth and a pink bow—was first printed onto a vinyl coin purse. Almost fifty years later, Hello Kitty is recognised all over the world, has been placed on countless products, and even has her own themed bullet train. In 2008, Japan named Hello Kitty as their official tourism ambassador, inviting the rest of the world to celebrate the country’s proud kawaii identity.
Since Hello Kitty, Sanrio and many other manufacturers have developed cute characters who, although are fictional, have too become pop icons. Think Pokémon’s Pikachu, the Afro Ken dog, and even emojis—they all have one thing in common: cuteness! Kawaii characters are usually designed to have disproportional bodies, big heads, wide eyes, a tiny nose, and little or no facial expression. The lack of emotions is actually what makes them so lovable, as it allows viewers to project themselves onto the character, be it a small child or an adorable animal.
As well as consumerism and cartoon characters, “cuteness” is also thriving in the art world. The style has even evolved into various genres of cuteness, such as Guro-kawaii (grotesque cute), ero-kawaii (erotic cute), kimo-kawaii (creepy cute), and busu-kawaii (ugly cute).
One contemporary artist to adopt the style is Takashi Murakami, who has developed his own set of cutsie—and often unsettling—characters. Murakami is one of Japan’s most celebrated artists and is the founder of the Superflat art movement. Superflat is based on Japan’s cuteness craze, specifically anime and manga, and blurs the line between fine art and commercial culture. Some of the artist’s most recognisable characters include his smiling flowers and the iconic Mr. DOB.
Another artist considered to be inspired by kawaii is Yoshitomo Nara. The Tokyo-based artist first gained recognition during Japan's Pop Art movement in the 1990s and has since had almost 40 solo exhibitions world-wide. Nara is best known for his ambivalent paintings of children and animals that appear both innocent and sinister at the same time.