Home / Art

What is Kawaii? Discover What Led to Japan’s Culture of Cuteness

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.

A post shared by Hello Kitty (@hellokitty) on

A post shared by Hello Kitty (@hellokitty) on

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.

Cute art

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.

A post shared by Takashi Murakami (@takashipom) on

A post shared by Takashi Murakami (@takashipom) on

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.

Next up: Fashion and food.

Page 1/2

Emma Taggart

Emma Taggart is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met. Originally from Northern Ireland, she is an artist now based in Berlin. After graduating with a BA in Fashion and Textile Design in 2013, Emma decided to combine her love of art with her passion for writing. Emma has contributed to various art and culture publications, with an aim to promote and share the work of inspiring modern creatives. While she writes every day, she’s also devoted to her own creative outlet—Emma hand-draws illustrations and is currently learning 2D animation.
Become a
My Modern Met Member
As a member, you'll join us in our effort to support the arts.
Become a Member
Explore member benefits

Sponsored Content