• Husky & Onigunsô


Updated: Sep 5, 2020

What is Kawaii and what does it mean to an outsider Husky?

Kawaii Japanese girl giving the peace sign in cosplay outfit


Kawaii is a sugarcoated layer that covers all of Japanese society. It is the smiling mascots and the big-eyed anime characters peeking out from every nook and cranny. It is cutesy furniture design, Harajuku style, maid cafes, Lolita complex and the basis for a widespread female behavioral pattern of innocence and empty smiles (aka «burikko»).

Kawaii is the phenomenon of Japanese cuteness. It is unavoidable when exploring Japanese culture, and tricky to understand. To a Tokyo expat such as myself, who travelled from a tiny Norwegian countryside community, the concept of Kawaii became more confusing the more I understood. Let me tell you what I’ve learned so far:

A Journey from Hicksville to Sugarcane Metropolis

Like so many Japan-fans before me, I also encountered the concept of Kawaii via anime films. Years later, after finishing a degree in Japanese studies at the University in Oslo, I had come to understand that Kawaii possibly was the most used word in the Japanese language. At the time I did not understand much more than the direct translation: «Cute»

Bear in mind that I come from a place where men usually do not like to be called cute. If someone told the younger me that I was cute, I would take it to mean: «You look like a woman». Being cute was definitely not a compliment where I came from. I was more likely to take offence than to be flattered by such labeling.

At one point it was explained to me that Norwegian girls sometimes meant «sexy» when they called someone cute, a concept that already then sounded foreign to this husky. Another decade would pass when I suddenly found myself moving to a land that was heavily influenced by a concept I had little understanding of.

Kawaii Japanese airplane model in a Tokyo office
Kawaii Japan started as soon as I boarded the airplane 😛

Kawaii confusion

I would soon learn that Kawaii indeed was the most popular interjection in Japan. It is used to express joy, excitement, acceptance, affection, gratitude or even love. In other contexts it can express surprise, pity or hidden contempt.

White lie-Kawaiis are not uncommon, when the speaker finds no redeeming qualities in the product or person they are talking about. For instance, ugly things or persons who are considered unattractive can be called Kawaii at times.

In other words, Kawaii confusion is unavoidable when coming to Japan. The best thing to do is to go with the flow. Making Kawaii on of your go-to replies will make you sound natural in many situations, even though you might not fully understand the connotation of your interjection. When in Rome, do as the romans do. When in Japan, become one with the Kawaii.

Kawaii Japan: Purse dog, road sign and Hello Kitty toilet paper
Japanese kawaii sneaks up on you wherever you go in Tokyo 😮

The Way of Kawaii

Realizing the complexity of Kawaii was the first step towards total confusion. Terms of endearment are not commonly used in Japan. The «L-word» (meaning «love») is never said. And telling someone «I like you» is close to the equivalent of saying «I want to spend my life with you» in English.

This lack of verbal intimacy might to some extent explain the many uses of Kawaii. But lets start with the obvious ones. When teenage girls scream «Kawaii!!» in unison, it most often means just that: «Cute!!» (Sometimes the exact opposite.) When said in a milder manner it can indicate gratitude, awe, happiness or various levels of affection. After a while I came to understand that when my significant other called me Kawaii, this was her way of saying «I like you».

After about six months in Japan my understanding of Kawaii developed gradually to a point where I believed to have a good grasp on the concept. The teenage screams in cute stores meant one thing, the soft whispers in my ear meant another. That was until one day, when my girlfriend suddenly whispered the same Kawaii in my ear, about one of my male friends…

Kawaii Japanese pastry shaped as Hello Kitty and a teddy bear
Luckily there is no shortage of kawaii comfort food anywhere in Japan 😋

Part two in this blog series about what Kawaii really is takes a look at the origins of Kawaii in Japan. Part three dives into the current state of Kawaii in Japanese society.


Eye Magazine: The Japanese Obsession with Cute Icons is rooted in Cultural Tradition

Japan Powered: What is Kawaii?

Merriam-Webster: On «Kawaii» and the Power of Cute

Princeton University Press: The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature

Sage Journals: How the Term Kawaii is perceived Outside of Japan

Savvy Tokyo: Sexism and Culture: Japan's Obsession with Kawaii

Taiken Japan: Kawaii Culture – The Origins and Meaning of Cute in Japanese

Wikipedia: Kawaii

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