What is Kawaii? | Part 1: Types of Kawaii
Updated: Oct 1, 2021
An Introduction to the Concept of Kawaii
Kawaii is Everywhere in Japan
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:
Cultural Differences in Kawaii
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 don’t 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 girl». Being cute was definitely not a compliment where I came from. I was more likely to take offense than to be flattered.
Back in the late 2000s it was once explained to me that Norwegian girls sometimes meant «sexy» when they called someone cute. This was a new idea to me, which was more confusing than clarifying. It wasn’t a big problem, however, since Norwegians don’t use cute as frivolously as they do in Japan.
Still, the uses and concept of cute had nuances that were outlandish to me at the time. It never became an issue though, until about a decade later, when I suddenly found myself moving to a land that was heavily influenced by a concept I had little understanding of.
The Many Types of Kawaii
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 your interjection's connotation. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Japan, become one with the Kawaii.
Basic Uses 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 let’s 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, Kawaii 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…
Check out Part 2 of our What-is-Kawaii-series to find out what happened next. Then, we will also explain the origins of Kawaii in Japan. In the third and final part take a look at how Kawaii connects to Gender Issues in Japan.
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