The History of Kawaii in Japan
Updated: Oct 3, 2021
What is Kawaii? | Part 2: Origins of Kawaii
Part one in this blog series about Kawaii introduced the basic concept of Kawaii.
From Bashful Faces to a Cult of Kawaii
After looking into the basic uses of kawaii, my confusion reached new heights. And daily life in Japan didn’t give me enough clues to get a deeper understanding of kawaii. A more «serious» approach was required, the looking up of information at the almighty Wikipedia:
«Kawaii can refer to items, humans or nonhumans that are charming, vulnerable, shy and childlike. Examples include cute handwriting, certain genres of manga, and characters like Hello Kitty and Pikachu.»
The intro didn’t exactly offer much insight, but looking at the origins of the word Kawaii is interesting. It turns out that it was derived from the word «kao-hayushi», which translates to glowing face. This was a common expression for embarrassment in the early 1900s.
In classical Japanese language, the word «okashi» had similar properties as Kawaii in modern Japanese. Okashi could mean beautiful, excellent or elegant on the one hand, odd, laughable or ridiculous on the other.
Over time Kawaii changed in both pronunciation and meaning. Before arriving at its current state, the term came to mean «cannot leave alone» or «care for». From there it morphed into Kawaii, which according to Miki Kato (Eye Magazine) is closer to the English word «cool» than «cute».
Kato further argues that the youth culture of Japan see Kawaii as a sign of positivity. If someone is Kawaii, it means that they are innocent and without negative traits. As a result of mass-production, mass-capitalism, and mass-control of popular opinion, individuality is hard to express. Embracing cute mascots gives faceless consumers a sense of belonging to a group. It signals that you are easy going, open-minded, and approachable.
An Example of Kawaii Confusion
So how does all this translate to our everyday understanding of Kawaii? When your girlfriend describes your male friends as Kawaii, is it an expression of affection, or a complement on his persona and individuality? Well… In my case, it was the latter. Here is what happened:
The planning of a drinking party was the setting that made my friend earn his Kawaii. He took it upon himself to call and book a table at a restaurant, even though it was me who initiated the social gathering. I assume he did me this favor because he knew that my Japanese speaking ability was limited. This deed led to him being called Kawaii.
When asking my girlfriend about this, she said that it was not his looks or even his personality that was Kawaii. Even though she said that «he was Kawaii», it was his action that was in fact the catalyst of kawaii.
In other words, doing someone a favor, depending on the context of the situation, can result in people calling you «cute» in Japan. When I first heard it, it certainly didn’t occur to me that this particular Kawaii meant acceptance of my friend’s individuality.
In hindsight it might seem obvious that Kawaii can refer to appearance, behavior or affection. But then there’s the question about understanding the speakers intention and manner of speaking:
Was the «i» in Kawaii dragged out for two seconds? Did the word go up or down in intonation? And what about the body language? Most importantly, was it merely a polite kawaii, or was it an actual, heartfelt compliment?
Navigating the Sea of Kawaii
Let's say you are going to a bakery in Tokyo. The bakery itself might look Kawaii. The mascot greeting you at the door will most definitely be Kawaii, the same goes for the small baked goods in the shape of small rabbits and teddy-bears.
Then there’s the clerk behind the register. He might look Kawaii, act Kawaii, speak Kawaii and wear a Kawaii uniform. If he is a real hunk, he might be Kawaii in the sense that you want him more than the tasty treats he is serving.
The sweetest thing in the entire bakery - the perfectly balanced taste of pastries so fluffy its like biting into clouds of custard and cream - almost drowns in the never-ending waves of cuteness. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
In the third and final part of our What-is-Kawaii-series we take it one step further and discuss 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