What is kawaii – and why did the world fall for the ’cult of cute’?
So, what is kawaii and why here and why now? As the Japanese word for cute, kawaii has connotations of shyness, embarrassment, vulnerability, darlingness and lovability. Think babies and small fluffy creatures. In many cases, it is a signifier for innocence, youth, charm, openness and naturalness, while its darker aspects have led it to be rather brutally applied to frailty and even physical handicap as a marker of adorability. You may not have noticed, but look carefully and Hello Kitty has no mouth.
As the economy progressed through the 1970s and 1980s, so did consumer subcultures – and cute as a style began to be expressed through childish handwriting, speech, dress, products, shops, cafes and food. Meanwhile, as Japanese women became more visible at work, so the “burikko” or childlike woman emerged, portraying an innocence and adorability that alleviated the threat of female emancipation, increasing her appeal as a potential marriage partner.
As part of the 1990s wider spread of Japanese culture, kawaii is undoubtedly indebted. However, its persistence well into the 21st century shows that something else is now afoot. Cute culture is everywhere and claimed by everyone, regardless of age, gender and nationality. More than the fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror, it is the collectable branded official merchandise of cartoons and comics, the endless animations and superhero films, the doll-like dresses of “Lolita” fashion and the phone-clutching clusters of Pokemon Go players.
Importantly, it does not seem to rely on Japan, but has become homegrown in multiple locations, with global participants consuming and contributing in equal measure. At first glance, it appears these childlike adults, like the proverbial Peter Pan, don’t want to grow up – but how convenient for business that they can whip consumers into a frenzy, reducing grown men and women into childish, irrational desire. Cute culture is capitalism disguised, repackaged and covered in glitter.