Say konnichiwa to Japan’s Kawaii culture.
The word kawaii translated means cute. In the consumer and cultural context, it is a celebration of all things sweet, adorable, innocent, gentle, and pure. Kawaii has saturated Japan from Hokkaido to Kyushu and its domination can be seen through popular culture, tourism marketing, or by simply taking a stroll down a Japanese neighbourhood.
While we may already be familiar with the Kawaii exports of “gotta catch ‘em all” and “fighting evil by moonlight”, they are only a small glimpse into this seemingly innocent phenomenon that yields global power.
The root of Kawaii culture, surprisingly, can be traced back to a handwriting fad popularised by Japanese schoolgirls in the mid 1970s. The unique script involved writing horizontally instead of the traditional vertical with English words and cartoon pictures inserted between characters.By the 1980s the cute writing style was appearing in comic books, magazines, and advertising.
Alongside the trend was a rising feeling of discontent amongst the youth of Japan who felt that the responsibilities of adulthood were too strict and harsh. Instead of a sexually charged and aggressive rebellion, akin to those in Western countries, they revolted by clinging onto the simplicity of childhood and embracing all things cute, innocent, and fun.
Sanrio, the creators of everyone’s favourite Kitty, capitalised upon the sign of the times and were the first to begin fashioning Kawaii products. Ordinary items such as stationery, lunch boxes, and toiletries were personalised with Kawaii looking characters – anthropomorphic with big eyes, chubby cheeks and a squishy belly. Alissia Freedman, a professor of Japanese literature and film at the University of Oregon, sums it up nicely,
“Kawaii isn’t just any kind of cute. It’s a very vulnerable kind of cute. It’s like, you’re so cute people want to take care of you.”
The allure of the character-laced merchandise lay in the fact that they introduced enjoyment and happiness to the otherwise mundane everyday. Companies began manufacturing cute clothing that allowed their wearer to adopt a younger persona and childhood treats such as candies, cakes, and ice cream gained popularity. The consumption of these goods soon began to shift beyond the youth. The market expanded, competitors entered the scene, and Kawaii infiltrated various areas of Japanese life.
Banks, commercial airlines, and nearly every organisation in the Land of the Rising Sun began exploring cute as a commercial strategy to increase appeal and attract consumers. Doe-eyed cartoon characters were created and licensed to front packaging, wave on billboards, and become the cute and charming figurehead for otherwise faceless brands.
The 2015 Japanese Local Mascot Grand Prix with 1,727 mascots in attendance.
Local governments also hopped aboard the Kawaii train. To develop tourism and boost local economies, cities and prefectures created their own unique cartoon mascot that represented the unique drawcards of their regions. The popularity of these cute mascots has attracted large domestic crowds to visit different cities to meet the local mascot and take a picture with them.
Media franchises that encompassed the Kawaii theme such as Pokémon, Sailor Moon, and Doraemon exploded in popularity. In Japan today, Poke Centres – stores dedicated to solely selling Pokémon merchandise – are scattered across all major cities, Sailor Moon fronts several cosmetic lines, and Doraemon, well: he has his own museum.
Kawaii’s transition to a dominant consumer culture is driven by a desire to break from daily routines. Society in Japan stresses collectivistic values by championing the importance of family and social groups whilst individual interests are discounted. Research suggests that Kawaii culture provides a light-hearted escapism from these restrictions. Through Kawaii, lifeless goods and impersonal organisations are given a friendly face. This allows consumers to form a relationship with the brand and a sense of belonging is created via the connection with the characters as well as encouraging feelings of joy and happiness.
During the 1990s, the commercial success of Kawaii culture’s by-products were not only felt domestically but overseas as well. The rise of Japan’s popular culture trends worldwide dispelled the notion that globalisation was a process monopolised by America and European archetypes. The feat motivated the recession-plagued Japanese government to adopt a discourse to promote Japan’s cultural diplomacy and soft power upon the foundations of their popular culture exports – known today as the ‘Cool Japan’ campaign. Cultural anthropologist Anne Allison defines soft power as,
“the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.”
Japan’s soft power is as strong as ever. The country’s cultural exports account for about 13 trillion yen (US$130 million) in annual sales and is now one of Japan’s leading business sectors. Popular culture as we know it would not be the same without the staples that the demand for Kawaii culture spawned. Read it and weep:
- Pokémon is the highest grossing entertainment media franchise of all time, surpassing both Star Wars and Harry Potter, with revenues of over $75 billion.
- A study found that more American children recognised Nintendo’s Mario over Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse
- The Lolita fashion subculture has inspired the likes of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Nicki Minaj to designers such as Burberry and Vivienne Westwood
- Hello Kitty surpasses Mickey Mouse, Peanuts, and Thomas the Tank Engine in licensed merchandise sales
- Japanese anime accounts for over 60 per cent of the world-wide production of cartoons
From the character explosion laneways of Harajuku to the subtle doses of adorable on street signs and food packaging, the prominence of Kawaii culture is certainly felt in modern day Japan. Venturing to the Americas, Europe, and even Australia, elements of Kawaii culture are everywhere – yearly organised Harajuku fashion walks, the worldwide craze of Pokémon Go in 2016, and most recently, the Studio Ghibli film showcase. What began as a youth fad has expanded into a global multi-billion-dollar industry that’s crossed borders and continues to wield influence worldwide.
Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.
Never underestimate a pretty kawaii face.