The culture of cute is everywhere in Japan. For many people, Japan is synonymous with kawaii (可愛い, かわいい). Any exploratory foray into Japanese culture inevitably involves the all-mighty and highly profitable kawaii. Hello Kitty, known as Kitty-chan in Japan, is one of the most recognizable kawaii exports in America.

It’s easy to figure out what constitutes kawaii. There’s lots of pastel colors and soft features (and an overabundance of pink, in my opinion). Animals, babies, food, and inanimate objects are all fair game to become anthropomorphic goods. Major corporations, train stations, cities, and even the Tokyo 2020 Olympics all have cute, approachable mascots. Characters from popular anime are often subject to a chibi (ちび) makeover — portrayed with oversized heads, big eyes, and small bodies, chibi essentially reduces characters to children...which are also kawaii. In other words, kawaii is everywhere in Japan, even in the most unlikeliest of places.

Nowhere is kawaii more pronounced than among Japanese women. Numerous idol groups like AKB48 play off their hyper kawaii adolescent roots, while Harajuku fashion and music icon Kyary Pamyu Pamyu introduced the world to the "weird" side of kawaii with her 2011 viral hit “Ponponpon.” Female variety show hosts talk in high-pitched voices and jokingly placate male associates and guests, all while presenting a cute, shy, and happy facade.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu became another main influence in overseas kawaii fascination when she released the quirky "Ponponpon." Who would've thought eyeballs were cute?

Kawaii may present a peppy facade, but this culture glosses over the deeper issues of how Japanese women are perceived and treated in a society that markets them as lesser and more childish than men.

The Roots of Kawaii

The etymological root of kawaii reveals a lot about its present use today. Kawaii is derived from the word kao hayushi (顔映し), meaning "face aglow" to indicate someone blushing out of embarrassment or shyness. Gradually the pronunciation morphed into today’s kawaii, which includes "shy" as one of its many definitions.

Traces of kawaii are found in pre-Edo literature such as The Tale of Genji, but it was the 70s that gave birth to a huge kawaii boom. The world was introduced to Hello Kitty in 1974. When mechanical pencils hit shelves, teenage girls started a trend of writing very round characters and adding doodles to make it ultra feminine. While originally centered on young women, kawaii soon wrapped its nefarious pink glittery tentacles around men and women of all ages and socioeconomic classes.

The main definition of kawaii is cute, adorable, and charming. Other underlying definitions include childish, innocent, tiny, and precious. As is often the case, the cultural connotations of a word reveal more about its social influence than its literal definition. Kaori Ishida of Komazawa Women’s University writes:

「かわいい」とう語の来歴に「弱さ」や「儚さ」 ・ 「脆さ」がある。そうした性質であるが故に愛でて大切にしたくなり、守りたくなるという意味が「かわいい」には存在する。その1つの表現として、女性性が存在する。社会では女性は男性に比べて肉体的・精神的に弱く、脆く儚い存在という意識が長い間存在していたため、愛でて守る対象でもあった。  ただし、女性性といっても、女性が性的に成熟した身体性や母性はカワイイファッションでは除外される。

There is "weakness," "transience," and "fragility" embedded in the history of the word kawaii. Consequently, what exists in kawaii is a desire to cherish and protect such dispositions. Femininity exists as one expression of this. Society considers women to be both physically and emotionally weaker than men, and due to the longtime awareness of fragile transience, there’s also an impression of protecting out of a sense of love. However, although called femininity, women who have sexually matured in both physicality and motherhood are excluded from kawaii fashion.

Even kawaii has a limit, it seems. As soon as a woman’s age becomes evident, she is no longer kawaii but something outside of that realm, something too real for the glamorized world of kawaii. Aging and responsibility include contributing to society, setting childish notions aside in favor of "adulting." Yet Japan continues to rely on kawaii as a booming export, using women as a main selling model.

Kawaii vs. Burikko

Even in Japan there is such a thing as too cute. Women who go overboard with the high-pitched voices and baby talk are called burikko (ぶりっ子). Thanks to 1980s comedian Kuniko Yamada, the burikko style became a hit among young women. Nowadays, idols like Koishio Ringo (恋汐りんご) market themselves off of their burikko lifestyle. The one interview I watched with her was punctuated with dozens of "Kawaii!" and a voice so high-pitched I had to lower the volume. Instead of using the Japanese verb stem masu (ます) she used maru (まる), the word for round. It’s almost too much when you consider that two of the names for the super cute writing style popularized by teenage girls is marui-ji (丸い字) and burikko-ji (ぶりっ子字), the former meaning "round characters." Coincidence? I think not.

A collection of clips of Koishio Ringo in full burikko mode. Whether her performance is "cute" or "nails on a chalkboard" is truly a matter of taste.

Burikko can also be used in a derogatory way. While purely kawaii women are glamorized, women who cross that line in sarcastic or jabbing ways are called out and ridiculed. Where is that line, and more importantly, who draws it? When is kawaii too much?

Viewing Women Through the Kawaii Filter

Demeaning women by marketing them as kawaii has been happening for years. Last year we covered [the choice to use virtual YouTube star Ai Kizuna to get people, particularly women, to watch an NHK series of videos about the Nobel Prize winners. Many women were disgusted by the use of a kawaii figure to lure in viewers, calling it sexist and an embarrassment.

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But it’s still happening. Just this month the Self-Defense Forces faced criticism for using scantily dressed female characters from an anime in a recruitment ad. What does kawaii have to do with military service? Was the target audience both men and women, or just men?

SDF draws fire for recruitment poster featuring female anime characters in skimpy costumes | The Japan Times
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Some critics of kawaii culture argue that Japan is degrading itself with its persistent use of "feminine" imagery and marketing tactics. Others point out how kawaii disillusions people from everything that isn’t kawaii. Researchers Marie Aizawa and Minoru Ohno of Shokei Gakuin argued that kawaii acts as a wall between reality and dreams, maturity and childishness, ignorance and fact:

…現代の若者が、かわいいモノやファッション、かわいいアニメやマンガなどの幻想の世界、あるいは非現実の世界にだけに没頭し、そのことが原因で引きこもりやパラサイトシングルなどの現実逃避傾向になってしまうことは望ましくない。現代社会において、いつまでも自立しな い若者の増加は深刻な問題となっている。すなわち、若者の政治離れや世界の時事などに対す る無関心、無知という状態が指摘されているのである。例えば、女子大生の日常会話が、「うそ」、 「本当?」、「かわいい!」の3つの語彙で成立すると揶揄されているように、「かわいい」を過 剰に追従し肯定することが、大人としての知識や常識を身につけ、社会的アイデンティティを 確立させる上で障壁となってはいないかということが懸念される。

Contemporary young people are absorbed only in fantasy worlds, or worlds of unreality, such as kawaii goods and fashion, kawaii anime and manga, which causes the undesirable effect of hikikomori and parasite singles escaping reality. In modern society, the rise of young people who aren’t independent is becoming a serious problem. In other words, the indifference and ignorance of young people’s disillusionment with politics and current world affairs is identified. For example, if a female college student's everyday conversation is formed by the three vocabulary words "No way", "Really?" and "Cute!", it excessively follows and affirms "kawaii." There’s concern that “kawaii” creates a barrier to acquiring knowledge and common sense as adults, as well as establishing a social identity.

This kawaii filter isn’t limited to Japanese women alone. When the 2017 movie Wonder Woman reached Japan, fans were outraged over the cutesy, high-pitched voiceover for the trailer, and understandably so — Wonder Woman is the epitome of female independence, self-reliance, and strength, but those attributes were glossed over.

The Japanese trailer for Wonder Woman. The ultimate focus was on her lack of knowledge about men and worldly ways. Um, who cares? That doesn’t make Wonder Woman any weaker.

Was Wonder Woman so powerful that she had to be dumbed down to a familiar kawaii mold? If so, that says a lot about how major Japanese companies view female audiences.

Combating the Double Standards of Kawaii

Conformity is highly prized in Japan, and some women feel pressured to go along with the kawaii fad in order to fit in. Idol groups especially are subject to very strict rules of conduct meant to maintain their cute and childish persona. Yet when these angelic idols are threatened or sexually assaulted, like NKT48 member Yamagushi Maho earlier this year, they’re the ones who are pressured to apologize for the shattering of their public appeal.

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Even when women should rightfully be taken seriously outside of the kawaii context, they face barriers due to their society’s fixation on kawaii women. As one article about the decline in kawaii brand sales states, if "office ladies" or "OLs" hope to advance their careers, they must be seen on a level equal to their male counterparts, which means abandoning many of the childish attributes and goods kawaii represents. Yet when women want to be taken seriously, men often chide them or continue to treat them as inferior. How are women supposed to advance in their careers if they’re being judged and held to the unrealistic kawaii standards lauded by men?

On the flip side, there exist women who fully embrace kawaii and derive their own power and meaning from the culture, whether it’s in appearance, speech, occupation, or hobbies. Is it fair to degrade kawaii in front of those who are empowered by it? No. Should we applaud them for subverting expectations? Yes.

Kawaii isn’t going to fade into the background anytime soon. With kawaii continuing to rake in trillions of yen for Japan (and new kawaii mascots popping up on my Twitter feed every day), this social construct has become deeply entrenched in the economy and social mannerisms. It will be a long fight for the women who are more than just cute, shy, adorable, childish. Everyone has to grow up some day, and Japan needs to grow up and stop marketing women as cute commodities with two-dimensional personalities and big doe eyes. They are so much more than kawaii.

Sources

Konstantinovskaia, Natalia. "Being Kawaii in Japan." UCLA Center for the Study of Women, 21 July 2017. https://csw.ucla.edu/2017/07/21/being-kawaii-in-japan/

石田 かおり. "日本のカワイイ文化の特質・来歴とその国際的発信について" (On the Character and History of Japanese Kawaii Culture, and a Proposal of It’s Way of International Communication). 駒沢女子大学 研究紀要 第19号 p. 57~68. 2012.

會澤 まりえ, 大野 実. 「かわいい文化」の背景 (The Background of Kawaii Culture). 尚絅学院大学表現文化学科, 尚絅学院大学紀要, 第59号 p. 23~34. 2010.