Japanese culture is definitely distinct and different from the rest of the world. There are several aspects of Japan’s culture that are hard to find anywhere else. One such aspect is Kawaii. But where does this obsession come from? Why do the Japanese love Kawaii culture? In this article we attempt to answer these questions.

Background

If you are unfamiliar with the Kawaii culture, let us bring you up to speed. ‘Kawaii’ is a Japanese word that translates to ‘able to be loved’. The term is derived from a phrase meaning “a radiant face” which alludes to a blushing face. Loosely speaking, ‘Kawaii’ is a term used to describe anything that can be considered cute, childish, innocent and vulnerable.

Background

The origin of the Kawaii trend is unclear and is a subject of much debate among sociologists and cultural experts. Some theorize that roots of the trend can be seen as early as the 1950s. This is when illustration of large-headed, baby-faced young girls and animals started to get popular in comics.

Others associate Kawaii’s origin with a cute hand-writing trend that emerged in Japan in the 1970s. Teenagers started using mechanical pencils to write Japanese which was previously written with broad strokes. Not only did the writing become very thin, but it also included small images which can now be characterized as emojis. This style of writing soon made it into the comics, which helped it grow into a larger cute aesthetic.

This budding trend was thrusted into the mainstream due to the business endeavors of companies such as Sanrio. You may not have heard of them, but you would have certainly heard about their brand ‘Hello Kitty’. Hello Kitty is a global phenomenon that has an extraordinary range of merchandise. The Hello Kitty logo can be found on anything and everything – bags, bottles, phones, laptops, scooters and cars are just some of the examples.

Presence

Brands like Hello Kitty, along with other famous and cute Anime/Manga characters such as Pikachu, really helped the growth of the Kawaii subculture. Today, Kawaii can be found everywhere in the Japanese society. It is not just something meant for kids or teenagers. From pop icons to food and beverage companies, everyone uses Kawaii as a means to promote their brand.

Hello Ketty

Even organizations such as news and government agencies in Japan use cute mascots to appeal to the public. For example, Tokyo police uses a Kawaii mascot called Pipo-kun which is a cross between a rabbit and a mouse. NHK, the Japanese national broadcast network, also uses a Kawaii mascot named Domo which is a popular internet phenomenon.

cute mascots

Reasons

But why is Japan obsessed with these cute characters with big, round eyes? Sure, cute things appeal to everyone, but why did this culture flourish in Japan in particular? There are several sociological and psychological factors that can explain the rise of this trend.

Value of youthfulness

There is an inherent vulnerability associated with children. If someone is childish, they are helpless and need to be taken care of. Japanese culture values this aspect of youthfulness. Some experts suggest that Japanese men are attracted to women who have the aura of someone who needs to be cared for. At the same time, Japanese women wish to appear cute and youthful. This combination of psychological and cultural preferences has led to Kawaii becoming a popular trend.

Contrast with the harsh life

Just like cuteness, admirable work ethic is an important aspect of Japanese culture. The life of an average Japanese worker is hard, and there are strict expectations of high-quality work. They usually have long working hours and often face intense social pressure to perform well.

The cuteness of Kawaii is in stark contrast with such an environment. Cuteness is comforting and relaxing. Therefore, it provides tired Japanese workers with relief. Many Japanese people claim that going to a store full of cute merchandise helps them relax after working long hours at the office.

Escape from adulthood

Japanese society’s expectations of adults are in line with the strong work ethic discussed in the previous point. Adults are expected to behave in accordance with tough social norms and traditions.

Therefore, some experts claim that Japanese people tend to develop a hesitancy towards adult life. This reluctance is channeled through the Kawaii culture. It provides them with an escape from the harsh realities of adult life. Kawaii helps them cope with the tough expectations by nurturing their inner child.

Scientifically proven to boost productivity

Such prevalent cuteness is not merely a peculiar aesthetic choice. It can have some psychological advantages as well.

A research study by the University of Hiroshima found that looking at cute things boosts one’s productivity and focus. Researchers did several experiments in which they asked students to do a variety of tasks related to non-visual searches and fine motor dexterity. They then asked the students to perform similar tasks, but after showing them cute pictures of cats and dogs. Researchers found significant improvement in performance.

The scientists involved in the study concluded that viewing cute images narrows the focus of the viewer. They suggested that items with a cute aura should be part of the workplace to boost productivity. Although this correlation may not be a direct factor in Kawaii culture’s growth, it certainly provides a psychological reason for its appeal.

Snowball effect

Lastly, there is the rule of mass psychology. If something is gaining traction, it will grow exponentially.

When Kawaii started to emerge in comics and teen culture, celebrities started to adopt it to improve their appeal. When cultural influencers such as singers and actors incorporated Kawaii, it became even more mainstream. People who would not have been introduced to it through comics were now being introduced to it via other forms of entertainment. When such people produced cultural content of their own, they further spread Kawaii. Soon enough, it became a national and global phenomenon.