Cuteness overload in Japan

One impossible thing to ignore in Japanese society is the obsession of everything cute. Walk into a Japanese female’s apartment and prepare to be bombarded by a cuteness explosion.

The stuffed animals, pink bunny clock, and fuzzy slippers are what you might expect. But it gets even cuter. The soap bottle is wrapped to look like a teddy bear, the chopstick holder is a lounging kitty, and a picture of Winnie the Pooh stands guard over the bed, ever vigilant against cold feet and nightmares. The surprise comes when you find out that this isn’t normal just for young girls, but 30 year old women as well.

In Japanese, the word for cute is “kawaii.” With so much kawaii in Japan it is a little overwhelming. As such, it is my firm belief that it is more than mere coincidence that the word for scary, “kowai,” is similar to the pronunciation for cute. The Westerner needs to quickly learn proper pronunciation of these words, lest he end up telling the whole world how scary his girlfriend is.

“The word kawaii was originally used to describe only babies, small animals, and dolls, but in recent years, it has come to symbolize Japanese pop culture” (“Integrated Approach To Intermediate Japanese,” Miura and McGloin 278). Now everything and everyone must be cute. Women spend a significant amount of time and money on their appearance through cosmetics and fashion. Although this is done in other countries, other countries tend to seek a beautiful, sexy, or smart image over a cute one. Commercials on television, restaurant windows, construction signs, and prefectural mascots maintain the cute magic. So much delight and joy was bound to escape the island nation sooner or later.

Younger Westerners have probably heard of Hello Kitty (Kitty-chan in Japan), viewed Japanese anime or manga (comic books), or experienced video gaming with cute Japanese characters like Kirby or Sonic. The cuddly goodness of kawaii has even conquered the skies: All Nippon Airways’ growing fleet (currently five) of Boeing 747 jets is smothered with images of Pokemon (literally “pocket monsters”) characters along its exterior. Cuteness in Japan traced its more modern origins from Disney films like Bambi and Fantasia and has since spread and taken over Japan in many ways. Set to conquer the world, I recommend you to become allies with the cuteness.

As expected, kawaii culture is more obvious, important, and dominated by Japanese females over males. School girls are the biggest trouble makers, purely buying shelves of merchandise “because it is cute”. Babies are taught from an early age to be cute. Cute is a learned and taught gender stereotype in Japanese society. Most babies are just plain cute, but when children grow up, they learn techniques to stay cute. First is artificial beauty. Makeup, clothes to make the wearer appear slimmer, cosmetic creams and the like help combat aging. Globally, the media is telling everyone to be more beautiful, or in the case of Japan, cuter.

This goes a step too far in the following example. In arcades or amusement parks, patrons can find the cute-intensifying purikura machine. Purikura is a photo sticker booth; its name comes from a shortened version from the English words “print club.” The favorite photo booth of Japanese school girls allows customized pictures and backgrounds to be added to photos, but the most striking feature is automatic eye enlargement. Most machines will have the option to automatically enlarge the eyes of the print to sometimes comical proportions. Larger eyes are considered cute and that is why many anime characters or plush dolls have large eyes. In addition to women participating in artificial beauty, women turn to their inner child to portray cuteness. When the outsider is dating a Japanese woman, he needs to be cute too.

Men must also adapt to the kawaii sphere of influence in Japan. By no means however should they become overly cute themselves because that would be seen as unmanly. Japanese males are skinny and dress nicely. Slimming down and styling up is the “cute” method for men to follow. Of course we men call it being cool. Easy cute conversation starters, such as owning a pretty pet, having a cute (but not too girly) cell phone charm, and just having a cute face all score points with the ladies. Although men’s commitment to cute is less than his female partner’s, he is expected to support the cuteness. This means complimenting your girlfriend’s fashion, agreeing with her which things are kawaii, and buying into consumerism on the purchasing of unpractical, yet cute presents from time to time. Evidenced by its export, the kawaii way of life is growing and wedging itself comfortably across the nation and the world.

What’s the cutest thing you have seen in Japan?

Author Infomation

Justin Velgus
Justin Velgus
Justin Velgus is in love with Japan. In addition to his over 60 published articles about Japan, he is author of "Ai, Love You? Finding Friendship, Romance, and Heartbreak in Japan." With a stay on a military base near Hiroshima, study abroad in the wintery northern Tohoku, and travels through Sapporo, Sendai, Akita, Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and more, he has lived the Japanese experience. He enjoys sharing his passion through writing about the culture and people of Japan, being featured on media outlets such as Japan Tourist, Japan Today, and GaijinPot. He is continuing his Japan studies and is currently working on his next feature book.
  • -1

    Elane Nunley

    Mokeke!

  • 7

    southsakai

    LOL i remember my first year in Japan. I saw this real cute dog at the park, I bent down and started petting it, and repeated “kowai, kowai,” over a few times. The look on the owners face, I was like why's he looking at me like that. Now i know

  • -5

    sidesmile

    Its pretty much known by any non-japanese that live here that the Japanese notion of cute is useless, often not so cheap-n-tacky rubbish or behaving like an adult 3 year old. The amount of times I've had to walk away from a "conversation" here because one or more parties are talking though their nose in an infant tone, batting their eyelids and making that stupid duck mouth pout. "Kawaii" is a term unto itself...it does not mean cute. To answer the question...my backside is cute..at least thats what I've been told...but its hairy, smells a bit and has been known to shout at people without warning..and it certainly wouldnt look "kawaii" wrapped around your soap bottle or standing guard over your bed.

  • -1

    semperfi

    it is nauseating !...................J girls grow up and stop playin "pretend" .........Maybe they should all take a trip to Europe ( in their last year of university here) and have a see what real women look like !...........Honestly !.........

  • 10

    Jack Stern

    Yes but who are we to knock what they like? It's their way of expressing their way of life here. I don't let those things bother me because most of them will grow out of it after they get married, have kids or go to work where they have to act grown up.

  • 4

    sakurala

    It is so sad that the idea of looking sophisticated and elegent here seems to be lost on most clothing shops. I have a hard enough time finding clothes that cling to the right sports. When I find something good, half of the time I have to put them back on the shelves because the excessive amount of lace, sparkels, "gems" and bows that seem to adorn almost every piece on the rack. I wish that they would pet down the neopolitan ice cream pallet and try to adventure into some other colors, shapes and designs that would allow women to look womenly.

  • 0

    Cos

    What’s the cutest thing you have seen in Japan?

    Usagi.

  • 2

    Lew Archie

    @semperfi

    J girls grow up and stop playin "pretend" .........Maybe they should all take a trip to Europe ( in their last year of university here) and have a see what real women look like !...........Honestly !.........

    Thats a pretty sad comment.

    Anyway, the cutest thing I've seen in Japan, apart from my girlfriend's ridiculous smile, would be the crazy manga men and women that appear on packets of everything you buy from the local kombini.

  • 4

    Fadamor

    The Westerner needs to quickly learn proper pronunciation of these words, lest he end up telling the whole world how scary his girlfriend is.

    Apparently those of us who are "blessed" with a Southern accent are doomed in this regard. In my Japanese class we were talking about "scary" and I, knowing the difference, make a joke about a girlfriend being "scary cute". My instructor asked why my girlfriend was so scary that I had to say "kowai" twice. To me the difference in sounds was obvious, but the instructor (and most of the others in the class) weren't hearing the difference. (sigh)

  • 3

    timtak

    Kyary Pamyu Pamyu

    I think that the resemblance between kawaii cute and and kowai scary is no coincidence. The two are closely linked. See all the horror-show things in Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's Pon pon pon video, or the way in which in several Japanese horror movie climax scenes (Chounouryoku Reiko, Joyuurei, Audition, Kyuuketsuki Onsen) the female monster -- they are always female in Japan -- treats their victim as something cute even as she kills them.

    Kawaii and Kowaii are like Love and Lust.

    They are so beautiful, but only a whisper away from the horror. The horror.

  • 0

    gaijinfo

    The most disgusting and off putting thing to me is when some old woman, in her sixties, tries this stuff.

    Gals, you really gotta knock it off after you finish JHS.

  • 5

    Tamarama

    I rather see 'em looking cute that fat and tattooed.

  • 1

    Thomas Proskow

    I wish Japanese/Asian women would realize that they are naturally born with a cute physical appearance: high cheekbones, almond eyes, button nose, pouty lips, and baby smooth skin. No matter what they do, or how they dress, they will always look "cute".......

    Sooooooo, now that it's out of the way, they can focus on developing their behavior to be mature, sophisticated, sensitive, kind, and intelligent. So that they can finally graduate out of being merely "cute" into being "beautiful".

    Acting like a three year old is not beautiful and a turn off for most foreign men.

  • 3

    tkoind2

    Kawaii is like a social Black Plague for Japan. Almost as if society is trying to flee reality by obsessing over all things child like. Sexy = Child Like, Fun = Child Like, Interesting = Child Like. Really?!

    I get tired to death of 30 something year old women who behave like 15year olds. Guys who try so hard to be girlishly cute that it is no wonder they are sexless singles. College age women who should be defining their intelligence dressing up like little 9 year olds and behaving like children. And don't even get me started on the 40 something year old guys obsessed with school girls or the national insanity over AKB48 or DUI48 or WTF48.

    I am sorry but it is shameful. Japan's history was not a nation a fuzzy bunnies. It was a nation of people who took a medieval state in 1865 and turned it into a regional super power in less than 50 years. Just ask the Russians of 1905 about how impressive that change was.

    Now when I hear right wingers talking about taking on China or America and restoring Japan to the Imperial Era of the 30's, all I can do is wonder if the new Japanese Empire would leverage cute to smother the world in Kawaii to win domination. Because the furry over done youth of Japan are no match for the hard working country legions of China or the ten year war hardened US youth who think a biker jacket with spikes is cuter than any bunny.

    Japan really should shake off this Kawaii thing before it goes down in history as the cultural black plague that rendered Japan a disfunctional joke on the global stage.

  • 5

    tkoind2

    p.s. Tamarama. If the overweight tattoed girl can hold an intelligent conversation and have a personality that is not off the pages of some magazine, the please introduce me!! I would rather have interesting, intelligent friends over vacuous bunnies any day of the week from now until hell freezes over.

  • 2

    zenkan

    "The desire to remain a child is strong in this one".

  • 0

    AKBfan

    Article is partially true but also a bit misguided. And one can meet plenty of Japanese women who dress sophisticated and act their age. Nothing wrong with the cutesy girls either - can be really sexy at times.

  • 0

    Ali Khan

    it is a way of life in japan, the Japanese like Cuteness even in their expressions, the tone of the Japanese girl, the shyness of the boys in communication, that baby cuteness is continued even if 60 years old in Japanese is angry during anger or rage just watch you will see that cuteness but some how it is cute because it cute you know ........

  • 0

    Funnybonesup

    It's all cutesy - pie and twinkle toes until someone eats the last cookie and its spank time.

  • 0

    HonestDictator

    Yeah, I don't mind the Japanese ideology of "cute" but when women older than 18 run around trying to look "cute" it becomes nightmarish. The unnatural curls, the surgical removal of those (formerly) natural almond eyes and the constant sickening pouty lip in order to keep up a "cute" appearance... sigh Some women are naturally beautiful, some are sexy, some are cute. But they all shouldn't try to keep up trying to look or act cute.

    Nothing much I can do except weed through the fake flowers to find the real ones.

  • -2

    GW

    Tkoind2 nailed it, kawaii is a PLAGUE & is part of the decline here, just had a friend here on biz for a week & he was floored at how infantile so much was, he say & did lots he liked but the kawaii crap got to him quick.

    My mom last year spend 5wks & JTV soon had her wondering how many Japanese are really over 15yrs of age haha

    It is a plague, its doing damage, its needs to be reigned in!

  • 0

    caffeinebuzz

    Not so bad for high school girls, but I agree- knock it off after graduating. I worked with this 50 something year old Japanese woman who acted like a schoolgirl right down to the palm clapping while squeaking "ehhh sugooooooi", and answered everything she didn't get with "waKANnai!", like a kid...It was truly awful.

  • -3

    m6bob

    Most Westerners fresh of the plane or have never step foot in Japan should lay off, simply because they do not understand Japan or Asian culture in general. These are the same people who uses Western yardstick to measure everything in Asia and then come out and wonder why it doesn't fit. Some uses humor to describe their Asian experiences, again wrong yardstick. Before these people are qualified to comment, come and live in Japan with an open mind. As the saying goes, the more you look like an Asian, the better you're qualified to comment.

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