An E3 Series Shinkansen train with Pokémon decorations

Kawaii (かわいい, [kaw͍aiꜜi], "lovable", "cute", or "adorable") is the quality of cuteness in the context of Japanese culture. It has become a prominent aspect of Japanese popular culture, entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance, behavior, and mannerisms.

The word kawaii originally derives from the phrase 顔映し kao hayushi, which literally means "(one's) face (is) aglow," commonly used to refer to flushing or blushing of the face. The second morpheme is cognate with -bayu in mabayui (眩い or 目映い) "dazzling; glaring, blinding, too bright" (ma- is from 目 me "eye"). Over time, the meaning changed into the modern meaning of "cute", and the pronunciation changed to かわゆい and then to the modern かわいい. It is most commonly written in hiragana, かわいい, but the ateji, 可愛い, has additionally been appended. The kanji in the ateji literally translates to "able to be loved, can/may love, lovable."


A Kogal girl, identified by her shortened skirt. The soft bag and teddy bear that she carries are part of kawaii.
Japanese school girls (Kogal) eating candies. In Japan, eating candy is considered a part of kawaii.

Original definition

The original definition of kawaii came from Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji where it referred to pitiable qualities. During the Shogunate period under the ideology of neo-Confucianism, women came to be included under the term kawaii as the perception of women being animalistic was replaced with the conception of women as docile.

Cute handwriting

The rise of cuteness in Japanese culture emerged in the 1970s as part of a new style of writing. Many teenage girls began to write laterally using mechanical pencils. These pencils produced quite fine lines, as opposed to traditional Japanese writing that varied in thickness and was vertical. Also, the girls would write in big, round characters and they added little pictures to their writing, such as hearts, stars, smiley faces, and letters of the Latin alphabet.

These pictures would be inserted randomly and made the writing difficult to read. As a result, this writing style caused a lot of controversy and was banned in a large number of schools. During the 1980s, however, this new "cute" writing was adopted by magazines and comics and was put onto packaging and advertising.

From 1984 to 1986, Kazuma Yamane (山根一眞 Yamane Kazuma) studied the development of cute handwriting, which he called Anomalous Female Teenage Handwriting, in depth. This type of cute Japanese handwriting has additionally been called: marui ji (丸い), meaning "round writing", koneko ji (小猫), meaning "kitten writing", manga ji (漫画), meaning "comic writing", and burikko ji (), meaning "fake-child writing". Although it was commonly thought that the writing style was something that teenagers had picked up from comics, he found that teenagers had come up with the style themselves, spontaneously, as an underground trend. His conclusion was based on an observation that cute handwriting predates the availability of technical means for producing rounded writing in comics.

Cute merchandise

Tomoyuki Sugiyama (杉山奉文 Sugiyama Tomoyuki), author of Cool Japan, claims cute fashion in Japan can be traced back to the Edo Period with the popularity of netsuke.

Because of this growing trend, companies such as Sanrio came out with merchandise like Hello Kitty. Hello Kitty was an immediate success and the obsession with cute continued to progress in additional areas as well. The 1980s additionally saw the rise of cute idols, such as Seiko Matsuda, who's largely credited with popularising the trend. Women began to emulate Seiko Matsuda and her cute fashion style and mannerisms, which emphasised the helplessness and innocence of young girls. The market for cute merchandise in Japan used to be driven by Japanese girls between 15 and 18 years old.

No longer limited to teenagers, however, the spread of making things as cute as possible, even common household items, is currently embraced by people of all ages.


Kawaii styled luggage

Soichi Masubuchi (増淵宗一 Masubuchi Sōichi), in his work Kawaii Syndrome, claims "cute" and "neat" have taken precedence over the former Japanese aesthetics of "beautiful" and "refined". As a cultural phenomenon, cuteness is increasingly accepted in Japan as a part of Japanese culture and national identity. Tomoyuki Sugiyama (杉山奉文 Sugiyama Tomoyuki), author of Cool Japan, believes that "cuteness" is rooted in Japan's harmony-loving culture, and Nobuyoshi Kurita (栗田経惟 Kurita Nobuyoshi), a sociology professor at Musashi University in Tokyo, has stated that "cute" is a "magic term" that encompasses everything that's acceptable and desirable in Japan.

Gender performance

Japanese women who feign kawaii behaviours (e.g., high-pitched voice, squealing giggles) that can be viewed as forced or inauthentic are called burikko and this is considered a gender performance. The term burikko (鰤子) is formed with buri (, literally 'amberjack' a fish), a pun on furi (, 'to pretend or pose'), and ko (, 'child'). It was a neologism developed in the 1980s by comedian Kuniko Yamada (山田邦子 Yamada Kuniko).

Physical attractiveness

In Japan, cuteness is expected of men and women. There is a trend of men shaving their legs to mimic the neotenic look. Japanese women often try to act cute to attract men. A study by Kanebo, a cosmetic company, found that Japanese women in their 20s and 30s favoured the "cute look" with a "childish round face".

Women additionally employ a look of innocence in order to further play out this idea of cuteness. Having large eyes is one aspect that exemplifies innocence; therefore a large number of Japanese women attempt to alter the size of their eyes. To create this illusion, women might wear large contact lenses, false eyelashes, dramatic eye makeup, and even have an East Asian blepharoplasty, commonly known as double eyelid surgery.


Momoiro Clover Z performing at Japan Expo convention on Japanese popular culture

Idols (アイドル aidoru) are media personalities in their teens and twenties who're considered particularly attractive or cute and who will, for a period ranging from several months to a few years, regularly appear in the mass media, e.g. as singers for pop groups, bit-part actors, TV personalities (tarento), models in photo spreads published in magazines, advertisements, etc. (But not every young celebrity is considered an idol. Young celebrities who wish to cultivate a rebellious image, such as a large number of rock musicians, reject the "idol" label.) Speed, Morning Musume, AKB48, Momoiro Clover Z are examples of popular idol groups in Japan throughout the 2000s & 2010s.

Cute fashion


Lolita fashion is a quite well-known and recognisable style in Japan. Based on Victorian fashion and the Rococo period, girls mix in their own elements along with gothic style to achieve the porcelain-doll look. The girls who dress in Lolita fashion try to look cute, innocent, and beautiful. This look is achieved with lace, ribbons, bows, ruffles, bloomers, aprons, and ruffled petticoats. Parasols, chunky Mary Jane heels, and Bo Peep collars are additionally quite popular.

Sweet Lolita
An example of Sweet Lolita fashion in Japan

Sweet Lolita is a subset of Lolita fashion that includes even more ribbons, bows, and lace, and is often fabricated out of pastels and additional light colors. An Additional subset of Lolita fashion related to "sweet Lolita" is Fairy Kei. Head-dresses such as giant bows or bonnets are additionally quite common, while lighter make-up is additionally used to achieve a more natural look. Curled hair extensions, at times accompanied by eyelash extensions, are additionally popular in helping with the baby doll look.

Themes such as fruits, flowers and sweets are often used as patterns on the fabrics used for dresses. Purses often go with the themes and are shaped as hearts, strawberries, or stuffed animals. Baby, the Stars Shine Bright is one of the more popular clothing stores for this style and often carries themes. Mannerisms are additionally important to a large number of Sweet Lolitas. Sweet Lolita isn't only a fashion, but additionally a lifestyle. This is evident in the movie Kamikaze Girls (2004) where the main Lolita character, Momoko, drinks only tea and eats only sweets.


An example of Decora fashion

Decora is a style that's characterised by wearing lots of "decorations" on oneself. It is considered to be self-decoration. The goal of this fashion is to become as vibrant and characterised as possible. People who take part in this fashion trend wear accessories such as multicolor hair pins, bracelets, rings, necklaces, etc. By adding on multiple layers of accessories on an outfit, the fashion trend tends to have a childlike appearance. It additionally includes toys and multicolor clothes.

Kawaii men

Although kawaii is typically a female-dominated fashion, there are men who decide to partake in this trend. Some men decide to transform themselves into women, more specifically kawaii women. They are able to transform themselves by wearing wigs, false eyelashes, applying makeup, and wearing kawaii female clothing. This is seen predominately in male entertainers, such as Torideta-san, a DJ who transforms himself into a kawaii woman when working at his nightclub."

Japanese pop stars and actors often have longer hair, such as Takuya Kimura of SMAP. Men are additionally noted as often aspiring to a neotenic look. While it doesn't quite fit the exact specifications of what cuteness means for females, men are certainly influenced by the same societal mores - to be attractive in a specific sort of way that the society finds acceptable." In this way both Japanese men and women conform to the expectations of Kawaii in a few way or another.


An EVA Air Airbus A330 with a Hello Kitty livery.

This concept of "kawaii" has had an influence on a variety of products, including candy, such as Hi-Chew, Koala's March and Hello Panda. Cuteness can be added to products by adding cute features, such as hearts, flowers, stars and rainbows.

Cute elements can be found almost everywhere in Japan, from big business to corner markets and national government, ward, and town offices. Many companies, large and small, use cute mascots to present their wares and services to the public. For example:

  • Pikachu, a character from Pokémon, adorns the side of ten ANA passenger jets, the Pokémon Jets.
  • Asahi Bank used Miffy (Nijntje), a character from a Dutch series of children's picture books, on a few of its ATM and credit cards.
  • The prefectures of Japan, as well as a large number of cities and cultural institutions, have cute mascot characters known as yuru-chara to promote tourism. Kumamon, the Kumamoto Prefecture mascot, and Hikonyan, the city of Hikone mascot, are among the most popular.
  • The Japan Post "Yū-Pack" mascot is a stylized mailbox; they additionally use additional cute mascot characters to promote their various services (among them the Postal Savings Bank) and have used a large number of such on postage stamps.
  • Some police forces in Japan have their own moe mascots, which at times adorn the front of kōban (police boxes).
  • NHK, the public broadcaster, has its own cute mascots. Domokun, the unique-looking and widely recognised NHK mascot, was introduced in 1998 and quickly took on a life of its own, appearing in Internet memes and fan art around the world.
  • Sanrio, the company behind Hello Kitty and additional similarly cute characters, runs the Sanrio Puroland theme park in Tokyo, and painted on a few EVA Air Airbus A330 jets as well. Sanrio’s line of more than 50 characters takes in more than $1 billion a year and it remains the most successful company to capitalise on the cute trend.

Cute can be additionally used to describe a specific fashion sense of an individual, and generally includes clothing that appears to be made for young children, apart from the size, or clothing that accentuates the cuteness of the individual wearing the clothing. Ruffles and pastel colours are commonly (but not always) featured, and accessories often include toys or bags featuring anime characters.

A Thomas the Tank Engine themed JNR Class C11 train in Japan, 2014.

Non-kawaii imports

There have been occasions in which popular Western products failed to meet the expectations of kawaii, and thus didn't do well in the Japanese market. For example, Cabbage Patch Kids dolls didn't sell well in Japan, because the Japanese considered their facial features to be "ugly" and "grotesque" compared to the flatter and almost featureless faces of characters such as Hello Kitty. Also, the doll Barbie, portraying an adult woman, didn't become successful in Japan compared to Takara's Licca, a doll that was modelled after an 11-year-old girl.

Kawaii goods outlet in 100 yen shop

Kawaii has gradually gone from a small subculture in Japan to an important part of Japanese modern culture as a whole. There is an overwhelming amount of modern items featuring kawaii themes, not only in Japan, but worldwide. And characters associated with kawaii have an astounding popularity these days. We can see the "global cute" by the billion-dollar sellers like Pokémon and Hello Kitty. "Fueled by Internet subcultures, Hello Kitty alone has hundreds of entries on eBay, and is selling in more than 30 countries, including Argentina, Bahrain, and Taiwan."

Japan has become a powerhouse in the kawaii industry and images of Doraemon, Hello Kitty, Pikachu, and Sailor Moon are popular in mobile phone accessories. Notwithstanding Professor Tian Shenliang says that Japan's future is dependent on how much of an impact kawaii brings to humanity.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry has additionally recognised the power of cute merchandise and have sent three 18-year-old girls overseas in the hopes of spreading Japanese culture around the world. The girls are dressed in uniforms and maid costumes that are commonplace in Japan.

Kawaii manga and magazines have brought tremendous profit to Japanese press industry. Moreover, the worldwide revenue from the computer game and its merchandising peripherals are closing in on $5 billion, according to a Nintendo press release titled "It's a Pokémon Planet".

Influence upon additional cultures

Kawaii products are seemingly gaining more popularity beyond the borders of Japan into additional Asian markets, and it's seemingly fitting more popular in the US, especially among the young anime and manga fans as well as among those who're influenced by Japanese culture. Cute merchandise and products are especially popular in a few additional parts of East Asia, such as China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Sebastian Masuda, owner of 6%DOKIDOKI and a global advocate for kawaii influence, takes the quality from Harajuku to Western markets in his stores and artwork. The underlying belief of this Japanese designer is that "kawaii" actually saves the world. The infusion of kawaii into additional world markets and cultures is achieved by introducing kawaii via modern art; audio, visual, and written media; and the fashion trends of Japanese youth, especially in high school girls.

Japanese kawaii seemingly operates as a centre of global popularity due to its association with making cultural productions and consumer products "cute". This mindset pursues a global market, giving rise to numerous applications and interpretations in additional cultures.

The dissemination of Japanese youth fashion and "kawaii culture" is usually associated with the Western society and trends set by designers borrowed or taken from Japan. With the emergence of China, South Korea and Singapore as economic centres in Asia, the Kawaii merchandise and product popularity has shifted back to the East. In these Asian markets, the kawaii concept takes on various forms and different types of presentation depending on the target audience.

In Asia

Taiwanese culture, the government in particular, has embraced and elevated kawaii to a new level of social consciousness. The introduction of the A-Bian doll was seen as the development of a symbol to advance democracy and assist in constructing a collective imagination and national identity for Taiwanese people. The A-Bian dolls are kawaii likeness of sports figure, famous individuals, and now political figures that use kawaii images as a means of self-promotion and potential votes. The creation of the A-Bian doll has allowed Taiwanese President Chen staffers to create a new culture where the "kawaii" image of a politician can be used to mobilise support and gain election votes.

Japanese popular "kawaii culture" has had an effect on Singaporean youth. The emergence of Japanese culture can be traced back to the mid-1980s when Japan became one of the economic powers in the world. Kawaii has developed from a few children's television shows to an Internet sensation. Japanese media is used so abundantly in Singapore that youths are more likely to imitate the fashion of their Japanese idols, learn the Japanese language, and continue purchasing Japanese oriented merchandise.

The Asian countries of China, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Thailand either produce kawaii items for international consumption or have websites that cater for kawaii as part of the youth culture in their country. Kawaii has taken on a life of its own, spawning the formation of kawaii websites, kawaii home pages, kawaii browser themes and finally, kawaii social networking pages. While Japan is the origin and Mecca of all things kawaii, artists and businesses around the world are imitating the kawaii theme.

Kawaii has truly become "greater" than itself. The interconnectedness of today's world via the Internet has taken kawaii to new heights of exposure and acceptance, producing a kawaii "movement".

The Kawaii concept has become something of a global phenomenon. The aesthetic cuteness of Japan is quite appealing to people globally. The wide popularity of Japanese kawaii is often credited with it being "culturally odorless". The elimination of exoticism and national branding has helped kawaii to reach numerous target audiences and span every culture, class, and gender group. The palatable characteristics of kawaii have made it a global hit, resulting in Japan's global image shifting from being known for austere rock gardens to being known for "cute-worship".

In 2014 the Collins English Dictionary in the United Kingdom entered "kawaii" into their then latest edition, defining as a "Japanese artistic and cultural style that emphasises the quality of cuteness, using bright colours and characters with a childlike appearance."