History Of Kawaii

History Of Kawaii

Kawaii is a Japanese cultural phenomenon that has been embraced around the world. Its origins can be traced back to the late 19th century when a modernized and globalized Japan began to embrace the idea of cuteness. Since then, Kawaii has grown and evolved to become a universal phenomenon, influencing fashion, art, design, music and more. In this article, we'll explore the history of Kawaii and how it has shaped our culture.

If you’re someone who’s interested in Japanese history and culture, you have already become acquainted with the term “kawaii”. But, if you’re new to these interesting culture terms, and are just now trying to figure out what in the world kawaii means, then you’re in the right place.


Kawaii- meaning (roughly) cute in English- is a way to describe the Japanese trend of big eyes and adorable style.


First and foremost, we’ll get down to the rough definition translated into the English language. Kawaii, translated roughly into English, means “cute”, which is a great description of the ultra adorable motif that is usually used to exemplify kawaii in Japanese culture. This pop-culture term is often times shown with big-eyed mascots, but the term is also used to describe mundane things such as a car, plane, or even a doughnut in Japan. In the Western World, though, it is typically used to describe adorable cosplay, sweets, and anything that is ultra-cute in the eye of the beholder.


Things described as 'kawaii' tend to be small, brightly colored, and very character driven.


It is said that the overall appeal of kawaii is due to the adolescent features that are bright, soft, small, and round. However, this word didn’t always have such a sweet definition; in fact, it was typically used to look down upon someone. It was a term that was used to describe people who were thought to be beneath the other in stature. However, this later turned to a much more acceptable and flattering compliment in the mid-80’s when girls would be called kawaii instead of pretty or beautiful.


Kawaii used to be a way to insult someone, but now it is used to praise all things adorable!


One of the more historical names often referenced with kawaii is Rune Naito, who helped to popularize the word kawaii through his drawings that embellish the “cute” features of his subjects. He often times adds large heads on smaller bodies, along with features of babies rather than adults. His work, while a little odd in appearance at first, became extremely popular, especially when Japanese women were expected to mature early and help to populate their country with the future labor force and recruits for the Japanese army. Rune Naito’s artwork was reminiscent of the adolescence that had to be left by the wayside for the common good of the culture during that short timeframe, and also cast adolescents in a more desirable way, changing what the country perceived to be attractive.


Just about anything can be 'kawaii'- even underpants!


Other notable artists that drew influential images in a kawaii style were Macoto Takahashi and Masako Watanabe. They are known best for their illustrations that had a mixture of cuteness and eroticism in an innocent way. They definitely helped kawaii grow from an adolescent scene of cuteness to something far more mature and what we know as kawaii today. Kawaii can now be said to mean cute and sexy, as well as being adult yet innocent.


Kawaii can also mean sexy, though in a coy and understated way.


Some notable Japanese cartoon characters also have a root in the history of Kawaii. Some of them that you may already know are:

  • -Pikachu

  • -Hello Kitty

  • -Sailor Moon

  • -Happy Tree Friends

Of course these characters can be found not only on television and films, but they also trace back to the trend of companies such as Sanrio offering goods to those who love kawaii items. They are most notably responsible for making Hello Kitty products for those with an obsession with the ultra-adorable craze. Kawaii isn’t limited to toys for children and young adults however- many companies have embraced the need for adorable products for all ages, so much so that it’s even possible to get your hands on kawaii kitchen utensils.


Hello Kitty is a classic kawaii icon.


While some people will reserve their kawaii indulgences to simple knick knacks, toys, or decorations, others embrace it as a part of who they are. Kawaii clothing has become a staple not only in Japan, but throughout many Western cultures as well. Some of these ultra-adorable fashion trends are the Lolita clothing styles, all of which lean heavily on the need to mix fashion with the ability to be sweet and cute. More often than not these kawaii trends will lean on pastel colors, floral prints, and are paired with lace and other intricate designs to embellish the kawaii theme- though anything can be considered kawaii if you do it right!



Kawaii is a broad term, and if done right, anything can be considered kawaii!


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What is your favorite kawaii icon? Tell us below!



About the Author

Emily Grace