The LURE Guide to: Kawaii, Japan's Culture of Cuteness
Japan’s kawaii culture is cuddly and colorful – and underpins problematic stereotypes of women
In Japan, you’ll hear the term “kawaii” being exclaimed a lot – by parents talking to their children, on television and in clothing stores.
Kawaii roughly translates to “cute.” But it's actually a "complicated word," says Dina Zank, an expert on Japanese pop culture at Berlin's Freie Universität. "It can mean cute, naive or desirable, but also pitiful."
It’s almost exclusively used to describe women – only 52 percent of Japanese men said they would be happy if a woman called them kawaii, according to a 2014 survey.
Kawaii is a Japanese beauty ideal that "attempts to preserve the childlike," according to Zank. "That's why kawaii [characters] have extreme childlike characteristics: Huge eyes, small mouth, small nose and petite stature."
Kawaii has its roots in the thin, childlike calligraphy favored by Japanese students of the 1970s. That aesthetic moved from handwriting to dolls, stuffed animals and fashion in the following decade as tenets of American pop culture, like Disney princesses, found its way into Japanese magazines, comics and advertising.
Japanese women began embodying the craze, wearing pastel-colored clothing trimmed with lace and ruffles, and choosing to speak in a nasal, high-pitched tone.
But more than just a fad, kawaii reinforces unrealistic perceptions of the ideal woman, says Zink.
"Gender roles are very set in Japan: The man is responsible for everything outside the house and the woman is confined to the background," she says. "In Japan, women are traditionally quiet, unobtrusive and adapt to men."
Corporations took note and started to cash in. During the Japanese economic crisis of the 1990s, banks and airlines refreshed their images by introducing kawaii into their brands. Even police forces in Japan started advertising with adorable mascots, further embedding a culture of cuteness – and female stereotypes – deep into Japan’s cultural psyche.
In protest, a new class of female artists in Japan are seeking to confront "Japanese traditions and create a grotesque, disturbing but also erotic world," says Zank.
Visual artist Yulia Shur blends reality and illusion, with colorful neon lights and blood stains. A young woman in a bondage-inspired baby doll dress scoops rainbow glitter onto a mirror, cuts out a line and prepares to indulge. Meanwhile photographer Tammy Volpe shows women with their kimonos worn loose and open, which society would deem unladylike.
It's kicking off a feminist revival in Japan that's focused on reprogramming beliefs about the female body and kawaii behavior, says Asako Tomotani, a producer with poweredby.tokyo*.
"Japan has a deeply rooted notion of norm," she tells LURE. "But these women take the risk and fight this conservative culture with their work.”