How Kawaii Has Affected the Japan Design Culture

The Japanese's celebration of "cuteness" is reflected in many aspects of its culture and is making waves in other parts of the world.

Most people are familiar with “Hello Kitty,” but draw a blank when it comes to the term “Kawaii.” The creation of the Hello Kitty cartoon by Sanrio was a big contributor to the rise of the Japanese Kawaii tradition and Kawaii characters. And, it has gained commercial popularity in the past two decades.

It’s not only with Japanese women and men but also around the world. Japan’s cute characters, sounds, and fashion everywhere highlight this.

What is Kawaii?

Kawaii is a culture unique to Japan and celebrates cuteness in different forms. Cuteness in Japanese is essentially the meaning of Kawaii. Japanese people, items, food, clothing, mannerisms, Japanese art, and toys, and anything else can have an element of cuteness in Japanese popular culture.

Interestingly, this concept was a kind of revolt against traditional Japanese culture. It began in the 1970s. Females were always subjected to particular roles and forms in the culture. They began adopting super cute fashion styles as a way of breaking out of those traditional roles. Soon, the trend extended into music and arts.

The Japanese word Kawaii finds its origins in the word “Kawayushi.” This means shyness, vulnerability, small, and loveable. The cute Kawaii trend has caught up with many different areas in Japanese culture. In fact, the influence has expanded beyond and can also be seen in elements beyond Japanese borders.

1. Japanese Fashion

Designing clothes in kawaii is like dressing up a human doll. This type of fashion has become so popular that it has also found fans outside Japan. Some of the main elements of this fashion concept include sweetness, innocence, vulnerability, and adorability.

In its true form, the culture has had women pile on ephemera to celebrate their individuality. Ribbons, love lace, aprons, large heels, ruffles, petticoats, parasols, and many other elements find their place in this style.

Kawaii Fashion

The cute style of kawaii fashion sense looks like it has been designed for young children. Or, it includes pieces that enhance the cuteness of the wearer. It can feature accessories like bags and toys having anime characters and use of pastel colors and ruffles.

Lolita fashion, a famous Japanese fashion sub-style, also finds elements of kawaii in its beginnings. Even before this fashion trend came into existence, companies began experimenting with cute designs.

The cuteness style was already popular and the combination with Otom-kei resulted in the doll-kei style. And this is what later became the Lolita fashion. Lolita fashion has become so popular that it has also found its takers in the West. It combines the Victorian and Rococo styles and gothic elements to create

Integration of Athletic Clothes: With time, many style-conscious young girls began experimenting with the cute clothing style. This new trend was layering athletic clothes into the style. Knee socks and hair bows with spades began to get sports brand inspiration. One such example included Nike soccer knee socks tucked into sports sandals with a T-shirt and tennis skirt. Add neon tulle panniers sewn into the T-shirt and a holographic visor. It emerged into a related do-it-yourself trend with athletic inspiration.

2. Harajuku Influence on Kawaii

The Harajuku Influence: The Harajuku shopping area has had a significant role in making the kawaii culture popular. During the late 70s and most of the 80s, the district would remain closed to vehicle traffic on weekends. This enabled pedestrians to interact with each other.

Many clothing brands took advantage of the opportunity by selling cute clothing. Lolita emerged as an offshoot of the style, being given the name the first time by the popular fashion magazine, Ryukou Tsushin. Some of the other areas similar to Harajuku are Daimyo in Fukuoka and Shinsaibashi in Osaka.

Harajuku became the center of all the different kinds of cuteness in style for Japan’s youth culture. Before the area became a hokoten, it was an American housing area, thus coming in contact with the outside world.

With no car traffic around, it became a popular destination for teens to see each other. This district became a mixture of street fashion, gothic fashion, and cosplay. Kawaii emerged through all this to become what it is today.

Types of Kawaii

3. Kawaii Dolls in Japan

Kawaii became a major cultural force at the beginning of the 21st century. Hello Kitty, Pikachu, Coji Coji, and Rilakkuma became even more popular, and new characters emerged across the horizon. Kawaii doll characters’ features, like large eyes, make them adorable to many fans.

Gloomy Bear emerged as one of the popular characters but gave an unconventional twist to the concept as it represented a more kimo-kawaii culture – a combination of gross and cute. Some of the other popular dolls reflecting this trend include Komatsu, Kunoichi, Mari, Suwahime, Mayumi, Madoka, Sarah, and Sonamaru.

4. How Teenage Girls Write in Japan

One of the earliest ways the culture of cuteness emerged in Japan was in the form of a new cute style of writing. For the first time, teenage girls began writing laterally with mechanical pencils. This was different from vertical Japanese writing. Girls also began adding pictures of hearts, emoticons, stars, and even Latin alphabets.

These are incorporated into all types of writing not just love notes to a boyfriend. The addition of pictures made it difficult to read what was written and many schools began banning such writing. But magazines, comics, and other publishers began adopting this new cute writing style.

Marui Ji is a Japanese word meaning “round writing.” In the 1970s, Japanese schoolgirls began writing their letters in a more feminine way – adding happy faces, stars, and doodles to their writings. While it was banned in many schools, advertisers and comics picked up on the trend and it appeared in ads and product packaging. Marui Ji is sometimes called kitten writing.

5. Japanese Culture Entertainment Groups

Before kawaii came, Shojo was the most emphasized trend in developing fashion and advertising. It was focused mostly on young women. Teens weren’t targeted. Gradually, the shojo culture evolved and is considered to have contributed to the culture.

The combination of the two cultures encouraged girls to identify with a group. And, the best way to do so was to wear cute clothes and items that belonged to a specific group, such as a band.

From clothing to cell phone charms, just wearing a favorite character could make a girl a part of a group. The cute items worn by a girl became part of her identity and that further placed her in a particular subculture. This trend especially began in 1974 when Yuko Shimizu’s design became widely popular. Malice is one popular band that is followed by girl groups for their elaborate clothes.

Currently, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is one of the most popular pop stars in Japan. Her music videos blend the gross and cute and follow the kimo-kawaii subculture. The characters include monsters to eyeballs.

Kawaii is everywhere

6. Technology

There is almost no part of the Japanese lifestyle that hasn’t been touched by this design. Technology is one such aspect. The cute robot trend is the perfect example. These sweets robots are designed to help people in different aspects of their life.

Cell phones are another area where kawaii has found a place. The Japanese market also offers phones that are loaded with cuteness. Phones or phone accessories can have designs that match your favorite cute characters such as Pikachu, Hello Kitty, or Coji Coji.

The devices can be so elaborate that it almost seems that they can walk and it wouldn’t be surprising if the next generation of designs can actually stagger across the table.

7. Kawaii idols

There are many kawaii idols in Japanese pop culture. These young stars are admired for their cuteness and are expected to maintain a positive public image or become role models for the young. Not all of these idols are pop singers.

They also find a place in other roles in the media such as panelists in programs, magazine models, advertisement models, actors, and much more. Some of the popular names include Speed, AKB48, Morning, Momoiro Clover Z, and Musume.

8. Decora

Decora is also a related style focused on cuteness where you wear lots of decorations on yourself like rings and hairpins. The objective of this self-decoration fashion is to look as vibrant as you can. Kawaii practitioners wear a wide range of lively embellishments and accessories.

Like other kawaii elements, the emphasis is on color. Rings, bracelets, hairpins, and necklaces showcase this. Many participants wear multiple layers on their outfit. Frequently, the style gets a more childlike look and feel.

9. Kawaii video games

Kawaii has also found its pale in video games. Kobito Dukan debuted as a character at the beginning of the 2000s. It was joined by video-game based characters such as Nameko and Alpaca and became big hits in pop culture. In fact, the culture has found and embraced characters from beyond Japan. This includes the favorite American cartoon character SpongeBob Squarepants and also Furby, the chubby toy.

10. Enhanced Productivity

The positive effects of kawaii have been found beyond the scope of pop culture. A study at the University of Hiroshima has shown that viewing cute images can help improve performance factors like non-visual searches and also fine motor dexterity.

The study involved many experiments on university students. The studies came to the conclusion that the increase in performance was that viewing the cute image caused narrowing down of the attention focus. Specifically, the researchers encouraged the use of cute elements in workspaces to boost productivity.

Most of this design style can be super simple, as the focus is mostly on cartoon characters. But it can be more detailed too, like in specific features. There is a part of the culture where more complex pieces are created. Whether more complex eyes are created or the character’s body is smaller than the head, the focus is always on cuteness.

Anime and Manga

Two other Japanese words – manga and anime – have also taken on new importance. Manga refers to Japanese comic books and graphic novels. While anime means Japanese animation. In the U.S., these terms are used as genres. But in Japan, it is more a method of production.

Kawaii: on the way out?

Thus, kawaii finds its place in so many aspects of life in Japanese culture. Kawaii has become so popular that outsiders directly associate it with Japanese culture. They’re interchangeable to many. But, like many trends, this style for many is on the way out.

Gwen Stefani wrote her song titled “Harajuku Girls” in 2004. But, many celebrities keep the style going. And, with international fashion chains moving in mimicking the style, perhaps the hip is moving out.

By Mike O’Halloran

Mike is a writer and co-founder of ListCaboodle.


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