Kawaii! Japan’s Culture of Cute

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February 2, 2018 by readingoutside

Kawaii

I was into kawaii before I even knew what it was, and strangely, the older I get the more obsessed with it I become.  Kawaii! Japan’s Culture of Cute deconstructs the phenomenon that began in mid-century Japan and has grown into a worldwide industry.

For those not familiar, kawaii is defined as the culture of cuteness. Arguably its most iconic figurehead is Hello Kitty, but other characters like Kerropi, Rilakkuma, Molang and Gudetama are familiar worldwide.  Western representations include Pikachu, Miffy the bunny and Pusheen the cat. Kawaii characters can usually be identified by their round bodies, large heads, and neutral expressions. They appear on everything you can imagine (even planes!) and merchandise with their image on them is collectively worth a fortune.

But kawaii is about more than just imaginary characters – Hello Kitty and friends are more like ambassadors for the whole world of cuteness in Japan. As the book explores, kawaii is practically a lifestyle for the Japanese, and it’s arguably even more for adults than children. It is part of their personal style, their food, and even their landscape, with kawaii motifs on park benches, buses, billboards and more. It’s a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, even if Westerners love it too. Why it has become such a huge part of their culture is rooted in what happened to the country after World War II, and the book gives several theories about how kawaii evolved into what it is today.

The book is a few years old now (from 2013), but I really wanted to read it after visiting Toronto last November and going on a kawaii spending spree.  I kept wondering where all this cuteness came from, and why my friend and I, two grown women in our thirties, were so enamored by it all. I loved learning the backstory of some of my favourite brands, and reading interviews with the people behind kawaii. The one section I wasn’t as interested in was the huge chapter on kawaii fashion, since most of it is pretty specific to the Harajuku district. Still, I poured over almost every page of the book and came away appreciating all the cuteness even more.

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