Kawaii Culture of Japan

Kawaii is the culture of cuteness in Japan. It can refer to items, humans and non-humans that are charming, vulnerable, shy, and childlike. Examples include cute handwriting, certain genres of manga, and characters including Hello Kitty and Pikachu.

The cuteness culture, or kawaii aesthetic, has become a prominent aspect of Japanese popular culture, entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance, and mannerisms.

Etymology

The word kawaii originally derives from the phrase  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  “dazzling, glaring, blinding, too bright; dazzlingly beautiful” (ma- is from me “eye”) and -hayu in omohayui (“embarrassed/embarrassing, awkward, feeling self-conscious/making one feel self-conscious” (omo- is from omo, an archaic word for “face, looks, features; surface; image, semblance, vestige”). Over time, the meaning changed into the modern meaning of “cute” or “shine” , and the pronunciation changed to kawayui and then to the modern  kawaii. It is commonly written in hiragana, , but the ateji, has also been used. The kanji in the ateji literally translates to “able to love/be loved, can/may love, lovable.”

History
Original definition

The original definition of kawaii came from Lady Murasaki’s 11th century novel 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. However, the earlier meaning survives into the modern Standard Japanese adjectival noun かわいそう kawaisō (often written with ateji as 可哀相 or 可哀想) “piteous, pitiable, arousing compassion, poor, sad, sorry” (etymologically from 顔映様 “face / projecting, reflecting, or transmitting light, flushing, blushing / seeming, appearance”). Forms of kawaii and its derivatives kawaisō and kawairashii (with the suffix -rashii “-like, -ly”) are used in modern dialects to mean “embarrassing/embarrassed, shameful/ashamed” or “good, nice, fine, excellent, superb, splendid, admirable” in addition to the standard meanings of “adorable” and “pitiable.”

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 very fine lines, as opposed to traditional Japanese writing that varied in thickness and was vertical. The girls would also write in big, round characters and they added little pictures to their writing, such as hearts, stars, emoticon 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 many 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 also been called: marui ji (丸い字), meaning “round writing”, koneko ji (小猫字), meaning “kitten writing”, manga ji (漫画字), meaning “comic writing”, and burikko ji (鰤子字), 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, says cute fashion in Japan can be traced back to the Edo period with the popularity of netsuke. Illustrator Rune Naito, who produced illustrations of “large-headed” (nitōshin) baby-faced girls and cartoon animals for Japanese girls’ magazines from the 1950s to the 1970s, is credited with pioneering what would become the culture and aesthetic of kawaii.

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 other areas as well. More recently, Sanrio has released kawaii characters with deeper personalities that appeal to an older audience, such as Gudetama and Aggretsuko. These characters have enjoyed strong popularity as fans are drawn to their unique quirks in addition to their cute aesthetics. The 1980s also saw the rise of cute idols, such as Seiko Matsuda, who is largely credited with popularizing the trend. Women began to emulate Seiko Matsuda and her cute fashion style and mannerisms, which emphasized 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.

Credits to: wikipedia

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