Kawaii. You hear it in anime, you hear it on TV shows, and you hear it on the streets of Japan, where the word is spoken by young and old alike. With people around the world growing up on Japanese popular culture, the word has also entered the international zeitgeist. But what does “kawaii” actually mean?
In Japanese, the word literally means “acceptable for affection” or “possible to love” and has been translated as meaning “cute,” “adorable,” “sweet,” “precious,” “pretty,” “endearing,” “darling,” and even “little.” Its use varies in Japanese and can refer to babies, puppies, young people, clothing, and even senior citizens. In Japanese, one might refer to one’s own grandma as kawaii, even if she’s not decked out in pink bows and a frilly dress.
In comparison with the word utsukushii—meaning “beautiful” or “lovely”—the word kawaii is more playful. Things can be kimokawaii (creepy cute), busukawaii (ugly cute), or erokawaii (sexy cute). Kawaii is versatile and fun, while utsukushii has the burden of beauty. It’s also entered the English language. The nuance might be slightly different, but the Collins English Dictionary defines it as the following:
1. denoting a Japanese artistic and cultural style that emphasizes the quality of cuteness, using bright colours and characters with a childlike appearance
2. (in Japanese art and culture) the quality of being lovable or cute
“If you translate kawaii into English, it’s ‘cute,’ but kawaii is much more emotional than cute,” Tokyo fashion mogul Sebastian Masuda, hailed as the Godfather of Kawaii, told me over a decade ago. The clothing designer has been a central player in the contemporary kawaii fashion movement with his Harajuku clothing shop 6% Doki Doki, which launched in 1995. But contemporary kawaii culture started long before.
During the 1970s, Japan underwent a kawaii boom that seems, at times, to have never stopped. While the word was certainly used prior, it was then that kawaii became commodified at a scale like never before. Students carried bags emblazoned with Snoopy, a character still referred to as “kawaii” in Japanese, while Sanrio released a small coin purse covered with the now iconic epitome of kawaii, Hello Kitty. While the feline character’s design might have had a whiff of Dick Bruna’s Miffy, the coin purse was a hit. Cute stationary was also popular, and young women wrote in round characters because they were softer and more gentle than the typical ones. Simply put, they were just cuter.
Kawaii culture wasn’t only crystallizing at that time, but also becoming big business. The 1980s were more than happy to follow suit, ushering in a plethora of cutesy idols, both male and female. Young women even started speaking in childlike tones, and anime recycled that style of speaking to mass audiences. During the 1990s and 2000s, kawaii continued its climb, with fashion becoming louder and more colorful. Yet, in Japan, the word’s original usage remained. It referred not only to saccharine pop idols, but also to all sorts of things, from birds to cakes, and even to the Japanese royal family.
Over the past several decades, contemporary Japanese culture has spread globally through video games, anime, pop music and fashion. Japanese sensibilities, minus context, filter through, bringing new ideas and words. The non-Japanese-speaking world’s encounter with kawaii is through colorful, hyper-cute fashion or art, and not through babies, puppies, and adorable grannies. The pink-pastel, covered-in-bows kawaii becomes the first definition and the default meaning. All the other meanings and uses fall by the wayside, and the word often takes on concentrated nuances. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the word might have a more exact meaning in its borrowed state. Knowing the original usage, however, can offer perspective on the culture from which the word was imported.
Japanese, like English, has long embraced foreign words. In Japanese, foreign words have been added to the lexicon for well over a thousand years. In the 5th century, written language from China was first introduced to Japan via Korea. For hundreds of years, Portuguese, Dutch, English and German words, among others, have all worked their way into the Japanese language for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they express concepts that didn’t previously exist in Japanese, and other times these loan words are just easier to say. The Japanese word shinryou kiroku (医療記録), for example, means “medical record,” but the much shorter, widely used karute from the German word “karte” is less of a mouthful.
Other times, words might be imported to make the language more expressive. The Japanese word kakkoii is already often likened to the English word “cool,” but the language has also imported the English term. Having the choice to use either kakkoii or kuuru (cool) can let the speaker give different connotations. The way foreign words are incorporated into Japanese is endlessly fascinating—just listen to Japanese music. I heard a neighborhood kid the other day here in Osaka repeatedly use the word “dope” (ドープ or doopu), as in “cool,” in Japanese while speaking with his friends.
Likewise, English also has no shortage of loan words from loads of languages, including those from Japanese, such as bokeh, onigiri, emoji, kaizen, futon, tycoon and yes, kawaii. Languages are not static, and loan words continuously help them evolve and stay vibrant.
Thinking about the meaning of kawaii, I’m reminded of how Masuda has long pushed for kawaii fashion to be an inclusive means of expression and a way to bring the world together. “If I can help people recognize the kawaii spirit in others, acknowledge this inquisitiveness, then I think I can create better relationships and a better world,” he previously told The Straits Times. Now, perhaps that’s the true meaning of kawaii.