What is Kawaii?

What is Kawaii?

Kawaii has always appealed to me and I was so very happy to include some fabulous kawaii products at Retro Kids.  To me, it feels that it complements the wonderful products we try so very hard to track down and make available to you.  I knew Kawaii was Japanese but i didnt know a great deal of its true origins so I turned to an excellent book on the subject “Kawaii! Japan’s culture of cute” by Manami Okazaki & Geoff Johnson and hope to share with you the interesting beginnings and the growth culture of Kawaii.

The following text and images are cited from this exceptional book and I hope you find it to be as informative as I did!

“Kawaii is Japan’s culture of cute. It is the appearance of adolescence. Kawaii things are usually soft, bright, round and small. They aren’t aggressive or hostile; they give you peace of mind and a sense of security. Kawaii characters tend to have big heads and the position of the eyes low, the proportions are like that of a child, and humans are wired to think of that as cute and loveable.


The word ‘kawaii’ can be used to describe the atmosphere or perceived qualities of something as well as its appearance.

In Japan, cute designs grace the packaging of even the most mundane products. Japanese people love and respect inanimate objects. Their police force, the Army and even Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant all have their own adorable mascots.  Food and fashion have been influenced by the kawaii culture too!


The Japanese notion of kawaii has been cultivated gradually over decades through the talent of Japan’s most important artists and designers. However the factors that contributed most to the development of kawaii culture were the girls’ illustrations, shojo manga (magazines) and the merchandising of fancy goods.

1914 is the date generally considered as the birth year for kawaii when the first shop called ‘Minatoya Ezoshiten’ specialising in kawaii goods opened by Yumeji Takehisa. It sold various items for well-to-do girls such as letter sets, small bags, umbrellas, dolls and kimono collars.

Under Japanese militarism and World War II, cute things were not seen as favourable. It was really after the war that Kawaii boomed. Kiichi Tsutaya’s paper dress-up dolls flourished in popularity, as did girls’ illustrations, which were often created by artists who were fascinated with the foreign culture they witnessed during the American occupation. Prior to this era, Japaenese women had to mature and become adults very quickly because poverty was prevalent and large families were encouraged to provide a labour force and recruits for the Army. When men went to war, the women had to work. In the mid 1950’s the men went back to work and the girls didn’t have to grow up so fast.

In 1946, Junichi Nakahara, another seminal illustrator, created Soleil magazine, which is still highly influential on fashion designers. But, Soleil wasn’t the first of its’ kind and Shojo Kai, which Nakahara contributed to, started in 1902. By the mid-1950’s the Shojo manga industry had developed to such an extent that magazines to the industry were exclusively published like RIBBON and Margaret.


Fashionable illustrations have been popular in Japan since the Edo era (1603-1868), when bijinga (beautiful person picture) woodblock prints depicted lovely women wearing gorgeous kimonos. This culture of bijinga continued through the Meiji and Taisho eras (1868-1926) although the printmaking technology had improved and featured more Westernised dresses.

From the mid-1960’s to the 1970’s, manga like Candy Candy were very important, as were dolls such as Licca-chan. In the 1980’s when Tokyo Disneyland opened, they sold many goods and it became common for everyone to have at least one Disney item in their house.   The birth of Hello Kitty in 1974 was a landmark event too. Though Sanrio had been around previously, selling strawberry-themed goods or Ado Mizumori products, nothing came close to the Hello Kitty boom.

As Japan entered the economic bubble of the mid-1980’s, companies such as Sanrio went all-out in creating kawaii products with much success. The success of Hello Kitty led to the realisation that if you made something cute, it would sell. As a result, various companies jumped on the goods-manufacturing bandwagon.

Other companies such as San-X who have been in business since the early 1930’s are producers of some of the most iconic kawaii characters in Japan. It has designed hits ranging from Tarepanda to Rilakkuma.

A lot of kawaii characters are created without mouths and the reason behind this San-X explains is that if there is a mouth, then there is an emotional expression. Rilakkuma has a mouth but is devoid of emotion, so you can interpret him how you want. It is easy to look at Rilakkuma whether you are happy or sad; if he had a beaming smile, you might reject him if you were feeling blue. These kinds of ambiguous expressions are popular in Japan.

When the economic bubble burst, Japanese people became a bit poorer and wanted to buy inexpensive things, so 100-yen shops started up. A lot of fancy goods came to be manufactured just for this market and, because of this they came to be seen as kitsch and cheap. Before this generation kawaii was only accessible to upper-class girls, but now these goods were accessible to everyone. The love of kawaii started to transcend age, as older women and men began to customise their mobile phones with numerous charms.

*picture above is of a shop owned by ‘Swimmer’ who are a hugely popular design company that has 41 shops all over Japan and is loved for it’s retro-kitsch style.  It makes everything from kawaii kitchen goods to sneakers, inflatable swimming rings, umbrellas, scissors decorated with mushrooms and toilet brushes in the shape of ice cream cones.

Conversely, since the 1990’s, kawaii has commonly been teamed with words that connote precisely the opposite of cute, creating a bevy of increasingly ubiquitous spin-offs such as guro-kawaii (grotesque cute), kimo-kawaii (creepy cute) and shibu-kawaii (subdued cute), which deviate from standard notions of what cute entails.

The epitome of kawaii trend hasn’t waned since it first began, and there is no end in sight for the proliferation of cute goods in Japan”.  Thankfully.

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