What is "Kawaii"?
Recently you may have seen the term ‘Kawaii’ used in many different ways all over social media or in your day to day life, it's become a booming part of recent pop-culture and alternative fashion in the western world. But how can a drink be ‘kawaii’ or a certain brand be ‘kawaii’? And what now qualifies something as such?
Going back to the words origin, the word ‘kawaii’ (かわいい) comes from the phrase ‘face is aglow’, aka the action/image of someone blushing or becoming flustered in a way that's endearing. This then better evolved into the Japanese word for ‘cute’, and this word can be used for anything that qualifies as adorable or charming. It's a term that hasn’t got any negative connotations, when used, it's used in a way that's positive (no sarcasm or backhand).
Kawaii is a term that can also be used for people as well as objects or places, brands like Sanrio have created their whole business around being ‘Kawaii’ and this cuteness brings a smile to people (their motto being ‘small gift, big smile’). This ‘kawaii ’renaissance has been growing and thriving for a long while in its homeland prior to coming overseas to the west, creating many iconic and influential pieces of media such as popular game titles, anime, and even fashion styles.
Let's go ahead a little bit to the early 2000’s, where western celebs at the time such as Paris Hilton were sporting diamante Hello Kitty accessories and shows like Pokemon were starting to become popular on mainstream tv channels. It's fair to say this was when the majority of people became exposed to Japanese Pop-culture but were still fairly limited in ways to get their hands on anything tangible.
Stores like Hot Topic and Claire's Accessories would sell a small collection of Hello kitty items but nothing near the vast selection we now have on offer to us. It's only in recent years have stores (including mainstream ones) and access to merchandise and fashion from Japan have become accessible to the average consumer.
What is considered 'Kawaii'?
So one thing that's been discussed more and more is if ‘Kawaii’ is really some sort of culture/community/aesthetic outside of its origins, and if it is, is it something that anyone can participate in. With ‘’Kawaii’ being the Japanese word meaning cute, it's easy to argue that it's a very broad term that's been narrowed down to a very specific aesthetic by a largely western community. Can a pink drink with a glass marble in it really count as Kawaii? Or is it only ‘Kawaii’ because it was imported from Asia? Would this same drink still be ‘Kawaii’ if it was produced in America or England?
These questions have been known to cause a little discourse online, dividing people as to whether using this term is really ok or if it's even the basis for such a large online community to be based on. With #kawaii having over 16.9 billion views on tiktok and #kawaiiaesthetic having nearly 700 million views on tiktok, there is clearly a demand and space online for content based around the enjoyment of ‘Kawaii’ Japanese popular culture.
Here is a video exploring what Japanese people see as being ‘Kawaii’
It’s interesting to see the overlap in what Japanese people think is ‘kawaii’ compared to what western trends see as kawaii. With both there seems to be an emphasis on trying hard (in your appearance) and things that are soft visually such as pastels, cartoons, or traditionally feminine colours/motifs.
The term Yumekawaii was also mentioned in this interview, with the term meaning things that are ‘kawaii’ in a pastel and dreamy way. This word definitely fits into the online trends of pastel based ASMR’s and room tours with a heavy emphasis on cute characters and colours.
Something said in that interview also resonates well with what kawaii culture has become, the statement being ‘I say kawaii to all the things I like’. I think this encapsulates exactly what this online community (all born from this one wonderful word) has become, it's become a space to express enjoyment for interests and hobbies that arguably still sit outside the social norm.
People within this space feel comfortable showing their vast plush toy collection, or the alternative fashion outfits they’ve come up with. In the same way most communities are built, this online space has emerged from people wanting to connect over niche hobbies and a love of all things that can be considered cute.
The Kawaii community's motto? Love & Justice for all!Like with anything, it's important to respect that this word has been repurposed by a largely western online demographic, and that despite all of its amazing geek hotspots, Japan is not a spectacle to be associated only to its ‘kawaii’ offerings. Japan is a country with an incredibly rich history and unique culture, and like any country, has its own flaws that get forgotten in its online romanticisation. So if you do enjoy kawaii things from in and outside of Japan, be sure to be respectful and listen to asian voices whilst having fun sharing online and living your best cutest life.