From Hello Kitty to Harajuku Girls, Japan’s kawaii culture isn’t just about being “cute”; contrary to popular belief, kawaii products need to be cute, but not too cute – otherwise they won’t sell.

July 23, 2013, 10:24 AM

5 Things You Didn’t Know About Kawaii

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If you’ve ever been to Japan, whether you know it or not, you will have encountered multiple examples of kawaii, the country’s dominant pop-cultural aesthetic. That bus stop shaped like a watermelon? Kawaii. Adorable police mascots? Kawaii. Harajuku fashionistas with pink tutus and purple bangs, Hello Kitty TV sets, fish cakes that look like pandas, girls in manga with sparkly eyes, construction signs that take the form of frogs? All kawaii. Kawaii culture has many guises, but what exactly is it? If it’s just the Japanese word for “cute,” as it’s usually translated, why not just call it that? In my book, “Kawaii!: Japan’s Culture of Cute,” I spoke to product designers, manga artists, fashion luminaries, event organizers, scholars and artists who deal in kawaii. One thing they made clear is that contrary to popular belief, kawaii products need to be cute, but not too cute – otherwise they won’t sell. Conflicting views abound as to what kawaii is and isn’t. In light of this, below are five things about kawaii that go against common misperceptions. I hope they help you look at kawaii in a different light.1. Kawaii isn’t about perfection

Though kawaii design is usually associated with a roundness of composition, pastel colors and childlike facial proportions, aesthetic perfection is actually undesirable. Kazuhiko Hachiya, the designer of character goods PostPet, points out that if characters are too perfect, consumers greet them suspicion and unease. That explains why his hit kawaii characters, Momo and friends, have asymmetrical poses and aren’t immaculately cute.

2. Kawaii isn’t anything new

Kawaii culture developed largely as a result of the convergence of traditions adapting to modern times, and the appropriation and influence of Western culture, particularly after World War 2. But its roots go even deeper: Many people consider its birth to be the beginning of the Taisho era (1912-1926), when designer Takehisa Yumeji made feminine items specifically marketed toward girls.

3. Kawaii isn’t supposed to be sexy

In the 1990s, with the rise of Harajuku youth fashion and the influence of shojo(girls) manga and illustrators, kawaii became an ideal, something girls wanted to be. Rather than be pretty, sexy or glamorous, Japanese girls prefer to be called kawaii. As an adjective, the word commonly implies that something or someone is cute, sweet, endearing and innocent, but it can be used in a mind-boggling array of ways. In fact, girls in Japan will exclaim “kawaii!” so many times a day, and apply it in so many different contexts – often ironic – that to a foreigner it may seem like their repertoire in vocabulary is somewhat limited!

4. Kawaii isn’t static

While kawaii culture has been around in Japan for roughly a hundred years, it is constantly mutating into new directions, thus retaining its appeal to a fickle consumer demographic. Increasingly, kawaii is teamed with words that might seem like its antithesis: take ero-kawaii (erotic cute), kimo-kawaii (creepy cute) and guro-kawaii (grotesque cute). In the past five years or so, hit products such as Gloomy, apink homicidal bear often depicted attacking his owner, are the opposite of what we might commonly consider cute.

5. Kawaii isn’t confined to Japan

These days it isn’t just Japanese people that have an all-encompassing love of kawaii: fans of the culture are popping up globally, from the Japan Expo in Paris,HARAJUKU KAWAii!! at London’s HYPER JAPAN event, and San Francisco’s J-Pop Summit Festival. As for whether it will become more than a subculture overseas, we’ll have to wait and see. You can catch a glimpse of international kawaii appeal here:

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

One Response to From Hello Kitty to Harajuku Girls, Japan’s kawaii culture isn’t just about being “cute”; contrary to popular belief, kawaii products need to be cute, but not too cute – otherwise they won’t sell.

  1. Pingback: Harajuku daily | Bento Box Blog

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