How Japanese culture of Kawaii has been formed from Japanese art historical point of view – Part 2

How Japanese culture of Kawaii has been formed from Japanese art historical point of view – Part 2


Chapter 4: Research findings and discussions

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The aim of this chapter is to present the findings that were collected and discuss them in relation to the literature that was reviewed. Doing so would help in making the data collected easy to interpret and sensible to the reader. This is in relation to the aim of researching kawaii and its spread to a global phenomenon. The chapter is structured according to the themes that were related to the research objectives.

4.1  Meaning and origins of kawaii

Whereas kawaii has been considered and is now an international word, it basically means being “cute, adorable and loveable” but given the fact that it has been accepted as part of Japanese culture and one that has undergone several transformations, there is more to it that is known on the surface. It was noted that kawaii sprung from the term, kawahayushi, which was used back in the era of Taisho era of 1912. As a result, most sources noted that people all over the world take the word to mean simply “cute”. The term is said to have undergone several transformations of kawayushi, kawayui before the kawaii that is known today. This was noted from several sources except that the time of start of its usage varied among many users. Today, the term is loosely translated to mean “shyness, embarrassment, vulnerability, darlingness and lovability”, according to one of the websites. The 1970s and 1980s saw the trend of “consumer subcultures” spread rapidly and this happened through childish handwriting that was expressed in several aspects such as “handwriting, speech, dress, products, shops, cafes and food”. These are aspects that led to the spontaneous adoption and use of the term.

Given the many websites and books that were visited, it was possible there is no actual telling of when kawaii started. The meaning seems to be well understood and many claim to have started in the 1970s. however, what it means is also important in this research. How it started is also not very well known although many point it to the usage of unique handwriting among students that gained popularity or notoriety to teachers. Perhaps, it is these forces of preference and resistance by authority that made it to be known among many users in the country. However, the research didn’t establish when the term changed from handwriting to fashion that is known to date. Besides, these were feminine features that girls thought were fashionable, and therefore to be desirable, one had to appear as such to fit in the league of the majority and expectations of men.

Realising the opportunity of this, merchandise was used and this made it popular not just to schoolgirls but adults as customers as well. As the term and practice became even more popular in the country, the leadership sought to use it to represent its unique identity although there are other cultures such as sumo, and samurai that are well known but hardly represent the aspirations of the youth in the country. It is also possible that the youths lacked a point of reference to identify with and this way, they used kawaii for this reason.

The meaning of kawaii as somebody that is cure, and adorable has been well embraced in Japan, especially among young girls. The characteristics of this as adorable, big-eyed mascot with a small mouth are still clearly identifiable by many in the country. Being childlike but not childish, cute but not necessarily sexy made the girls more desirable among men in the country hence the reason for increasing popularity in Japan.

Other than the kawaii name that is known, there are forms of kawaii. These are the latest modifications of the term or trend, kawaii that have been associated with it. As was noted in the literature review, previously when kawaii was used, the term did not necessarily mean cute. It was associated with people of lower rank or sometimes ugly. This is still used as another form of kawaii called busy kawaii. This is where an object or phenomenon is so ugly that it turns out to be cute again. Kimo kawaii is another form of kawaii that represents objects that are not interesting again but are considered unpleasant but not grotesque. Guro kawaii is used to represent objects that were considered as such, grotesque. Although these are the three most common types, others keep popping up. There is no pattern on how these develop but they seem to be coined by youth as a means of representing or describing a given issue. Like slang, such developments do not have any specific pattern of development, but how they are understood seems to be known not just in Japan but internationally as well.

4.2  Popularity of kawaii in the 1990s and today

It is the commercial and social forces that shaped Kawaii to be what it is today. The national phenomenon that started as a youth fad was quickly picked by commercial players through goods and services that were decorated using kawaii themselves to appeal to the masses. When used as such, it was not necessarily a reference to them being cute but belonging to the class that was prescribed to them by the masses. It was popularised by brands such as Hello Kitty which saw many products branded as such to be desirable to customers. In the same way kawaii was embraced by young girls, embracing features of innocence, and adorable cute, companies embrace this to market themselves to the audience. Organisations realised they needed to refer to something that people could recognise well. It no longer referred to feminine features but a kind of cuteness that was desirable to all objects. These were animated to appear as cute but the idea was to connect with the mindset of the people at the time.

Once the idea spread throughout the country, it was difficult to change or move away from it. It has not been established whether all companies or products were labelled as such to be successful or whether customers chose successful brands and associated them with kawaii. It has to be noted that in the 1990s, Japanese products were popular globally and it was easy for a brand to be considered as kawaii, airlines were branded as kawaii and kids were born in this culture, they too picked the trend and kawaii was created. A product or fashion that was liked by many was considered as cute and therefore. It is not a person that makes a product or service to be successful for it to be demanded by the masses but the masses themselves. This was the conclusion of one of the Japanese people who lived through the time when kawaii was popularised in the 1990s. What was not described was how people, the young women made themselves cute or kawaii if companies did not make their goods kawaii (Nipponia, 2007).

Kawaii has thus changed from the way it was used in the olden days when specific women’s desirable traits were not verbalised but were acquired. However, as an object would be attractive due to its aesthetic features, so are people and this has led to kawaii being used to refer to people these days. The growth of kawaii spread from youth to adults and finally a national obsession that later became a symbol of Japan. Kerr (2016) has referred to kawaii being used by sellers to whip consumer emotions due to that frenzy of the word. Much as sensational as it may be, there was an undetermined force that made certain goods successful and not an organisation, or else, all companies and their good would be kawaii. When Barrack Obama became the first black president of the USA, history was made and the name became fashionable. The BBC (2017) noted several things were named after him, and it is possible some were done for commercial reasons but this did not necessarily turn them to be desirable and successful. One such was bread brand in Ireland. This is the same trend that was used in Kawaii but did not necessarily make them popular.

Kawaii has taken a commercial turn in recent times, a change from what it was in the 1970s and 1980s. As was described above, commercial interests helped popularise kawaii in the 1990s and this seems to be the trend as seen in the influence it has on fashion. It has taken a turn in sportiness in the US and Europe where cute and stylish sports clothes are used to show one’s flamboyance and individuality (Sidell, 2016).

4.3  How kawaii is perceived internationally and why it is popular globally

There is an image many in the world has about Kawaii but Japan is utilising this opportunity to project its Japan Cool or J-Cool image in the international world. It is a means of achieving oft power that promotes its influence in the world through its well-known subculture. As was described by various people with first-hand experience living or shopping in Japan, kawaii is a culture that is easily recognised and now fully commercialised in many Western counties. The mention of kawaii evokes memories of cute products that are designed as inspired by kawaii. There are several shops, some of which sell goods online. For example, in the US, the website cutiepiekawaii.com sells goods that are purely inspired by the Japanese spirit of kawaii. The site is designed in pink and the goods presented feature wide-eyed mascots designed as cartoons. As Chen (2016) noted, it is part of pink globalisation where the country has used it to spread its uniqueness to the world. It has been used to raise Japan to new heights. In fact, kawaii more than any other culture in Japan has been used to show cultural dominance. Wherever it is used in the rest of the world, it is to promote the image of the country.

It was indicated that the kawaii has spread internationally but the sense in which it is received differs from the way it is used in Japan. It also continues to evolve to represent different aspirations in fashion designs that are inspired by creativity and individuality rather than subscribing to the mundane society. It has been used in the Western world in politics and musicians to make them more adorable or admirable. It is not clear whether they are used for,  nonverbal resistance that was initially used or to make the referred objects adorable

The popularity of kawaii which spread almost spontaneously has made almost all shops feature various mascots in Japan. The fact that it inspired people to be themselves, and assert their individuality, some were motivated to be these perceptions internationally where fashion designers also the term to refer to cute products. Where its meaning spreads from loveliness, cuteness, and a means of empowering young women from subversion, there is no limit to what kawaii can be. However, what is certain is that it will be promoted by the country to represent its uniqueness and identity on the globe.

Chapter 5: Conclusions, Limitations and Recommendations

The chapter presents conclusions from the findings about what kawaii is and what it means in Japan and internationally. Specific objectives included defining its origins, how kawaii is used in the international arena, and assessing how perceptions change among various users.

5.1  Conclusion

Kawaii started in the 1970s in Japan as a means of self-expression and assertion that seemed a soft way to defy authority and find their own individuality. These aspirations would become a national success in identity as adults, especially young schoolgirls became fascinated with it. Although there are many sources that point to different origins, what has become a subculture in Japan cannot be traced with certainty where it started. However, the reason for its success to be what it is currently is due to inspiration to people and opportunistic use by commercials to market themselves among consumers. Nonverbal resistance or noncompliance is the main reason Kawaii was picked up so fast at its inception in Japan. At the time of consumerism in Japan when the economy was booming, it was expected that it would be picked by marketers and designers to appeal to schoolgirls initially. Brands such as Hello Kitty bespeak better how well Kawaii was commercialised in Japan.

Globally, kawaii has been used as well even in the modern age. Its use is mainly in goods sold and to some countries such as France and Mexico that are fast to pick up the latest fashions and trends. That is not to say it has not been used or adopted in other countries such as the UK and USA but the extent of adoption differs. It was noted that the spreading of kawaii arose for only two reasons: the country saw an opportunity to market itself and sellers saw the need to jump in the trend that was fascinating to everyone like it did in Japan. It is more used in fashion as a show of one’s assertive individuality and this means spreading certain trends. It is far from one’s sexuality but cuteness in the new way as a means of differentiating from the old and mundane trend. As was noted, Japan, through international attaches and its satellite and online broadcaster, NHK has spread it as a means of raising its profile and identity in the world.

Although it is well received in Japan and some parts of the world, the UK as one of the popular Western countries has yet to adopt it. This is because UK culture still believes in being masculine and softness is an attitude that is yet to make ripples in the country. The main reason is cultural differences. However, the UK is an individualistic society and Japan is among the countries with the highest Masculinity Index, according to Hofstede Cultural Dimensions. It seems that the UK is masculine in the sense that is different from Japan where softness and childlike association among adults are abhorred. Equally, as much as the UK is an individualistic society, they have not been motivated to use kawaii as a means of identifying and asserting their uniqueness and individuality through fashion as much as other countries like Japan have done. There are slight differences in the way kawaii is applied and used internationally.

5.2  Limitations

The study used secondary research where data was borrowed from various authors on the subject. The major weakness in this difficulty is in assessing those who were authorities in the subject. Like any research, the research could use primary data where discussions with business people who stock kawaii-inspired products, consumers of these products, and people who directly use kawaii in their lifestyle could provide insight into their motivations for using it and what it means to them. Being a Japanese phenomenon, not many Western authors in books used the term and sought to explain it in writing. However, popular magazines such as Financial Times and The Economist provided the needed insight into what kawaii is and how it is perceived in the country and the rest of the world. A discussion with a professor in cultural studies would also be recommended to gain useful insights.

5.3  Recommendations and issues for further research

The researcher could not come up with a definite conclusion on who started the kawaii culture but its roots in the 1970s have been stated as so variously. The reasons for its popularity, according to the findings seem to be commercial or economic reasons than cultural, for what the term is known for. There is a need to assess reasons for different perceptions of kawaii and whether kawaii culture has changed Japanese culture and elsewhere, especially in the West. It may not be possible to find specific reasons but a comparison of cultural dimensions of a sample of countries where kawaii is well received or has been resisted may well explain why it has been successful in some but not others. This may reveal nuances of cultures that may help explain these variations.

There are other forms that are kawaii that are not common but were described in the dissertation, such as busu kawaii and kimo kawaii. There is a need to research on occasions when they are used and why they have not become successful as the term translates to cuteness. This may also involve researching what forms of Japanese culture are fading and the reasons for that. This may also explain partly what set kawaii apart from the rest.


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