How Japanese culture of Kawaii has been formed from Japanese art historical point of view – Part 1

How Japanese culture of Kawaii has been formed from Japanese art historical point of view – Part 1


Table of Contents

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Chapter 1: Introduction. 1

1.1      Background information. 1

1.1.1       Research purpose. 2

1.1.2       Research problem.. 2

1.2      Research objectives. 2

1.3      Importance of the study. 3

Chapter 2: Literature Review.. 4

2.1      Origins and meaning of kawaii 4

2.2      Usage of kawaii locally and internationally. 6

2.3      Analysis of reasons for the popularity of Kawaii globally. 7

Chapter 3: Research methodology. 8

3.1      Research philosophy. 8

3.2      Research approach. 9

3.3      Research strategy. 10

3.4      Research instruments. 10

3.5      Data collection. 10

3.6      Research ethics. 10

3.7      Data analysis. 11

Chapter 4: Research findings and discussions. 12

4.1      Meaning and origins of kawaii 12

4.2      Popularity of kawaii in the 1990s and today. 13

4.3      How kawaii is perceived internationally and why it is popular globally. 15

Chapter 5: Conclusions, Limitations and Recommendations. 16

5.1      Conclusion. 16

5.2      Limitations. 17

5.3      Recommendations and issues for further research. 17

References. 18

Chapter 1: Introduction

Kawaii is a Japanese term that has been loosely translated to mean “cute” or “childlike”, but its meaning has been fashionable to the extent of being a global phenomenon. Growing to be a transnational culture, the term and its associations have been used with internalisation of the meaning, its implication, and reason for the popularity of the kawaii culture. Kawaii has been used to promote Japan in the international arena where there the country is presented as being cool and equated to being kawaii. Not much effort has been spared to understand the reasons for the increased popularity of the culture and what it actually is locally, especially in the global perspective where it is used but not originated. Kawaii has been successfully associated with Japanese pop culture. This successful transformation to being a global phenomenon has been due to the interpretation of the nuanced meaning of the term where users usually refer to a “small cure and delicate thing” but they go further to interpret it as being happy and positive. Its application even in politics has implications for the influence of the term. This dissertation aims to define and dig into the roots of the term, its applications, and its successful transformation into a global phenomenon.

1.1  Background information

Kawaii is easily recognised in the world, being associated with various trends and movements such as pop culture and politics. Clarke (2016) noted that the term and generally kawaii culture has been used in the West by musicians and politicians in various aspects. This usage seemed to parallel the interpretation of kawaii as being cute, and flawless but not necessarily sexy. The use of kawaii and anime is said to be surpassing the popularity of previously renowned Japanese iconographies like samurai and geisha. The usage of pop icons such as Nicki Minaj, and Harajuku Girls has been associated with aesthetics where the looks of icons were enhanced to capture the meaning of cuteness. KawaiiTrump Tumblr was created by photoshopping several facial features like hair and eyelashes. Several politicians have been associated with kawaii culture.

According to Koma (2013), despite the veritable use of Kawaii culture, there is little scientific research that has been associated with the term and this is because it has been considered missing from the mainstream culture that Japan is associated with and well-documented such as was mentioned in samurai, geisha, sumo among others. This means that not many have realised the popularity of the term and much information that need to be documented on the same. Whereas locally the term may not attract much interest among researchers and scholars, outside Japan does not have the information that is necessary to understand this phenomenon.

Zabawa (2017) explored the term and identified other themes such as feminism that are associated with kawaii culture, thus providing one angle in understanding how it is understood in the West in some quotas. The author also noted that the extreme perception of kawaii culture is having “subservient behaviour rooted in becoming dependent on others as opposed to becoming empowered by one’s own identity”, which is associated with feminism. Oi (2014) noted that though kawaii culture failed to gain global attention in the past two decades as it did within Asia, its popularity still lives on especially when it emphasises not perfection but making life imperfections cute and desirable.

Research purpose

Kawaii culture is well-known in many a sphere of modern society. It is necessary to note its origins, reasons for its success, and especially reasons why other cultures such as geisha seem to be fading and paving the way for kawaii. While the research does not aim to assess all the reasons why these other cultures have faded over time, the research would be useful to present the current needs of the modern generation as represented by the phenomenon.

1.1.2      Research problem

Despite increased usage and recognition of kawaii culture internationally, there is a paucity of research to point to its origins and reasons for popularity. This research aims to fill this gap by providing an empirical investigation into the subject where it is not only properly defined and traced in its origins. Understanding its usage in Japan would be useful to extrapolate how the term has spread to be a culture in many Western states such as the UK, the US, and France. Not much has been stated from the research on whether interpretations of Kawaii culture a defined by Zabawa (2017) have possible positive or negative effects on society, especially when its usage by Gwen Stefani was seen in the light of feminism, and some seeing this as using foreign culture of the personal benefit of pop icons outside Japan and Asia in general. This means there might be different perceptions of kawaii culture in its purest form in Asia and how it is perceived outside. This needs to be made clear in this research and presenting both perspectives will be useful to an uninformed reader.

1.2  Research objectives

The main research aim of the dissertation is to define and find the root origins of kawaii and examination of its development to the present widely recognised kawaii culture

  1. To define and trace the root origins of kawaii culture in Japan
  2. To explore the usage of kawaii on the modern global scale
  3. To examine and compare the perception of kawaii in and outside Japan and Asia in general
  4. To investigate reasons for the popularity and impact usage of kawaii culture especially in the West

1.3  Importance of the study

The study of kawaii is beneficial in understanding one of the most popular Japanese subculture globally. It will be useful to understand history and how kawaii is used internationally. This way, as Grau and Veigl (2011) reiterated, it will be useful to understand the rift and relationship that exists between cultures and especially kawaii from others globally. Kawaii has been associated with entertainment, fashion, and media; it has been used in aesthetics globally. Studying this will clarify its benefits in these aspects and ease in interpreting its usage currently in various parts of the world. Studying how it has spread internationally will be useful in informing the audience on how cultures spread especially from previously an enclosed and largely conservatism society. Understanding this history may also help in understanding its direction and rapture and spread of similar cultures. Mainly, this research will be useful in not only popularising but also explaining the brief history and current subculture of pop in Japan and globally.

Kawaii culture has been used to manipulate the consumer society and this means studying this will help marketers and designs make and supply products that are popular with customers. Fancy goods such as cute bags and cuddly toys may be appealing even after several decades when eth same was done in early in the 1980s. indeed, as Read (Read, 2005) noted, companies such as Sanrio took advantage of this trend and increased the supply of kawaii-donned products in Japan.

Chapter 2: Literature Review

The aim of the chapter is to present and analyse findings from other researchers with knowledge of the history and origins of kawaii. Its usage in Japan and globally, interpretation from various perspectives is also discussed in this dissertation. It is structured in a format that allows all the research objectives to be covered.

2.1  Origins and meaning of kawaii

Kawaii is said to have originated in Japan in the 1970s, meaning ‘cuteness’. Gottesman (2016) noted that at its development, kawaii was a youth fad that involved dressing and handwriting in a childlike manner that was characterized and seen as round writing, kitten writing, and face-child writing to different people. Although it is known with certainty, kawaii started with the intention of finding their own identity after World War II. Though resisted initially by the teachers, the culture found its way to the mainstream public. According to Grace (2017), kawaii is something that is cute to the Japanese, and to outsiders, it is anything that is attractive in the eyes of the beholder. It is generally understood to mean cute, refined, and beautiful to those who mind about their appearance. From another perspective, Emily (2013) added that the term did not have that welcoming meaning; it was used by people to describe others who were mundane and lower in stature than them. Kawaii was popularized by artists such as Rune Naito though his works feature a kind of cuteness that struck a chord with most of his readers. Cloutman (2014) supported this claim, adding that the drawings between the 1950s and 1970 that featured a large-headed and eyed with features that may have revolutionized and rekindled the passion for that type of creativity and beauty.

Although the history of kawaii is traced to the 1970s, other academics and historians such as Tomoyuki Sugiyama noted that kawaii originated from cool fashions called netsuke sculptures of the 17th century. ‘Time Out Tokyo’ noted that the term was used first in 1914 after Yumeiji Takehisa started a shop business that featured decorated goods for schoolgirls. Further, Sanrio’s Hello Kitty, comic books called shojo manga such as Candy Candy by Yumiko Igarashi featured similar characters that made the fad kawaii to be successful not just in Japan but globally where these books reached.

According to Cheok (2010), kawaii is part of the popular pop culture in Japan that dates back to Japan’s medieval times of hunting and gathering and has kept momentum to date where it is used mainly used and associated with entertainment. Although it is an old phenomenon, it has not been used in interactive media, this being a modern phenomenon revolutionized by the development of telecommunication technology. It is a term that has spread to the international world in various aspects such as entertainment, fashion, and animation. But Cheok (2010) explained that kawaii was first used in Japan between 794-1185 AD by Heian. The term evolved from a time where at one point, it was used to denote pity, as a form of Kawayushi. Cauaji was used first in 1603 and this was said to be the first meaning of kawaii as published by the Society of Jesuits in Nagasaki. This contained the original meaning but from 1945, Kawaii was printed as Kawayushi but this changed to Kawayui. Elsewhere, the development of Manga, the cartoon or animation culture in Japan that gained popularity in 1935 was associated with kawaii for its aesthetics.

Hjorth (2010) noted that the real rise and popularisation of kawaii was in the 1970s and the aim of the culture was to enable the youth to “rearticulate, self-express themselves in a manner indicated a change from old and overarching traditions that were considered oppressive. During this period, kawaii was used to signify childhood or premature adulthood as perceived in many areas in Japan. Though seen as mostly associated with females, the popularity of kawaii has made it asexual, meaning that it is popular in both genders. The kawaii culture is associated with gift-giving for the Japanese. Locally, Japanese women helped in spreading the kawaii culture using their dress associated with the burriko style that was created by Saiko Matsuda. Being a pop idol, this helped it to quickly turn into a national sensation. Besides, men had their following but this was indirect. Women of burriko style appealed to men and this meant that women had to dress in a manner that made them adorable to these men.

Growth of kawaii in the 1990s

In the 1980s and 1990s, the main characteristic that made the trend of kawaii spread was its characteristics that were described by Michel as “sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine, gentle, vulnerable, weak and inexperienced”, yet they were liked by all as people sought to identify with this trend. However, in the 1990s, kawaii became popular in the 1990s after commercial organisations realised the potential of the sensation. The Japanese economy was undergoing challenging times and companies sought the best ways to regain the fast-fading appeal in the market. The 1990s saw big brands being associated with kawaii. Notably, Hello Kitty was almost synonymous with the word, kawaii. The extent to which this strategy was successful is not indicated but the term lived through many generations since then to assume a new meaning. It cannot be accurate that kawaii made the goods popular if they were not popular initially but it indicated how much the term had become popular, hence fitting the description as mystical.

It was during this period that kawaii was associated with aesthetics and goods. Indeed, banks and airlines were painted in kawaii colours, representing images that were described initially. Davison (2015) noted that consumerism in the 1990s and right from the 1970s helped popularise the term as it became fashionable to adorn goods in such a manner. People preferred them as they were “warm, cheering qualities”. This success is possible as it relates to the Japanese cultural ideal of being warm and cool, preferring to keep a low profile, even when disagreeing or opposing an idea. That is the same way the young women are empowered as youth were empowered in the 1970s through their childish handwriting. Thus, the definition of kawaii as a “form of rebellion without using words” very well captures the spirit that inspires fashions and other aesthetical ideal. Thomas (Thomas, 2016) noted that in the 1990s, kawaii’s translation of lovely was after it had spread to the UK and people adopted it to refer to objects that were lovely or adorable.

2.2  Usage of kawaii locally and internationally

Early in the 1980s, kawaii culture was associated with being free and fancy by especially women but this meant they were not necessarily as sexy as was perceived by the western culture. It was a form of power and independence for women from life commitments such as work and marriage. They were not ready to become adults and thus, kawaii was used criticised as a way of escaping such responsibilities. Kawaii were used to better themselves in a society that apparently did not cater to their needs. Read noted that there was a poll in 1992 to investigate the attitudes of young people towards kawaii-looking people, the results indicated that as high as 72% of young adults aged 18-30 supported it and 51% enjoyed their attitudes. This was an indication of how much the kawaii had taken root in the country. It is however useful to assess actual factors that motivated the country to adopt in their lives.

Thomas (2013) observed that kawaii culture has purposefully been promoted globally as a form of soft power, commonly called cultural diplomacy. The Economist (The Economist, 2014) magazine noted that kawaii has been used strategically as a form of soft power, alongside other Japanese sensations such as Manga and anime that are now renowned globally. Kawaii is used to project the image of Cool Japan, one of the programmes that have been used by the country to inform the global audience about its practices in the country. Indeed, as part of cultural diplomacy programmes, kawaii has been used in the country just the same way South Korea took advantage of Gangnam Style, pop music by PSY to promote the name and position of the country in the international arena. Additionally, noting the popularity of kawaii in Japan and globally, the country has been sponsoring Kawaii Summit events which are usually promoted by the national broadcaster, NHK. The aim of this is for Kawaii fans to meet and share and ask as many and varied questions as they can on Kawaii and related issues in fashion, Japanese life, and other lifestyle questions (NHK, 2017). Kawaii has developed to be a national phenomenon where such conferences are organised by state organisations to make it more popular in the world.

2.3  Analysis of reasons for the popularity of kawaii globally

Media is the main tool that helped make Kawaii, especially in the current era of internet proliferation. It has become to learn and acquire foreign trends through continuous exposure. in Japan, kawaii has been defined as a way of escaping the realities of adulthood that come with responsibility and competition. The desire to contribute to living in childhood is one of the reasons kawaii has remained popular in the country but this is not necessarily the case with the international world. It seemed that Kawaii grew from the resistance of the young people aligning with the system and in the modern age, the same motive seems to have inspired people to fight back against the curtailment of possibility.

In the West, kawaii has spread though not with the same associations or connotations as used in Japan. According to Hollingworth (2011), the UK has adopted the kawaii (cute) culture in aspects such as fashion and art and the internet has made it possible to access Japanese trends though they have not adopted in their truest sense of Japanese spirit. In the UK, kawaii has been used to empower young women to oppose curtailment. It is also being used, like in Japan, by adults who wish to be children again but this is yet to make a British culture of being open, childlike, and soft as it is in Japan. British are masculine in nature and this attitude may not easily change to that of Japanese consideration of cuteness. Coldwell (2013) noted that kawaii as a subculture has spread well in Mexico and France but not much in Britain where is not likely to pervade the daily lives of its people. People who love manga comic books and games adopt well-known kawaii ideals through merchandise that are inspired by kawaii culture. Similarly, people who are keen on fashion are likely to absorb the Kawaii culture in the West. Kawaii has grown in popularity in Japan because it is considered a subculture associated with being soft, assertive individuality, and cuteness.

Chapter 3: Research methodology

The aim of this chapter is to present the methods through which this research was done and how various research objectives were solved. The methods and tools that were used must be specified and justified on how they were used in this. The research in general sought to understand how kawaii culture was developed, why it is popular, and how it is perceived by various sectors such as fashion, media, and elsewhere nationally in Japan, and globally especially in the West.

3.1  Research philosophy

This is the general understanding of what research is understood to be, how desired results are to be realised and they relate to finding new knowledge on the subject. It is important that correct research options are made to match the required results. Thus, the quality of research may be determined by how this research philosophy is selected. This is because all research questions and decisions are anchored on the decisions made by the choice of research philosophy. According to May and Williams (2002), research philosophy determines the tools to be used, the process to be followed in data analysis, the data to be collected, and the position of the researcher in this process.

There are two paradigms in research philosophy: ontology and epistemology. Ontology subscribes to considering and taking an object as it is without undertaking any further research. It is the nature of reality and this means that there is not much that motivates a researcher to collect further data to find or verify any facts. Epistemology, on the other hand, is the study of knowledge. The researcher used this approach to find further information that may be missing or interesting as raised in the objectives. ontology and epistemology are based on two dominant ideologies called positivism and interpretivism. The researcher used positivism rather than epistemology due to the nature of the data and facts that were needed.

With positivist ideology, the researcher assumed that the phenomenon in question is approachable and therefore required data to make any conclusions with respect to research objectives can be obtained. The ideology associated with ontology, and interpretivism takes the world to be external and that there is a single external reality. This is the nature of an object that is researched and therefore not much can be obtained in the research process. Unlike interpretivism, an epistemology that was used believes that conclusions can only be realised if there are data that have been collected and analysed to make such conclusions. Thus, in positivism, there are objectives, hypotheses, and research questions that are set and followed in research to result in a definite goal. Rather than several goals and results interpretivism aims to provide a single reality. This is necessary as researches are designed to be used to solve certain problems, solve hypothese,s and make generalisations about them.

In positivist research, the role of the researcher is such that one is detached from the whole process and the data collected are independent of the researcher’s opinion. There is a clear distinction between the researcher and the research process, a difference between feelings and reason. However, in this research about kawaii that is associated with cuteness, the researcher did not need to purchase or subscribe to this feeling to complete it. This makes the research relatively more reliable.

3.2         Research approach

Secondary research was used in this research. Data needed for the exercise was not necessarily current or dated. There was enough information from various researchers and commentators on the subject. The research was based on largely historical facts about the development of kawaii in Japan and globally in general. It is an amorphous phenomenon whose popularity has attracted interest from various researchers and academics such as this paper. This research therefore needed to organise these facts into well-defined objectives to explain to the audience what kawaii, its origins, and its popularity in the world was worth the effort of research.

Secondary research has several advantages that include being cheap and easily available compared to primary research which would otherwise involve coordinating with respondents to access data from them or allow them to provide necessary data. had this to be primary data, it would involve interviewing or employing data collection from Japanese people on issues relating to Kawaii phenomenon. This was not possible due to time limitations and access to respondents who understand and have used kawaii in one way or another. However, were the respondents to be accessed, the researcher would have accessed and interrogated first-hand data on the issue. Thus, secondary data has one major weakness lack of possibility to seek clarifications on the data provided. Data provided may have issues that may be carried over to this research and therefore cause problems in presentations and interpretations.

The internet-based sources were mainly used in this research but this was done with caution to assess the veracity of the data presented. As such, the data presented included sources from quality sources as judged by the credentials of the author, the time it was presented, and the context of the discussion. Publishing large and reputable sources such as The Economist were used but were also tested against other sources from books to ensure that presented information was consistent.

3.3  Research strategy

Descriptive research strategy was used here because of the ability to use the results without the need to manipulate the sources and the need to back statements with reasons appertaining to why, where, what and, how the phenomenon was presented. It aims to make it easy for the researcher and the audience to follow up on the collected to make sense in the context of this research. Using this research strategy the researcher described how kawaii is used globally, the reasons for this increased popularity, and what it is understood in various sections of the globe. Much as descriptive data was used, it does not make accurate descriptions and therefore limited in generalisability of the results. The data obtained in this research can be used to explain the phenomenon but not to explain or suggest what would happen if independent variables were manipulated. This weakness may not also be applicable in this research as this was not an experimental research design where such accurate predictions could be made. In other words, it is not possible to fully understand the behaviour of phenomenon studies in one research paper as this.

3.4  Research instruments

The research did not directly or indirectly involve respondents and as such, the typical research instruments of questionnaire or interviews were not used. However, a questionnaire with a list of questions was used to guide the researcher on specific data issues that were collected from various sources.

3.5  Data collection

Data collected from various sources were qualitative and this means they were presented in words rather than figures as would be the case in quantitative research. Using the list of questions that were prepared to guide the researcher, they were used to ensure all needed data as guided by the objectives were fully covered. Thus, data was collected from structure observation studies where areas where data was needed were needed.

3.6  Research ethics

The researcher identified and acknowledged all sources of information that were used in the paper. Credits were given through appropriate standard referencing. On its one, secondary research is an ethical practice where research respondents are not burdened by the need to participate in data collection and increases the value of data already collected. Additionally, the data collected did not involve or result in damage or distress to any participant. Consent was not needed as the data used was publicly available and therefore usage of this added its value to the public. This also meant that this data would be available for future uses.

3.7   Data analysis

This was needed to make it easy to interpretation of the results collected in the previous chapter. Being qualitative research, this was done using themes that were closely related to the objectives of the research. These themes were collected from the various sources of data collected in relation to the aims and objectives of this research.


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