Japan’s Culture of Kawaii and Its Modern Implications

What is the Kawaii desu meaning: Kawaii desu definition

The word Kawaii in Japanese literally means “lovable, cute, and adorable”. These are expressions of the quality of cuteness a certain object or person has. What is interesting about it is the fact that it has quite a good (and bad) influence on the Japanese culture.

The word was derived from the phrase kao hayushi whose dictionary definition is that “a person’s face is glowing or blushing”. For many of the Japanese, the involuntary blushing of the cheeks is very attractive and adorable. Through the years, the meaning of the phrase morphed into adorableness. Then soon it was shortened to kawayui until it was again evolved to kawaii. It's kanji translation, ateji¸ literally means lovable in English.

The Culture of “Cute” in Japan

The culture and influence of Kawaii can be seen almost everywhere in Japan. It has affected people’s fashion, appearance, mannerisms and much more. It is an important factor in popular culture and entertainment as well. In history, the concept of kawaii (or ateji) was the concept of women being passive and reserved. Women were not described as lovable and cute before, kawaii meant sadness, pity, or poorness. This may be where the meaning “lovable” came from. Since kawaii at the time were piteous, they needed love.

Through time, kawaii had transformed into a variety of forms but the boom of its popularity started out in the 1970s and it was cute handwriting that started it all. Girls started to use adorable girly adorable tools to write their work in school. There was a trend in writing round, loopy characters which were accessorized by doodles of hearts, stars, and faces.

In the 1980s, this kind of handwriting was nationally recognized by fashion magazines. It was so popular that social scientists even performed studies regarding this form of handwriting. Through this, cute character brands started to become popular like Sanrio and Hello Kitty. This launched the popularity of cute character idols.

Since then, merchandise of these cute characters became trendy. Girls of all ages adorned bags, clothing, accessories that featured these cute characters. Since then, the concept of kawaii or cute became a popular aesthetic in Japan.

Different ways of saying Kawaii

Kawaikunai-desu ka

“Isn't it cute?” It is a good question to ask when giving someone something cute like a gift. This particular phrase can be used in a variety of contexts. For instance, it can be used when asking if someone else is cute. It can be used in a variety of different contexts depending on the subject being talked about. This phrase is often used in basic conversations where not much skill in the language is needed.

Kawaii-desu ne

The sentence “Kawaii desu ne” literally translates to “It is cute”. It is the perfect answer to the question (or the earlier phrase) Kawaii desu ka. This phrase and the earlier phrase looks almost alike but the difference is the last syllable. Instead of ending with ka, it ends with ne. Sentences that end in ka usually is a question while those that end in ne are actually statements. The phrase "Kawaii desu ne" is used to tell someone that they are cute or pretty.

Kawaii-desu yo

The third variation of the phrase ends with yo instead of ka or ne. It also means ‘it is cute’ but this kind of phrase is used in more informal situations while kawaii desu ne is used in more formal scenarios.

Kawaii in Japanese Society


Usually, Kawaii clothing is inspired from doll-like outfits. These are dresses of pink, blue or any pastel color. It is worn with platform doll-style shoes and knee high socks. Most of these clothes have laces, bows, beads, and fringes. There are also some clothing that has ruffles in them. In some extreme cases, some enthusiasts go for the Victorian doll look (also known as Lolita Fashion).

Being Kawaii can be embodied simply in behavior and personality. However, there are some people who want to take it into extremes and consider kawaii as their everyday style. There are establishments like schools and offices that do not allow these kinds of fashion which is why some enthusiasts have toned down kawaii outfits.


The look of “innocence” is often times directly related to being cute. The biggest cuteness giveaway – the big round puppy eyes. This is why a number of “kawaii” makeup includes dramatic eye makeup, false eyelashes to make the eyes look larger. Some even adorn larger contact lenses to create an illusion of big round eyes. For extreme cases, there are some men and women who undergo double eyelid surgery just for the sake of bigger looking eyes.

Interestingly enough, being cute is acceptable for both men and women. The concept cross-overs and exists regardless of gender. In fact, there are some men who are going for the neotenic look by shaving their body hair and wearing makeup to look younger and childlike.


For girls, cuteness often means childishness. This is why accessories are of great importance because it completes the overall look. Kawaii girls usually have large bows in their hair like dolls. They have tiny ruffled dresses with cute pink laces. They wear pastel colored accessories like rings, bracelets, and earrings. It is also common to see character designed bags like Hello Kitty, Little Twin Stars, and the like.

It is also common to see some of their personal items bedazzled with cute designs like their phone cases, cameras, umbrellas, and more. Cute is everywhere in Japan. For those who wish to buy kawaii items, they are not difficult to find.


To match the cute outfits, accessories, and look, some girls take it to the extreme and perform “kawaii behavior” as well. These usually include talking in baby-like voices, high-pitched tones. It also includes child-like gestures. Even during the present times, there are some Japanese men that prefer innocent looking girls over others. It may be a dating or courtship strategy for some women, but the kawaii behavior seems to work at times.

Extreme Kawaii Subcultures

Kawaii Men

It is widely known that the kawaii industry strongly markets and targets women. However, there are some men that are into the trend as well. They do so by wearing wigs, false eyelashes, makeup and female kawaii clothing.  Some men go for the neotenic look by making their features look much younger.


The decora fashion literally is derived from being decorative with one’s self. This is a means for them to express themselves and decora people call this as self-decoration. Often they use rainbow-colored accessories to create that vibrant look. Often times, decora fashion goers are usually adorned with multiple layers of accessories, colorful outfits and more. Extreme decora fashionistas even use toys and plush items as accessories as well.


This is one of the most famous subcultures in Japan. It consists of a doll-like appearance strongly inspired by the Victorian era. They try mimicking porcelain dolls of the time period with their lace outfits, ribboned hair, lace umbrellas and curly hair. Their faces are also done up to look like real-life dolls. There are different variations of Lolita which had evolved through the years – there is sweet Lolita, Goth Lolita, Punk Lolita and more.

What do the Japanese people adore about cuteness?

Cuteness is adored in almost all parts of the world. However, it is only in Japan that extreme adoration for the kawaii culture has created an unavoidable social impact. It can be seen in people’s behavior, a way of dress, a way of speech, and kawaii is in every aspect of the modern Japanese culture.

A lot of people, especially foreign travelers, ask why. The science behind the kawaii culture may be one of the best explanations for this excessiveness. Based on studies done by social psychology experts, it was found that both young children and adults have improved performances in a number of skills when shown images of cute objects like puppies. This helps them in creating better focus and thus improving their productivity.

The concept of kawaii becomes a motivational tool then. It helps a person express themselves (through subcultures and fashion), it helps a person adjust to the person they love (acting cute to get attention), and more. It is also an expressive way for people to show their feelings. And, despite a lot of people’s protests, the concept of kawaii is actually an art.                                                                                                                                  

Places to go in Japan for Kawaii Travel

Places to Eat

There are a lot of kawaii restaurants and cafes all over Japan that serve almost all kinds of cuteness. Most of the Kawaii restaurants are themed cafes and restaurants that feature popular cute character idols. For instance, a popular place to visit would be Alice in Wonderland Café in Ginza, Tokyo. Other places to visit also in Tokyo would be Panda café, Namja Town, and Chocoholic Patisserie Café. All these offer up cute pastries served in adorable plates and cutlery. There are numerous cute cafes all over Japan.

There are even kawaii cafes for pets. Now an ongoing trend, there are cat cafes and dog cafes that offer up interestingly cute menu items for pets and owners alike. Not only is it going to be an enjoyable affair, it is a sure playdate among all animals in the café.

Places to Shop

Kawaii souvenir shops are very common in Japan. There are small items intended for accessories like key chains, hair clips, stickers, and more. Other larger items are home furniture, clothing and apparel, bags, and more. Almost every corner and shopping center in Japan, there is sure to be a place to find all the kawaii products possible.

Places to Enjoy

Of course, what can beat Disneyland as the ultimate Kawaii getaway in Japan? There are numerous Disney theme parks in the country that both children and adults can enjoy. Be sure to meet many of the most famous Disney characters in every Disneyland visit! Other than Disneyland, the Sanrio Puroland is also another kawaii destination in Japan that all travelers will love.

For those who want to experience less tiresome activities, there are shopping centers that have photo strolls. These are stalls that offer up photo packages that the person could edit with the addition of stickers, colors, and themes. This is a great kawaii souvenir from Japan.

The advantages and disadvantages of the Kawaii culture

The Kawaii culture can be an unusual trend for many outsiders who are looking at the modern Japanese culture. This trend is quite different from the old-school Japanese culture of simplicity, minimalism, and seriousness. It pretty much shows how flexible the Japanese culture can become and how westernization had significantly influenced the Japanese. It is sure that the Kawaii culture has taken the Japanese by storm, it has affected their lives and has changed their way of living forever. A lot of Japanese people have changed their perception about relationships and fashion because of the existence of the kawaii.

The advantages of the kawaii culture are the fact that it is an interesting way for artists to express their uniqueness through their pieces. The emergence of this kind of culture in Japan is a fresh way for the younger generation to express their feelings and interests in art. Even through fashion and clothing, a person can become a masterpiece through their expression of art in their body. The Kawaii culture is an embodiment of the importance of purity and innocence to the Japanese.

The disadvantages to this, on the other hand, is the fact that there are some people who can take their passion for the kawaii culture to the extreme. It can be a bit destructive to their daily lives since it is not the “norm” to dress, act, or behave in a kawaii way. There are places where kawaii clothing is not appropriate, especially at formal events. Furthermore, extreme kawaii enthusiasts can bring about a weird image for travelers and foreign onlookers outside of Japan.