Translated by MATCHA_En
Japan's Kawaii Culture: What Is It And Where Can You Find It?
This article takes a look at just what the word kawaii means, and its impact on Japanese culture. Learn all about kawaii characters, places, souvenirs, fashion styles and more!
Written by Sawada Tomomi
Anyone with an interest in Japanese pop culture is sure to have run into the word "kawaii" before. You will find this adjective used to describe everything from people to animals to food and even buildings! In this article, we take a look at just what kawaii means, and some of the many representatives of kawaii culture in Japan.
Table Of Contents:
What Is "Kawaii"?
"Snow bunnies" in winter
Over the past few years, the Japanese word kawaii has become internationally known. Often written in hiragana, the actual Japanese characters for the word kawaii roughly translate to "must love". Can you guess what it means now? In English, kawaii means cute, pretty, lovely, or charming. Nowadays, while it still maintains a feminine nuance for most situations, kawaii can be used to refer to an object, an action, a fashion choice, facial expression, or even "a way of being", that is just, overall, endearing.
There are even slang terms that have branched off from the original idea of kawaii. One popular example is "kimo-kawaii", or something that is "creepy but kind of cute". Many people use this term to refer to things like insects, or even Japan's own giant river salamander. Or "busu-kawaii" ("ugly cute") for anything that's "so ugly it becomes cute".
The Main Staple of Cute: Kawaii Characters
Popular anime characters are one of the first ways in which you can encounter Japan's kawaii culture, and many of them have become representatives of kawaii culture to the world.
Perhaps the most famous of all Japanese characters, Hello Kitty, designed by Sanrio, is an anthropomorphic kitten character. The red ribbon clipped to her head on the right-hand side is her trademark.
From the Nintendo game of the same name, Pokemon appear in all sorts of environments - inhabiting mountains, oceans, jungles, caves and many other places - and there are hundreds upon hundreds of Pokemon species spanning different media from comics to TV series, movies and more. Pikachu is perhaps the most famous Pokemon.
Totoro, from the Studio Ghibli production “My Neighbor Totoro,” stands two meters tall and strongly resembles a horned owl. Totoro is the master of the forest, and can use magic. Totoro is the first character that comes to mind for many when they here the Ghibli name.
Doraemon is a cat robot from the future with an array of special gadgets, which he uses to help the perpetually unlucky elementary school student, Nobita. Doraemon’s characteristic features are his blue body, red nose and bell collar.
Other incredibly popular characters include Gudetama, a sluggish and uninterested egg; Kapibara-san, a capybara that loves onsens and grass; and Jibanyan, a cat ghost from the popular Yokai Watch franchise.
Yuru-chara (Mascot Characters)
Yuru-chara are mascot characters specifically created to promote an area, event, or organization; their job is usually to advertise noted regional products and sightseeing spots. They don’t have a particularly serious mission, and the characters are notable for their carefree and loose (“yurui”) vibes. Yuru-chara are popular enough that a Yuru-chara Grand Prix event is held for them every year.
The most famous yuru-chara is Kumamon, from Kumamoto prefecture. Popular both inside and outside of Japan, this kawaii character’s trademarks are his red cheeks and feigned air of innocence.
Another popular yuru-chara is Funasshi, a pear sprite from Funabashi in Chiba prefecture. Funasshi’s charm lies in its peculiar movements and its miraculous jumps. Thanks to the efforts of this character, Funabashi pears, the city’s noted product, became very well-known in Japan. Due to Funasshi’s high popularity, many kawaii Funasshi goods are sold in stores.
Recently, Zu-Shi-Hokki, a yuru-chara from Hokuto in Hokkaido, has received attention for its kimo-kawaii character. Zu-Shi-Hokki is an anthropomorphic piece of surf clam sushi, Hokuto’s local specialty. Despite its unpleasant appearance, Zu-Shi-Hokki has an inexplicable charm.
Harajuku, The Kawaii Holy Land
For over 35 years, Harajuku has been on the cutting edge of fashion for the younger generation. Takeshita Street is particularly famous, with rows of popular boutique shops teeming with fashionable people, while Laforet is the central shopping mall where you can find the foremost fashion brands of the area. Thanks to the influence of fashion magazines, Harajuku fashion is recognized as the foundation of kawaii and comes in a very diverse and imaginative range of styles.
To learn more about Harajuku, check out the Harajuku Guide: Access, Recommended Fashion Shops, And More! and Top 7 Harajuku Shopping Spots articles.