First draft based on essay plan last time Example

Spread of the ‘Kawaii’ Culture

“The fans are stomping and clapping as the Japanese duo known as Puffy warble a disco tune. The stars toss their auburn-dyed hair and pace the stage, dressed in jumpsuits and cloddy sneakers. They banter, and the 3,000 fans whoop back. Pretty normal for a Saturday night in Tokyo. But this is Hong Kong.” (Barbara Koh in the Newsweek, 1999)


The popularity of cartoons like Pokemon and ‘Hello Kitty’ curios, Takashi Murakami’s grand exhibition at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin (Pitman 1), all testify to the growing influence of the ‘Kawaii’ or the Japanese ‘cute culture’. What has made Japan and its ‘soft power’ (Nye cited in McGray p.53) so influential globally? What are the perspectives of the different peoples of the world with which the ‘Kawaii’ is accepted; are the uniform or varied? These are some questions worth pondering over for a student of Asian Studies.

Thesis Statement

The factors that have contributed to the rising popularity of the ‘Kawaii’ in each region, varies and differs according to the place and culture. Despite Japanese origin of the ‘Kawaii’, right marketing with flexible adaptations and attractive representations female sexuality have appealed to a latent part of childhood in people, irrespective of their nativity. While within Japan the ‘cute culture’ is perceived as a modernized, contemporary amalgamation of the chic, western culture with native Japanese culture in a more acceptable and realistic manner, abroad, the ‘Kawaii’ stands for the Japanese ‘cool’. The following sections shall illustrate the different perspectives and factors that have universally appealed to the youth of the globalized world.

The ‘Kawaii’ in Japan

The Japanese obsession with cuteness has been a subject of analysis and debate for sociologists (Lee 1). Aftermath of the World War II saw American influence enter Japan. The traditionally hard-working and family-oriented structure of the Japanese society was mistakenly perceived as being like robots; in the view of the west, Japan’s image was “a culture that is cold, impersonal, and machine-like” (Morley and Robins 172); this hardworking trait however, made Japan an economic super power. By the year 2001, economic recession hit Japan, with the Gross Domestic Product and the value of the Yen going down (McGray 47).

Strangely enough, this was a factor that contributed to the rise of the Japanese ‘cute’ and ‘cool’ image. Douglas McGray (2002) argues that during this economic downturn, the inherent resilience of the Japanese made them create “Super Flat” art in the form of cartoons that became well-known the world over. This art became the fore-runner of the now popular ‘kawaii’ culture, “gradually, over the course of an otherwise dismal decade, Japan has been perfecting the art of transmitting certain kinds of mass culture” (p. 48).

Lee (2005) points out the different views for the spread of ‘cute culture’ in Japan; some sections felt that the serious, workaholic nature of the Japanese society in general coupled with changes in lifestyles in the previously family-centric Japanese culture have led to the loss of innocent, carefree childhood. The miniature creations of the ‘kawaii’ like the Pokemon, Japanese manga
cartoons, Sanrio’s cartoon cat Hello Kitty, all seemed to awaken childhood nostalgia in the Japanese. Lee states, “The cute style extends beyond consumerism as seen in grown-ups with infantile behavior — acting silly, giggling, speaking with a squeaky voice, pouting and throwing temper tantrums” and a statement of the Japanese youth’s refusal “to give up the pampered, materialistic childhood lifestyle to which they were accustomed” (p. 1).

Gendered Sexuality and Clever Branding of ‘Hello Kitty’

Brian Bremner, the Chief of Bureau for Business Week, Tokyo, comments on ‘Hello Kitty’ and the Japanese ‘kawaii’ culture, “…cuteness in Japan is more than a fashion statement — it’s something closer to an aesthetic value, something that uniquely defines Japanese youth culture”; assessing it to be more it is more than “a marketing gimmick”; he goes further to state that, “It’s embedded in the culture and manifests itself in social and gender roles, particularly those of young Japanese women” (p. 1). However, other researchers do not agree fully.

Yano (2009) who has studied the ‘kawaii’ culture in detail warns that the “Japanese cute” is not all that it appears, and may be a “mask for larger issues”; importantly, the “feminized position” visible in the “gender and sexuality” of “hello Kitty” and the power of marketing and corporatization (pp. 686-8). In her discussion of the appointment of cultural ambassadors by the Japanese government, Yano points to the “Lolita complex” where “Lolita” refers to the “Japanese youth fashion emphasizing frilly Victorian-era, doll-inspired clothing; in name, also referencing the sexual fetishization of young prepubescent girls by older men” (p.685).

Yano (2011) goes further than merely pointing out the role of marketing in the spread of the ‘kawaii’ culture. Through its ‘emotionally connecting and touching’ techniques to popularize ‘kawaii and kyarakutaa gudzu” by the company, a “neat trick of imaging occurs within the frame of Sanrio’s invention of the touch-based industry labelled ‘social communication’” (pp. 25-35).

Response to the ‘Kawaii’ Culture Abroad

In America the ‘kawaii’ culture is well received that has spurred Jim Windolf (2009) to analyse the same in his article titled “Addicted to Cute”. Referring to how there has been an “overload of cuteness” in the US, he remarks that cuteness has even reached even culinary forms in the shape of “cute cupcakes” (pp.1-10). Windolf refers to the dark side of ‘cuteness’ and admits the influence of the ‘kawaii’, “The blank-faced Hello Kitty character, from Japan’s $1-billion-a-year Sanrio company, has successfully infiltrated American culture …” (pp 1-10) Yano (2009) agrees, “ In these American scenes Japanese cute had transcended both its Tokyo home, as well as its link to childhood innocence (p. 682).

Herein is the secret of the spread of the ‘kawaii’ culture, as McGray puts it, “Hello Kitty is Western, so she will sell in Japan. She is Japanese, so she will sell in the West. It is a marketing boomerang that firms like Sanrio, Sony, and Nintendo manage effortlessly.” (p. 50) In the UK too, youth have “started to embrace the whole spectrum of kawaii — from the extremes of «cosplay» (costume play) down to the purchasing of accessories adorned with cute «anime» and manga characters” over the last decade (Hollingworth 1), pointing to its success.

The popularity of the ‘kawaii’ culture in Asian countries appears to be logical in that it symbolizes the power of “an emerging Asian identity” and furthermore, for Asians “mimicking Japanese TV stars is easier than adulating Westerners” (Koh 1).


Japanese ‘kawaii’ culture’ has aspects of some uniquely inherent, native, traits of adaptability and reinvention. Its universal appeal to the hidden child within the people of all countries; its enticing undercurrent of female sexuality, and some strategic marketing have helped the popularity of Japanese ‘kawaii’ to transcend borders. Though perspectives differ on the factors that led to the popularity of ‘kawaii’, that strategic marketing did play a significant role in its spread is undeniable. This study has offered deep insights into the developments in contemporary Japanese society.

List of works cited

Barbara Koh (1999): “Japanese Youth and Popular Culture” in the Newsweek, UCLA Center for East Asian Studies. November 8, 1999. Also available at

Brian Bremner (2002): “In Japan, Cute Conquers All” in Bloomberg Business Week Online. Online article accessed on August 10, 2011.

Christine R. Yano (2009): Wink on Pink: Interpreting Japanese Cute as It Grabs the Global Headlines, The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 68, No. 3 (August) 2009: 681–688.

Christine R. Yano (2011): Reach Out and Touch Someone: Thinking Through

Sanrio’s Social Communication Empire, Japanese Studies, 31:1, 23-36.

Diana Lee (2005). “Inside Look at Japanese Cute Culture” in UNIORB: Asian Trend – Japan. Online article accessed on August 10, 2011.

Douglas McGray, (2002): “Japan’s Gross National Cool.” Foreign Policy, May/June, 44–54.

Joanna Pitman (2009): “Takashi Murakami: in the court of the king of cute” in The Times The Sunday Times. September 15, 2009.

Morley, D. and K. Robins. 1995. Spaces of identity: global media, electronic landscapes, and cultural boundaries. London: Routledge.

William Hollingworth (2011): “‘Kawaii’ culture taking hold in U.K.” in The Japan Times

Wednesday, March 2, 2011.