Sexism and Culture: Japan’s Obsession With Kawaii

The Roots — And Dark Side — Of The Local All-Things-Cute Culture

By Ai Faithy Perez
September 5, 2017
Art & Culture

It's easy to get caught up in the cult of cute, cute, cute. But where did the word "Kawaii" come from, and is the sexism that can come with it really all that innocent?

Have you ever wondered why so many Japanese people seem to be completely consumed with everything kawaii? 

Walking into a zakkaya-san, or variety goods store, you may be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of kawaii products — from the plastic pen with cutesy characters and glittery beads to the fluffy sofa blanket with a cute animal face sewn into a pocket in one of the four corners, enabling you to tuck the blanket in.

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It seems odd to me, even though I’ve spent most of my life here, that a grown adult would be moved to spend their hard-earned cash on a plastic anime figurine. C’mon, even Toy Story did a full 103 minutes about “growing up” and “leaving toys behind”! The fact is, kawaii culture is seen as this innocent part of Japanese culture. Yet if you go beyond the surface with how the root of the word morphed, and examples like how symbols of feminism have to be watered down in Japan, there’s much more to it than it’s glittery exterior.

kawaii monster

The capital of Kawaii, the Kawaii Monster Cafe in Harajuku.

Where did the word Kawaii come from?

A lot of people are used to hear the word “kawaii,” but many don’t really know where it originated, or that the word has evolved greatly over time.

The modern usage of the word translates into “cute”, “lovable” or “adorable.” The original form of the word, however, came with a darker twist. In ancient times the word was “kawo-hayu-shi”, which literally means, “face flushed.” It described the feelings of “embarrassment, awkwardness, and self-consciousness.” Eventually, the definition took on a different meaning: “can’t leave one alone, to care for.” Embarrassment, awkwardness, and self-consciousness shed their skins in favor of a new one — kawaii.

[…] females are perceived as cute only if they revert back to their childish identities — both physically and mentally.

Kawaii went under a type of “word-morph,” that gave it some qualities that are still found in modern-day society. Ethologist Konrad Lorenz proposed that “baby schema” is a particular set of physical features, such as a large head and eyes, a round face and chubby cheeks, which are perceived as cute or cuddly and elicit the motivation to care for the adolescent creature in adults. In species where the young depend entirely on such care (like humans) it may be a matter of survival (excluding, of course, social stigma).

This comes through in connection with kawaii culture as females are perceived as cute only if they revert back to their childish identities — both physically and mentally. Japan seems to have incorporated the theory of “baby schema” into many of their products, and thereby making product appealing to all.

Modern-day ‘kawaii’ clash

A current example of how much the Japanese value kawaii-ism, is how strong female characters are portrayed to Japanese fans, including the classic Wonder Woman. She is an age-old icon of feminism around the globe made timely because of the 2017 film (released in Japan in August). Fans on Twitter have been distraught with how she was depicted by Warner Brothers, who produced the film, in the campaign ads here in Japan.

The Warner Brothers Japan marketed the movie like this: “Move over, Harley Quinn! Special Japan release for Wonder Woman, the No. 1 warrior beauty the world has been waiting for. She’s supposed to be one of the most powerful superheroes in existence, but she’s also an incredibly innocent and naïve girl who knows nothing about men or love. The trailer is narrated by Kotono Mitsuishi, the voice actor who plays the role of none other than Sailor Moon herself (Usagi Tsukino) in the animated series!”

Unless you’re an anime-lover, you may not be aware that Kotono Mitsuishi is considered to be the epitome of kawaii voices. The furthest thing from what a lot of people would consider Wonder Woman to be about. Kawaii-ism may be cute and cuddly on the outside, but it’s laced with an age-old idea that women should be kawaii, demure and submissive. Is it a pure coincidence that Wonder Woman had to be remarketed for it to appeal to the masses here?! 

Kawaii and sexism

And yet, the kawaii phenomenon attracts attention from around the world. Art exhibitions like “Cute, Cute Kawaii! Japan’s Pop Culture Movement,” a recent one in California, show the upside. After attending an event like this, you might think that it comes down to modern pop culture, while others declare kawaii culture’s roots have a sexist overtone.

The connection between kawaii-ness and sexism might not be so apparent, but judging by Japan’s need to portray a strong, confident woman as innocent and naive, speaks volumes. The need for women to be submissive spills over into other realms of life.

Japan’s glass ceiling is much lower than its Western neighbors. In 2016, The Economist released data ranking the best and worst countries to be a working woman. Of the 29 countries on the list, Japan was nearly last (only beating South Korea), with many European countries like Iceland on the other side of the spectrum.

In another Savvy Tokyo article, Chiara Terzuolo writes about how she was “in an important meeting with a client” and her boss introduced her as “‘kono one-chan,’” or “this girl,” also a term used to refer to hostesses. Things like this, though declining, still happen in this country, and you can’t help but think that there is a connection between how women are being expected to act cute and innocent and the way they are treated professionally. 

Kawaii culture may be to blame for how this type of sexism is seen as normal here. While other economically steady countries are trying to “grow up” and “leave childish things behind,” Japan still fails to progress in this area. All that cuteness might just not be worth the price.