If there is one Japanese word most people know aside from sushi, it is probably kawaii – the Japanese word that translates to English as “cute”. Kawaii is usually associated with Hello Kitty and the Sanrio brand at a minimum, but it is often attributed to overall hyperfemininity in both fashion and mannerisms. Outside of Japan, kawaii is often perceived as the Japanese norm, when in fact, there are many Japanese people who are not actively involved in kawaii culture. Though the word translates to “cute”, the two kanji, Chinese characters, used to write it translate directly to “acceptable love”.
If you want the quick and general history of kawaii, check out this Tofugu page, as I am not about to reiterate the entire thing now. Without going into too much detail, kawaii has a long history in Japan and nowadays, is usually apparent in daily life through graphic designs. Kawaii qualities are encouraged in Japanese women as they are noted as favorable traits for attracting men.
While kawaii has its roots in submission, which is a general norm in Japanese gender roles, lolita fashion and super kawaii things of the like are an extreme. Though there are different variations of lolita fashion, all of them are doll-like and hyperfeminine. When someone is in full lolita, the outfit usually includes a wig and accessories such as contact lenses and false eyelashes. Lolita culture is similar to drag in the way that it is a hyper-gendered costume appearance done for personal fulfillment or for a performance of sorts. The one major difference is that drag was created with the intention of mocking gender roles while kawaii culture has a different origin that Jeremy Read describes in a paper titled “Kawaii: Culture of Cuteness”
“Many young people felt that adulthood was too harsh and strict, requiring too much responsibility; they viewed it as a loss of freedom. Instead of rebelling by aggression or being sexually provocative as in the West, they rebelled by being cute and childlike, cherishing immaturity and fun.”
Rather than kawaii being a form of oppression, as some people tend to view it, fans of kawaii culture will be quick to confirm that it is rather a form of self-expression, empowerment, and individuality.
J-pop musician Kyary, who was crowned Harajuku Kawaii Ambassador, is currently the face of kawaii. Kyary was originally a fashion icon who appeared in Japanese fashion magazines but was later signed to a record label and recently completed her first world tour. In an interview with The Japan Times, Kyary said of her style:
“Fundamentally, I want people to wear what they want to wear. In my song “Fashion Monster” there is the lyric, ‘I don’t want to be bound by anyone else’s rules.’ I think that sums up what I would like to say to listeners. If you are wearing clothes that you enjoy wearing, everything you do in life becomes fun.”
One reader, a self-proclaimed feminist, commented on the interview insisting that kawaii culture “encourages women to think that looking cute and bubble-headed is more important than showing your intelligence” which sounds rather similar to the close-minded argument against women who choose to wear makeup which suggests that the choice to use cosmetics translates to vapidity. Because apparently there is no way that a person could possibly be an intellectual AND choose to wear lipstick- it has to be one or the other.