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Useful Notes: Kawaisa
aka: Kawaii
Where construction meets cuddliness.

Since the 1970s, an all-pervasive form of cultural cuteness entitled kawaisa (可愛さ) has crept up to become a prominent aspect of Japanese popular culture, entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance, behavior, iconography and mannerisms. Kawaisa is deeply embedded in contemporary Japanese culture (so much so it even has a nickname, "The Cult of Cute") and is used in a vast array of situations and demographics where, in other cultures, it would be considered incongruously juvenile or frivolous (public service warnings, office environments, commercial airlines, government publications — even military advertisements). Many companies use cute mascots to present their wares and services to the public from big business to corner markets and national government, ward and town offices. Foreign observers can find this cuteness odd because of their own cultural aversions to it and a somewhat outdated perception of the Japanese as a stoic, non-frivolous people. Tomoyuki Sugiyama, author of "Cool Japan", believes that "cuteness" is rooted in Japan's harmony-loving culture, and Nobuyoshi Kurita, a sociology professor at Musashi University in Tokyo, has stated that "cute" is a "magic term" that encompasses everything that's acceptable and desirable in Japan.

The word "kawaii" in Japanese has a broader definition than the English word "cute". When applied to pop culture, "cute" will suffice; however "kawaii" refers primarily to the affection of a parent toward a child coupled with the protectiveness for the innocent and weak. Thus a pop cartoon character is considered "kawaii" because it exemplifies the innocence of a child and evokes general protective, caring instincts in the viewer. Other translations of "kawaii" can include "precious", "lovable", "adorable" or "innocent".

Cute merchandise is extremely popular in Japan. The two largest manufacturers of such merchandise are Sanrio (manufacturers of Hello Kitty) and San-X (manufacturers of "Kogepan", "Nyan Nyan Nyanko" and "Rilakkuma"). This character merchandise is a hit with Japanese children and adults alike covering a wide array of demographics. In the Japanese Writing System, the curvy hiragana script is often preferred for writing the names of these characters and their associated products due to the inherent "bounciness", childlike appeal (hiragana is often the first type of script a Japanese child would learn) and friendliness it lends over the angularity of the katakana or kanji scripts.

Kawaisa can be also used to describe a specific fashion sense, or kawaiiko, of an individual and generally includes clothing that appears to be made for young children, outside of the size, or clothing that accentuates the cuteness of the individual wearing the clothing. Ruffles and pastel colors are commonly (but not always) featured, and accessories often include toys or bags featuring anime characters.

Not all embrace the cute so readily though, those skeptical of this "cuteness" consider it a sign of an infantile mentality. Hiroto Murasawa, professor of beauty and culture at Osaka Shoin Women's University, calls cuteness "a mentality that breeds non-assertion ... Individuals who choose to stand out get beaten down." Controversially, some have suggested that Japan's brutal defeat in World War II bred this mentality, viewing it as the only way to explain how the warrior culture of Imperial Japan did a complete 180$ in just a couple of generations.

The Superflat art movement was begun by Japanese artists who began using Grotesque Cute and its related tropes as a satirical comment on the culture's obsession with cuteness. Their philosophy relates it to the inevitable conflict between Eastern and Western ethical and artistic traditions — a conflict in which all of Japan has been living for well over a century. Cute merchandise and products are not specifically a Japanese thing, they are also especially popular in some parts of east Asia, such as China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore. In America and elsewhere in the western world however, the opposite applies in general.

This phenomenon probably explains why it's hard to pin down the ages of anime characters, particularly females, as they tend to combine young characteristics (wide eyes, overall cuteness/vulnerability) with 'older' characteristics (such as disproportionate intelligence, wisdom, breasts).


Kawaisa makes these tropes so adorable you could die:


Examples:

Anime and Manga
  • Pokémon
    • Pikachu adorns the side of three All Nippon Airways passenger jets.
  • Hello Kitty
  • Paranoia Agent is a long study in the dark side of Kawaisa aesthetics, implying that the real reason for its success is the generalized immaturity of the current generation — or, for those of you who like shorter words, the problem is that Japan simply will not grow the fuck up.
    • This article from Psychology Today came to the same conclusion. It's worth noting that according to it, Kawaisa has a somewhat ancient pedigree—simply because Japan's constant social stratification needed something to soften the edges. Kawaisa: Feudalism's version of a rollover bug?
    • Satoshi Kon, the director of Paranoia Agent, absolutely hated the Kawaisa concept, and attacked it in a number of his works, that one being the most obvious.
  • Haruhi Suzumiya: Mikuru's defining characteristic is that Kyon thinks she is cute. Really really cute. He goes on and on about it. After that there's something about being a time traveller but Nagato and her (Mikuru's) adult form are usually the ones to take care of that. Oh, and there was one more thing but it's classified.
  • The Tachikomas from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex are six-foot-tall spider-tanks equipped with autonomous AIs, gatling guns, and grenade launchers. They work for an elite counter-terrorism task force. They have rounded edges, a bright blue paint scheme, and the voices and personalities of six-year-old children. They're the most adorable weapons ever.
    • It is telling that the Tachikomas can be cute while still looking like completely pragmatically designed and functional weapons, their cuteness having more to do with their voices and personalities than anything else. Further, it is a credit to the writers, art directors, and animators that they can maintain their cuteness without clashing with an otherwise relatively serious and realistically animated series.
  • Saito Ayaka is the queen of kawaisa. Apparently, her voice is soft and high-pitched even for a female seiyuu.
  • Potemayo (the series) is very, very cute and very, very weird. Potemayo herself is a 2-foot-tall blob of moe features who acts like a 8-year-old... and was found in a fridge.
  • My Bride Is a Mermaid as a whole generally parodies this mindset, as the more obviously cute something is the more chance there is of it resulting in something utterly insane (e.g. Maki is an eight-inch tall girl who acts extremely shy and has an extremely high-pitched and cutesy voice. She's actually a yakuza enforcer who puts on the cute act as a front). The crowing point has to be episode 20, which takes stereotypical Moe elements (Cat Girl, Sailor Fuku, etc.) and applies them to extremely masculine characters. Naturally, it turns out a bit disturbing.

Art
  • The Japanese artist Mari-chan specializes in this kind of iconography but it's a Nightmare Fuel version of kawaisa!
  • Junko Mizuno's work is in this vein, as well. Her twisted fairy-tale Cinderalla, for instance, casts the heroine's cruel stepmother and stepsisters as zombies, and Cinderalla has to be magically transformed into a zombie for her big chance to meet the handsome zombie prince. Instead of dropping a glass slipper at midnight, Cinderalla drops her eyeball.
    • Here's an excerpt taken from her Wikipedia article about her art style, which "mixes childish sweetness and cuteness with blood and terror".

Fan Fiction

Film
  • Parodied in the Battle Royale film, where the rules of the titular deathmatch are explained by a cute and cheerful young woman (better known as Asuka). When she finds that the weapon in her pack is an axe, she exclaims, "This one's super-lucky!" Much of the film's atmosphere comes from the juxtaposition of brutal violence with school-age drama over popularity and crushes.

Real Life
  • Asahi Bank used Miffy, a character from a Dutch series of children's picture books, on some of its ATM and credit cards.
    • Toyama Daiichi had Paddington Bear.
  • Monkichi, a cute monkey character, can be found on the packaging for a line of condoms.
  • All 47 prefectures have cute mascot characters.
  • The Japan Post "Yū-Pack" mascot is a stylized mailbox. The Japan Post also uses other cute mascot characters, for example, on stamps.
  • Some police forces in Japan have their own moe mascots, which sometimes adorn the front of kouban [police boxes].
  • OS-Tans
  • Several Japanese-language blogs have this.
  • This is, supposedly, the reason why babies are so adorable; teddy bears show a marked trend towards cuteness, and research has proved that this is to get the adults to buy them as a gift (the kids themselves didn't seem to care as long as they got a fun toy).
  • Strangely, parts of this seem to be headed towards being a Undead Horse Trope — for example, the taste for high-pitched female voices has faded to the point that it's not heard much anymore.
  • The Kawaii Crush dolls from Canadian toy company Spin Master. Seriously.

Video Games
  • The Kirby series plays with this interestingly. While most of its inhabitants carefree and Dreamland is pretty much an idyllic paradise, it is always constantly being invaded by dark forces and Eldritch Abominations, some of which even possess said cute inhabitants. Things tend to get dramatically serious when the lives of the Dreamlanders are at stake, and Kirby himself changes gears from being just a cute moeblob to the assertive Bad Ass.
  • Many Video Games, so much so that many foreign video games don't do well in Japan. The main reason for this is because western video game characters are considered "ugly" by Japanese standards.
    • Notably, Ratchet & Clank got a cuteness makeover that was basically the inverse of American Kirby Is Hardcore. The second game was a pack-in for the PS2.
    • Averted in the Japanese release of The Last of Us which save for a few edits for violent content was released exactly how it was in the West (with Japanese voice acting of course). And surprisingly, it sold very well for a very western game with a very adult rating (the equivalent of AO).
      • The cultural dissonance in video games between Japan and America is very noticeable in NieR. Two versions of essentially the same game were made and marketed distinctly for American and Japanese audiences. The American version has a gruff, hard male protagonist, while the Japanese version has an effeminate, sensitive male protagonist. Again, these two characters are, essentially, the same character in both games.
  • Moogles in the Final Fantasy games seems to serve no other purpose than cutifying wherever they exist.
  • Western example: contrast the cutesy, kawaii designs of the Chinese truck in Trackmania United with, for example, the Adri?Fern?ez-like design of the Mexican stadium racer.
  • Pushmo gushes this out the ears.
    • Fellow Intelligent Systems series Panel de Pon possibly rivals the Kirby series for the title of Most Adorable Nintendo Franchise, to the point that Panel de Pon DS/Planet Puzzle League, which excised the use of any fairy characters (but did feature protagonist Lip's stage as an unlockable), was criticized in its home country for not being cute enough.
  • The beta flash game Whirled has been having a war over this. Statics, avatars that are non-moving sprites or images, are fighting pretty much the other majority. Not including regular, Kawaii, Chibi (Famous artist: Kristie Kraiser, her site is www.insanitycentral.com), and the dreaded TOFUS(default avatars). DUN DUN DUUUUUN.
  • Can Yui Horie make Need for Speed Kawaii? You be the judge.
  • The Ace Attorney series has the Blue Badger, Ridiculously Cute Critter mascot of the game's police department's criminal affairs division. Just another Widget poking holes in the localization's "canon" that the game takes place in America.
    • Ironically, nobody outside the police department likes it - Phoenix's response to seeing it amounts to "What the?!?", while Edgeworth's reaction is famously, "What the hell is that wriggling piece of plywood?!?"
  • The sentry turrets from Portal are the cutest sentry turrets ever. They will kill you with cute. And then bullets.

Webcomics
  • The whole premise of Kawaiinot is to parody this trope.

Web Original
  • Subversive Kawaii, which uses Kawaii-style art (originally text art, but it's branched out) to send social messages.

Western Animation
  • The Powerpuff Girls' popularity in Japan is due in part to this.
  • Reportedly Chip and Dale are the most popular Disney characters in Japan; no doubt this is why. Stitch is also very popular.
  • ChalkZone was one of Nick Japan's most popular shows. No surprise there.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic has also been rather well received in Japan, likely due to this phenomenon. Strangely, some have theorized that its unexpected popularity among young men in other nations might be due to similar reasons. Specifically, the show gained so many fans because its cute (but not overbearing) and sincerely optimistic setting were highly appealing due to the fact that much of other mainstream animation is more subversive or Darker and Edgier.

Meta


KawaiikoHappiness TropesLet Them Die Happy
Katanas of the Rising SunUsefulNotes/JapanKendo
Joke CharacterUndead Horse TropeKnight in Shining Armor
Yaoi FangirlUsefulNotes/Anime Fan SpeakLolicon
JuggaloUseful NotesKimono

alternative title(s): Kawaii; Kawaisa
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