Since the 1970s, an all-pervasive form of cultural cuteness called kawaisa (可愛さ) has crept up to become a prominent aspect of Japanese (and to a lesser extent general East and Southeast Asian) 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. Even in cases 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 Foreign observers can find this cuteness odd because of their own cultural aversions to it and a somewhat outdated perception of the Japanese as stoic and no-nonsense people.
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 one–eighty 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, as they are also especially popular in other parts of East and Southeast Asia, such as China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines and Singapore. In America and elsewhere in the western world, however, the opposite used to be true in general matters of tastes until the advent of The New '10s came around with cuteness being looked upon far more favorably than it used to be in the past until became a Broken Base at the end of the same decade due to Moral Guardians accusing it of being misogynistic and pedophilic.
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).
Not to be confused with the 50th and youngest of The United States, Hawaiʻi—a notable Pacific Island archipelago, which is culturally so much more than just Hula and Luaus or the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i, and the Kawaiisu indigenous Americans.
Kawaisa makes these tropes so adorable you could die:
- Adorably Precocious Child
- American Kirby Is Hardcore
- Anime Chinese Girl
- Bridge Bunnies
- Cat Girl
- Cute 'em Up
- Cute Monster Girl
- Cute Witch
- Elegant Gothic Lolita
- Frills of Justice
- Fun Size
- Genki Girl
- Generic Cuteness
- Idol Singer
- Little Bit Beastly
- Little Miss Snarker
- Magical Girl
- Maneki Neko
- Moe Anthropomorphism
- Often turns up as Mascots for various products especially for the Japanese market
- Puni Plush
- Ridiculously Cute Critter
- Strawberry Shorthand
- Super-Deformed versions of anime characters.
- Token Mini-Moe
- Waddling Head
- Pokémon: The Series: From the mid-90's to the early-10's, and then again from the early 2020's onwards, there's been a series of jet airliners adorned with Pokemon-themed designs. While the Pokemon-themed Boeing 747s used by All Nippon Airways are most famous for their use in this program (unfortunately retired following the fallout of the late-2000's recession), Boeing 737s, 767s and 777s have also worn these designs. For reference, here's the Boeing 747 'Ohana Jumbo' landing at Sapporo, showing off the very colourful paint job it sported as part of its special livery.
- Hello Kitty: There was a line of
massagersvibrators with Hello Kitty's head on it. (But it's soooo kyuute!)
- 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.
- Satoshi Kon, the director of Paranoia Agent, absolutely hated the Kawaisa concept, and attacked it in a number of his works, this one being the most obvious.
- The central thesis of the series is essentially that Kawaisa and the Japanese suicide epidemic are two different manifestations of the same Escapist impulse.
- 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-traveler 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.
- Small shops sometimes have chalk boards with current sales in their windows. It isn't rare that a employee draws a cute critter on it as well. This can range from something genuinely cute as Pikachu to questionable creatures such as Kyubey.
- Unico debuted in 1976, when cuteness was starting to become huge in Japan. While the Unico franchise contained some dark and terrifying imagery, that didn't stop him from appearing in tons of cute merchandise. Fans of Osamu Tezuka speculate that Unico was created by him to appeal to the Kawaii Culture.
- 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".
- 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.
- One of the carriages in the film Bullet Train is themed around Momonka, an In-Universe anime series note and one of the assassins aboard is disguised as the mascot.
- The Kirby series plays with this interestingly. While most of its inhabitants carefree and Dream Land 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 Dream Landers are at stake, and Kirby himself changes gears from being just a cute moeblob to the assertive badass.
- 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. Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando 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. 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.
- The whole premise of Kawaiinot is to parody this trope.
- Subversive Kawaii, which uses Kawaii-style art (originally text art, but it's branched out) to send social messages.
- Happy Tree Friends is quite popular in Japan because of the adorable cartoon critters that make up the cast and could qualify as guro-kawaii due to its violent content; in fact, most of the merchandise tied to the show is Japan-exclusive.
- The Powerpuff Girls' popularity in Japan is due in part to this.
- Reportedly Chip 'n Dale are the most popular Disney characters in Japan; no doubt this is why.
- Same goes for Marie from The Aristocats due to Japan's fondness with cats.
- Stitch and his "cousins" are 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.
- Apparently TJ Detweiler from Recess is the most popular character of his show.
- Thomas & Friends is extremely popular in Japan because of how cute the characters (Percy in particular) are. It helps that the Japanese really love trains. In fact, a replica of Thomas is a picture on The Other Wiki's page. for kawaii.
- Et tu, Trope-tan?
- Asahi Bank used Miffy, a character from a Dutch series of children's picture books, on some of its ATM and credit cards.
- 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 kōban [police boxes].
- Several Japanese-language blogs have this.
- Strangely, parts of this seem to be headed towards being an 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.
- This article from Psychology Today states that Kawaisa has an ancient pedigree—simply because Japan's constant social stratification needed something to soften the edges. Kawaisa: Feudalism's version of a rollover bug?
- In another example of how kawaisa can be found in many facets of Japanese society, Sato Pharmaceutical has the adorable orange elephant Sato-Chan and his pink sister Satoko-Chan as mascots. Statuettes of them often greet customers at the doors of pharmacies selling their products, and even some Western supermarkets catering to the Asian-American community display them prominently.
- In a non-Japanese example, US Air Force pilots of the F-4 Phantom fighter had a cute cartoon ghost mascot called "the Spook," who appeared on uniform patches and even merchandise.