A Lolita-like little girl style is part of the kawaii phenomenon that is popular with some Japanese teenage girls. Photo taken from the NTNU / Kosmorama seminar programme.

Japan’s cuteness phenomenon is hundreds of years old

You’ve seen the pictures and the products: Japanese teenage girls in a pastel little-girl world, and children and adults who love Hello Kitty products. They’re all part of the Japanese kawaii phenomenon, which actually started several hundred years ago.

Maybe you’ve purchased something from the Hello Kitty series or been at the receiving end of pleas for these mega-popular products from the younger set. If so, you’ve encountered the Japanese phenomenon of kawaii.

Hello Kitty is everwhere. You may even have one of these in your house.

The sweet Hello Kitty cat that was born in Japan over 40 years ago quickly became a hit there and has since infiltrated clothes, plays, and movies all over the world. But Hello Kitty is just one element in a larger trend.

The cuteness culture, or kawaii aesthetic, has become a prominent aspect of Japanese popular culture. Kawaii is a culture of cute that refers to anything charming, sweet, childish, or naive. The aesthetic includes toys, movies, entertainment, food, clothes, and looks, among other things.

Illustration taken from the NTNU / Kosmorama seminar programme.

“The phenomenon of kawaii is translated as ‘cute’ in English, but the two words have distinct shades of meaning. Kawaii is connected solely with things that are lovable and loved, without any potentially ambivalent nuances,” says Julia Leyda. She is an associate professor in NTNU’s Department of Art and Media Studies.

During the international Kosmorama film festival in Trondheim in early March, Leyda led a seminar on kawaii organized by NTNU and Kosmorama. She was joined by kawaii expert Joshua Paul Dale, an author and researcher at Tokyo Gakugei University.

Overwhelmed by cuteness

Leyda lived in Japan for several years and was instantly captivated by the kawaii phenomenon.

“I moved to Japan in 2000, and kawaii was one of the first and most useful words I learned. When we were shopping for our new apartment, my partner and I became overwhelmed by how central cuteness is in almost every aspect of Japanese consumer goods. Kawaii began to creep into our lives – and it was often strangely combined with the famous Japanese minimalist aesthetic. So kawaii was part of our everyday life before I started looking at it from a scientific perspective,” she says.

Cute – and controversial – handwriting

“Kawaii has existed in Japan for centuries and has a long history in the visual arts and in popular culture,” says Leyda.

Kawaii-inspired digital clock designed by Yoshitomo Nara. Photo: Julia Leyda / NTNU

The phenomenon really took off in the 1970s, beginning with a new trend in handwriting among teenage girls.

Girls changed their handwriting using mechanical pencils. Traditional Japanese writing is vertical and varies in thickness, but the mechanical pencils made it possible to write horizontally with very fine lines. The girls also began to insert large, rounded characters and small pictures into the text, like hearts, stars, and emoticons. This development was essentially the birth of emojis.

The writing style caused a lot of controversy, and several schools expelled students who used it.

But by the 1980s magazines and cartoon series had picked up on this new “cute” form of writing, as had the advertising and packaging industries.

This type of Japanese handwriting is also known by several other names: marui ji (丸い) meaning “round writing”, koneko ji (小猫 字) or “kitten writing”, manga ji (漫画 字) or “comic writing”, and burikko ji (鰤 子 字) meaning “fake child-writing”.

A Japanese researcher, Kazuma Yamane, who studied the movement that he termed Anomalous Female Teenage Handwriting, concluded that the teenagers had come up with this trend themselves, as a spontaneous underground movement.

Commercial aesthetic

“Kawaii is about identity and community, which offers kawaii adherents a sense of social connection. Kawaii also gives Japanese youth an opportunity to express themselves and build social identities,” says Leyda.

In Japan, Leyda was part of Dale’s research and writing team. Several researchers from the team collaborated on putting together chapters for a book about the phenomenon.

Who would have guessed that an egg-like creature could become a media darling?

“We knew that a lot had already been written about Japanese kawaii, so we decided to focus more on cuteness in other contexts. I was already concerned with how power relationships are related to class, race and gender, so extending these research questions and linking them to cuteness piqued my interest,” she said. “My chapter in the book is about femininity and cuteness in female robots, in movies like ‘Ex Machina’, TV series like the Swedish ‘Äkta Människor’ (Real Humans), the UK remake of ‘Humans’ and the Halle Berry series ‘Extant’.”

Read an excerpt from Julia Leyda’s chapter and watch clips from movies (from In Media Res)

Read excerpts from the other authors’ chapters (from In Media Res)

Read Julia Leyda’s commentary on the reality series “Here comes Honey Boo Boo”

An idle egg

Leyda says her current kawaii favourite is Gudetama, an egg that doesn’t like to put out any effort and is very life-weary. Some people interpret Gudetama’s popularity as reflective of the fact that the Japanese work so much and therefore like a character that contrasts so starkly with the workaholic culture.

“I love Gudetama because of the absurdity of this human-like egg that is so incredibly expressive and wise,” says Leyda.

Another intriguing kawaii character is Aggrestuko. She is a female office worker by day and at night she does heavy metal karaoke. Soon she’ll be getting her own animated series on Netflix.