The Enduring, Rebellious & Totally Adorable Appeal Of Kawaii

The Japanese aesthetic celebrating all things cute is everywhere you look. A new generation of young people is giving it a defiant twist.

by Laura Studarus

Sanrio Puroland, the indoor theme park where Hello Kitty and her equally adorable pals live, is awash with pink — on the walls, on the stairs, on the rides. Groups of women in full-skirted dresses have come to this fantastical playground, located on the edge of Tokyo, on a quest for cuteness. The cartoon cat is ready to deliver: Visitors angle their selfies for the perfect shot, snack on food stamped with characters’ faces, and snatch up plushies with a fervor mirrored in smaller doses at Sanrio’s flagship stores and cafes around the city.

Since her debut in 1974, Hello Kitty has become one of Japan’s most recognizable exports and an iconic embodiment of kawaii, or a sense of innocent cuteness. It’s a quality she shares with other Japanese exports like Gudetama, the perpetually fussy anthropomorphic egg yolk, or certain iconic anime characters from Pokémon and Sailor Moon. But if you look closely, kawaii is all around you — right down to the tiny emoji punctuating your text messages.

It’s there in this summer’s Barbie mania and the Bratz Dolls renaissance, and it’s there in lifestyle trends like #Cluttercore, #Cottagecore, and the TikTokers who decorate food with pretty bows or in tidy boxes. You see it in the work of artist Takashi Murakami, who’s collaborated with top names in fashion and music, and on the fingertips of Emily Ratajkowski, Dua Lipa, and Madonna, who are all recent clients of kawaii nail artist Mei Kawajiri. It’s all about recapturing the wonder of childhood, and making a tiny bit of that wonder accessible in daily life.

Hello Kitty on the streets of Paris Fashion Week in 2020. Edward Berthelot/Getty Images
Takashi Murakami alongside his work in Paris in 2018.Julien M. Hekimian/Getty Images
Kawaii nail artist Mei Kawajiri at the 2019 Fashion Awards in London.TZR; Tim Whitby/BFC/Getty Images

“At its best, cuteness allows us to imagine a world that is friendlier and gentler than the harsh reality,” says Erica Kanesaka, assistant professor of English at Emory University, where she teaches a “Cute Studies” class; she’s also working on a book of essays that will delve deeper into the intersection of kawaii and Asian American feminist politics. “There are many young people who have embraced cuteness as a means of holding onto a more innocent and playful vision of the world with all its aggression and violence. Cuteness can be a strategy of everyday survival for people when they are facing overwhelming difficulties, allowing them to steal away small moments of brightness, comfort, and pleasure.”

Kawaii evolved from the term “kawayushi,” which loosely translates to feeling embarrassed, shy, vulnerable, lovable, and small. The phrase has its roots in the Taisho Era (1912-1926), when designer Takehisa Yumeji, a poet and painter, began making art featuring wide-eyed women, and even had a store selling items featuring his images, aimed at a female clientele. Many cultural experts point to the advent of “Marui-ji,” or round writing, in the 1970s, to explain the explosion of kawaii as an aesthetic movement. The bubbly characters, decorated with hearts and stars, were immediately embraced by teenagers — and banned from some schools not only for legibility concerns, but also for its deviation from the accepted norms.

Courtesy of Mikan Mandarin

“A lot of [kawaii] is a direct rebellion against a very homogenous society,” says Mikan Mandarin, a kawaii influencer and clothing designer at Vina of the Valley. We’re sitting in Tokyo’s plant-covered Aoyama Flower Market Tea House, where Mandarin’s bubble-gum pink hair complements the endless bouquets surrounding us and the floral french toasts on our plates.

That’s still true today. Though you can find a kawaii version of any household good at stores like Rikumo, Tokyu Hands, and tourist-favorite Don Quijote — “[People] will have glasses cleaner with their favorite character,” Mandarin says — that spirit of defiantly standing out through cheery visuals lives on. “People just do what they want to do, especially when it comes to the fashion scene,” she says. When Mandarin lived in the U.K., people would look at her outfits and ask “Is there an event?” “We like to think that we need a reason [to enjoy cute things],” she says. “You don’t have to fit a certain characteristic.”

Like any aesthetic, though, what we consider to be cute is constantly in flux. As society has changed, so have the rules of what it means to be kawaii.

Courtesy of CHAI

The Power Of Kawaii

You hear the laughing before you see its source. While most tourists visit the Shibuya neighborhood of Tokyo for its famous crosswalk, I’m in a nearby mall just above it, watching teenage girls crack up as they pose in purikura, speciality photo booths that create emoji- and sticker-laden images. These kinds of booths are popular all across the country — there’s even a clutch of options at the Tokyo Haneda airport — and the girls’ joy is contagious as they play with their appearances, creating pictures that render them somewhere between alien and doll.

Kawaii’s association with girlhood and femininity is a big part of its appeal but also what draws criticism: Detractors say it promotes submissive, sexualized stereotypes. Yet many kawaii devotees, aware of such perceptions, embrace those aesthetics as a source of power and pride.

“It allows everyone to be cute, feel good about themselves, and be a strong woman at the same time. It creates community everywhere I go.”

Playful pop band Chai have used over-the-top visuals and sounds to Trojan-horse messages about how femininity can be a source of strength — and how exhausting it can be for young Japanese women to be expected to be cute all the time. (“I know you said pink is too young / But I know you like this beat so much,” they sing on “In Pink,” from their 2021 album, Wink.) Their live shows are as likely to include color-coordinated outfits and dance moves as they are Spice Girls-level of feminist declarations.

They describe themselves as “neo kawaii,” a term they invented “with no rules, that compliments everyone,” as primary vocalist Mana explains. On their website, they take the idea even further, writing, “all girls are pretty from the moment they were born, and that there is not a single girl who is not KAWAII.” That might sound like stereotyping — girls have to be cute — but that ethos was born from Mana’s struggles to fit into acceptable boxes of femininity.

“Throughout my life, the notion of kawaii stressed me out,” Mana explains. “I wanted to be called ‘kawaii,’ so I would use double-eyelid tape to make my single eyelids look like double eyelids” — mimicking a popular cosmetic procedure in Asia — “but in my heart, I felt discomfort.” With music, she continues, “I had to have a message that only I could sing about, and that’s when I realized I could sing about the issues I had held onto ever since I was a kid: the things that were making my self-esteem low.” Cuteness, Chai believe, is already in you.

It’s not just women who are drawn to kawaii for its possibilities of gender expression. “Kawaii has been popular with queer and countercultural communities in Japan for a long time,” Kanesaka explains.

“You’d be surprised that so many people in the community are nonbinary. Then there’s a lot of men in the community because no one really cares,” says Mandarin. “It’s a community that rejects society’s standards and what you’re supposed to do. So, it makes a lot of sense that people of different gender identities will be drawn to that.”

A very kawaii outfit.Ahmet Furkan Mercan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Tokyo’s Shibuya ward.Getty Images

Kawaii, With A Twist

Cafe Reissue feels like a throwback to another era of Tokyo’s famous Harajuku neighborhood, a one-off in a sea of Starbucks and chains. Located on the second floor of a building with a sign so small it’s easy to miss, the spot is famous for its hyperrealistic latte art. Visitors can choose 2D or 3D renderings of kawaii staples like Pikachu, Totoro, or Hello Kitty, or show the in-house artists a personal photo for recreation. When a barista brings me my drink, I’m suddenly staring at a smiling cartoon likeness of my own cat, made of latte foam. I snap a dozen photos before I drink.

Back in the early 2000s, Harajuku — with its colorful boutiques, cafes, and street fashion so outrageous it famously made a convert out of Gwen Stefani — was an epicenter of Japanese youth culture and all things kawaii. Today, though many of its most well-known establishments still stand, the neighborhood has gentrified, with new developments and luxury stores moving in as tourists flock.

“You’d be surprised that so many people in the community are nonbinary. There’s [also] a lot of men because no one really cares.”

“A lot of the indie brands had to move out because all the larger companies were buying up the land,” says RinRin Doll, a vlogger, television host, and model known for her Lolita looks — a style of dress that mixes the sweetness of kawaii with Victorian-inspired dresses. She moved from her native Los Angeles to Tokyo in 2009. “I would go store-to-store just talking and hanging out with all the designers and shop owners. We would literally just sit and hang. We would talk about what’s going on, and sometimes they’d bounce off ideas about what they’re deciding to make next.”

RinRin DollCourtesy of RinRin Doll

She arrived, however, as another transformation was happening: YouTube had come to Japan two years prior, and Instagram was just around the corner. If the neighborhood hangouts were drying up, she and her friends figured, they could keep the spirit alive online. RinRin became a content creator and influencer, traveling around the world and appearing at conventions like Sakura-Con, Tekko, and Sin City Anime, where she’d speak on panels and host tea parties. “It’s a chance for people who love Lolita fashion to wear it and join everyone together to have an afternoon,” she says. “I would go and talk to everyone at each table about how they got into Lolita fashion. It’s really eye-opening.”

“Cuteness allows us to imagine a world that is friendlier and gentler than the harsh reality.”

Over the years, she’s noticed how different cultures put their spin on kawaii. In the Netherlands, a country known for its iconic tulip fields, “people had a lot of hats and put a lot of fresh flowers everywhere, like on their hands and dresses.” In parts of Mexico, “a lot of the girls wore longer dresses and added their own version of a petticoat underneath to lengthen them, and their hair was braided.”

Growing up in the United States, RinRin says, “being cute is not really a thing you strive to be. Everyone’s like, ‘Don’t you want to grow up?’ With this sort of fashion and kawaii, it allows everyone to be cute, feel good about themselves, and be a strong woman at the same time. It creates community everywhere I go.”

Selkie’s show at New York Fashion Week this past September.John Lamparski/Getty Images for Selkie
The violent cartoon character Chiitan.Laura Studarus/TZR

Kawaii For Everyone

Whatever your tastes are, there’s a flavor of kawaii for you. Variations like “guro-kawaii” and “kimo-kawaii” celebrate all things creepy and cute; they have such a sizable following that there’s even a Texas-based convention for fans of the scene’s monstrous yet somehow adorable characters and fashions. Similarly, there’s “busu-kawaii,” which roughly means “ugly but cute” and has something of an ambassador in the internationally famous and cartoonishly violent “fairy angel otter baby” mascot Chiitan. It’s not all freaky stuff, though: Shibu-kawaii refers to more subtly chic kawaii, made for everyday wear — a trend that brands like American company Selkie have capitalized on.

“I am excited to see what happens to kawaii as it becomes more globalized and is taken up and adapted by diverse communities across the world,” says Kanesaka. “It is interesting to see how young people outside of Japan now resonate with an aesthetic that is more radical than it may appear on the surface.” Because kawaii is also “a common aesthetic in digital spaces and new technologies,” she continues, expect to see it well-represented in AI and the metaverse — look no further than Nicki Minaj fans’ viral Lisa Frank-esque #GagCity creations to see what she means.

If cuteness is infinitely malleable, online and off, and there’s room for everything under the kawaii umbrella, then what really defines it all? Perhaps, as it’s transcended cultural boundaries, kawaii has become a shorthand for those looking for connection.

“Two days ago I was in Omotesando,” says Mandarin, referring to a Tokyo neighborhood. “I bumped into this girl and she was wearing a newer Harajuku style, tenshi kaiwai, which is all blue and white stripes. She went, ‘Oh, kawaii!’ and I went, ‘Tenshi kaiwai!’ And there was this really nice moment when we both just looked at each other and smiled.”