Japan / Language

Kawaii Japan: Justified or Not?

「かわいい」 is such an overused term in the West that is has become one of the primary symbols of Japan and Japanese culture. Obviously, the term is about the only really accessible word to Westerners, unless of course you are a student of languages. But the question remains: is it an overused word? And is it even justifiable by Japanese standards?

Most common Japanese words used in the West:

  • かわいい -> Kawaii -> Cute/adorable
  • こんにちは -> Konnichiwa -> hello/good day
  • ありがとう -> Arigatou -> Thanks
  • 好き -> Suki -> like/love
  • ~です -> ~desu -> not translatable, it’s basically a suffix used to express politeness (and sometimes, depending on its usage, cuteness)

The last expression is something that I find to be horribly misused in the West. In fact, one could almost form a complete sentence by using only the aforementioned words: 「かわいいすしが好きです!」 (I like cute sushi), although I don’t suggest ever using this sentence in a real life situation … it sounds a little bit weird don’t you think? “~desu” is mostly used on the internet by non-Japanese speakers who think that they can just add it to the end of any sentence to make it sound Japanese: “That dress is sooooo kawaii desu! I totally want to buy it desu!” etc (you get the general idea).

Albeit being an advocate for Japanese culture and language (and it’s proper usage) I myself have overused kawaii, especially while in Japan. It is so ridiculously easy to fall into that pattern that you don’t even realize you’re doing it (similar to overused English words like “awesome”, “epic”, etc). I’m a Japan enthusiast as well however, as far as I know, I have never been tempted to throw in random Japanese words in an English conversation about Japanese things.

“Kawaii” Hello Kitty decoration in LaLa Port, Tokyo

But what about the Japanese point of view?

From what I’ve gathered, there are two types of “kawaii” in Japan:

  1. Foreigners
  2. Objects

Foreigners are almost always kawaii because we look different and have distinctive features that differentiate us from one another (hair and eye colour, height differences, etc.). While I was in Japan, I suddenly became a superstar. Everything about me was kawaii: hair, face, clothing, school bag, shoes, my Japanese linguistic skills, etc. One time when I was shopping with my friends, I heard two girls whispering to each other about me saying 「ねね見て!モデルみたい!かわいい!」 (Hey! She looks like a model! So cute!). Now, I don’t look anything like a model with my 5’3” height but still, for Japanese society, I am just another kawaii gaijin.

Second category is all about objects: toys, clothes, food, furniture; if you can name it, it can probably be kawaii. Parfaits are most definitely kawaii, so are bentos, hair accessories, futons and the like. Although it seems completely random at times (like saying that a futon is ‘cute’) there seems to be a cultural justification behind the usage of kawaii in all aspects of life.

Kawaii is often associated with juvenile behaviour, “girly girls”, the colour pink and frills. The weird stuff comes in when you hear guys calling things of people kawaii. However in their defences, guys most commonly use kawaii when they are either a) with their girlfriends or b) trying to get a girl’s attention. I haven’t come across yet any guy saying kawaii to his soccer ball or to his lunch box; that would be weird.

An overly “kawaii” store in Odaiba

Ultimately, kawaii culture is alive and well in and outside of Japan and is unavoidable. As a gaijin girl travelling to Japan, you are 1000% sure of encountering this word as directed to yourself or towards everyday life objects. The thing to remember is that everything has a kawaii vibe in Japan. Even kimonos which, in my opinion are 美しい (exquisite) have become kawaii.

With that said, I leave you with a short video about kawaii fashion in Japan: Party Baby – The Story of Kumamiki’s Kawaii Harajuku Fashion Brand

Also, here’s a quick poll: I wonder, what do you think?

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4 thoughts on “Kawaii Japan: Justified or Not?

  1. I also love the way japanese girls says “kawaii ja nai?” which puzzled me at first because I thought the -nai form must be a negative so I wasn’t sure at first what they were saying.
    Then “kawaii jan” / “kawaii deshoooooo
    Pets are kawaii too of course.
    I wonder how to express the “kawaiiiiiiii” with voice rising on the “iiiiiii” when writing ^^

    • It’s not meant to be kawaii, it’s meant to be funny! ^^ Isn’t it a running gag to turn “R”s into “L”s for a Japanese effect? 😛
      Tu parles français toi aussi? C’est rare sur wordpress! :3

      • mais je suis française c’est pour ça ^^. J’avais bien compris le running gag mais je tlouve ça hollible ^^ (phonétiquement) .
        Et toi c’est rare les français qui font leur blog en anglais ^^ j’adooorrrrre

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