From the iconic Hello Kitty to Pokémon and legendary Manga cartoons, there is no doubt Japanese pop-culture is one of the country’s biggest exports. For the past 30 years, Tokyo has seen the birth of a series of colorful, eclectic and unique fashion styles that have gone beyond Asia’s frontiers fascinating and influencing millions of people around the world.
One of the most popular aesthetics to emerge from the underground scene is “Kawaii.” The word, which is made up of two characters signifying “able” and “love,” basically refers to anything “cute,” including human and nonhuman items. It’s also associated with adjectives like shyness, girliness, adorability and vulnerability.
This culture of the cute can be attributed to many youth subcultures which populate Japan, such as the eye-catching Lolitas and Decora styles, for example. But Kawaii has many versions and derivations which can include a mix of Manga, cosplay, naif and Victorian clothing, plush toys and even hospital elements — the latter is known as ‘yami-kawaii’ which means “sick cute.”
It’s no surprise that such a powerful aesthetic gets immediately associated with Japanese fashion. And that its richness and playfulness has inspired many high-end designers. Take for example the Spring Summer 2017 season, when Marc Jacobs sent models down the runway sporting pastel-hued dreadlocks during New York Fashion Week. In Paris, Manish Arora presented a “Kawaii Kitch” collection, while Temperley London offered its own elegant take on Kawaii with bubblegum-colored gowns and eye-popping embroideries.
But calling it a just style seems all too vague. In Japan the cult of the cute is not a just trend or a fad, Kawaii is part of the social thread of Japanese culture. Behind the ruffles and candy colors there is a world which is much more complex and profound than people imagine it to be.
“For Japanese culture Kawaii is an attitude. It’s a lifestyle that has to do with identity,” said Raul Sanchez Serrano, who has written extensively about Japanese culture. He explained to El País that the aesthetic has a more abstract and profound meaning which can perhaps be explained in its origin.
It’s said Kawaii started in the late 1960s when university students began rebelling against authority by reading Manga to protest against academic knowledge. This was later fueled by the takeoff of the shojo culture, which is a manga for teenage girls.
During the 70s and 80s Japan’s economy experienced significant growth, and so did the country’s consumer subcultures. Cute as a style became ubiquitous, appearing in everything from handwriting to fashion, music products, shops and even food.
To this day Kawaii still carries that subversive spirit. There is a part of the adult that wants to go against the norm, drawn from the spontaneity of the child and break away from the rigidity of the day to day, the pressures of work, debt and responsibility.
Cute becomes a way of resisting the adult world. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The fact that so many young (and not so young) women all over the world prefer a Hello Kitty backpack over a Prada bag, or a lollipop print dress over the latest Zara knock-off, is just a reminder that when we embrace our inner child, the world is again full of endless possibilities.