Stephanie Hale

Pop Culture

23 February 2014

Daneen Bergland

            The origin of kawaii arises in Japan around 1914 by Yumejji Takehisa exhibiting cute characters and designs targeted toward female consumers (Kinsella, pg.329). Kawaii translates into “cute.” Takehisa aimed numerous goods toward schoolgirls which we refer to as fancy goods. Many people asked to copyright his ideas of cuteness designs and began to refer to them as kawaii. In the 1970’s, the emergence of modern kawaii rises through Japanese teenagers, mainly women through informal “cute” styles of writing by decorating their paper with happy faces and hearts. This form of writing was banned in schools and unapproved by adults interpreted as a sign of rebellion. In the 1980s kawaii spiked ultimate popularity dominating Japanese popular culture through many young people using kawaii as a way to rebel against adulthood. Adult’s roles present a restraint to freedom of expression with strict societal expectations.           

             Kawaii is a youthful identity utilized as a mechanism to escape the loss of freedom. Instead of rebelling through violence or sexuality as in the West, kawaii utilizes rebellious acts by cherishing the spirit of childhood. To retain youth, is to be free. This form of rebellion promotes independent style and behavior that misconstrues as immature due to its lack of conforming features such as fixed gender appeal. When we think of the word rebellion in the west, media molds this through violence, using examples of gangs, drug dealers, or criminals. Sex appeal is a high form of rebellion that women use to differentiate and highlight the meaning of beauty. However, kawaii is an evolving act of rebellion that encounters women utilizing “cute” as a way to create an individualistic identity.         

            Hale 2

            I think that kawaii is a reminder of youth creativity that society forces adults to lose. However, kawaii differentiates into various degrees ranging from kimo kawaii (creepy cute), guro kawaii (grotesque cute), harajuku kawaii (punk cute) to kawaii (cute) and is not gender focused. The key differences of the ranges of kawaii are explicitly balancing scary and punk features with cute, but all versions utilize the identical theme of rebellion against mainstream designers. The mass consumerism of kawaii, in particular for women, gains power and freedom from traditional normative values (Wilcox p.13). Inspiration arises from recycling the clothes in the closet but generating a new outfit while creating a statement about alternative beauty.

            I identify with kawaii because it shapes a unique form of rebellion through cuteness. It does not focus on attempting to be sexy; the point is to bend the line of adorable through balancing coloration, patterns of design, and trying new combinations of clothes by taking a risk. Fashion here in the United States focuses on sexy, thin, tall women advertising designer’s clothes suggesting us to wear the trend of the season (Kinsella, pg.229). Cute demonstrates a symbol of immaturity in the West; however, kawaii utilizes all spectrums of time in reference to fashion and attitude (Kinsella, pg.10). It is a nonjudgmental way of reflecting youth and individuality. 

            Kawaii falsely comes across to people as dismembering acts of responsibility and as disastrous style because women are unafraid to experiment with cute complexes. It is a misunderstood style. I wore glittered eye shadow and make up, with a paisley shirt, layered black skirt, with wedges, and purple fish earrings out with friends walking in down town Portland. A woman critiqued my style as “blown out of proportion,” but I walked by her with confidence and smiled. Kawaii unravels into a revolution of rebellious fashion that is spreading word across the world. Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Madonna are a few westernized kawaii icons that are popular in the media. This identity allows individualism to seep through and blend the lines and roles of rebellion through cute.  

            Western culture embodies the primary values of leadership abilities, ambitiousness, and strength linked to positive characteristics such as self-efficacy (Wilcox pg.13). Kawaii in the view of westerners puts young women at risk of portraying as weak people. Western gender norms represent men as masculine and women as feminine. There is a specific behavioral and physical difference of the components of the socially constructed concept of gender. Men only wear baggy clothes, they are muscular, and show no emotion. The expectation for women is to manicure their physique, be thin, and sexy. However, kawaii in Japanese culture is androgynous (Kinsella, pg.230). Men and women are able to wear any color, design, or style without fear of judgment.            

            In the 1980’s, the actress and pop singer Seiko Matsuda is credited toward the popularity of kawaii. Her career began at the age of 16 winning the regional Sony talent show, but her father banned her from singing at the finals. However, Matsuda continued to train vocally with Sony. Matsuda’s image involved the shy girl who used this to her advantage to charm audiences with her childish cuteness. Matsuda wore clothing such as neon skirts with plush furry shoulders. Young females want to emulate Matsuda’s representation of unconformity (Okazaki, pg.12). Matsuda’s private life received more attention than her records. Her marriage with pop star Hiromi Go ended shortly after his failed attempt to force Matsuda to quit her career. Matsuda divorced her husband and pursued an edgier look and career, which women found fascinating and compelling.

            In her 1988 concert in Tokyo performing “Strawberry Time,” represents her unique form of rebellion. Her child like behavior demonstrates unconscious innocence (Kinsella, pg. 6). Her wardrobe consisted of an intensified light pink jumpsuit that is puffed out symbolically like a strawberry. The silver streaks in her hair are unconventional along with her silver buttons draped along her outfit. Matsuda’s identity of kawaii engulfs the nostalgia of childhood simplicity, happiness, and emotional warmth (Okazaki, pg10). Matsuda’s cute is a backlash against the restraints of social responsibility of adulthood by romanticizing youth behavior.

            The lyrics of her hit single “Strawberry Time,” focuses on luring in her audience into a utopia of peaceful and youthful eternity. Matsuda sings, “All the people that pass by are filled with happiness. Kaleidoscope world is unfolding, flower fairies with pretty eyes, welcome to strawberry land.” Matsuda’s message is a passive suggestion rebelling against a world that fills with discontent, and the lyrics and unconventional outfits lure in her audience. Toward the end of the song, she begins to specify that, “like the child turning the pages of a picture book” the worries and tears that burden our life disappear when we remember the days of youth. The passive language and youthful remembrance of a world without greed and hatred revives memories of contentment. 

             Kyrary Pamyu Pamyu is 20-year-old j-pop musician that is slowly integrating herself into western pop culture through embodying kimo and guro kawaii. This icon began as a raucous high school student at the age of 16. Pamyu grew up in a strict environment where her parents regulated early curfews, cell phone access, and were critical toward her fashion sense. When Pamyu left her house, her mother threw away her “rebellious” and outrageous clothing. On Sundays, Pamyu visited the streets of Tokyo in her homemade wild and colorful outfits and accessories. A photographer of the popular J-fashion magazine KERA admired her originality and advertised Pamyu’s picture in the fall of 2009 as the ultimate individual (Okazaki, pg10). After becoming a prominent kawaii model she furthered her interest into music and became a j-pop icon in 2011.

            Pamyu is responsible for strange fads such as eyeball fashion and emphasizing makeup to enlarge eyes. In the Japanese Times, Patrick Michel interviews Pamyu and states, “my concept is that scary things become traumatic with their cuteness to be memorable and creative, I encourage people to dress and behave differently.” She creates her own costumes through her personal inspiration of kawaii.

            In 2011, Pamyu created her first popular hit “Pon Pon Pon” leading to reports on MTV and the Huffington Post of her eccentric behaviors and manifestations related to kawaii. The music video exhibits qualities and behavior of women rebelling against the traditional values of Japanese culture through freedom of expression. Through the music video, she exemplifies independence through her unique clothing that also creates a burning image. With the identity of kimo and guro kawaii, there is independence through rebellion. Her exotic outfit catches the eye with the mixture of eyeballs and brains lingering masks the neon coloration and plush toys. Paymu does not use “sexy” as the fashion trend, but creates unique outfits everyday. The music video represents a revolution toward the preservation of youth. It unleashes creativity and societal roles through the restriction of age (Okazaki, pg.8).

            In the West, there is a focus on differentiating ourselves by creates an edgier sex appeal or becoming dangerous or aggressive (Kinsella, pg.230). I love how there are other artists and individuals who focus on a different technique to represent themselves unconventionally through a sweet attitude and style that I can relate to. Foremost, I think that the identity of kawaii is misunderstood and disapproved because it portrays blown out immaturity. MTV posted on Pyamu’s video that they had no idea what to make of her video (Wender). The identity misconstrues the incapability of meeting responsibility because of the passivity toward meeting a societal norm of attitude conformance (Wender). However, it encases a different route of rebellion, being passive through cuteness and recalling youth. This creates an unconventional form of satisfaction. Artists such as Lady Gaga and Pyamu discuss eccentric styles and attitudes that equally influence each other (Wender). Pamyu is a constant remembrance in my life that rebelling takes different forms. I am not as wild as this j-pop artist, but I think that my originality in style and ideology to resist mainstream appearance exists. I wear unique clothing similar to Kyrary Pyamu Pyamu, but I differ in the extent of wildness. I never found indulgence in rebelling in a manner of representing myself through sex appeal or aggression, but being kawaii is a way to remember the benefits of youth. It is compelling to bend the limits of fashion by using cute to escape the conformation of strict societal norms.

            Shaochi Aoki is the publisher of the Japanese fashion magazine FRUiTS established in 1997. The magazine focuses on Harajuku Kawaii that is a mixture of punk and cute. Aoki names the magazine FRUiTS to reflect color and freshness of the movement (Wilcox, pg.20). His photographs document the revolutionary emergence of an edgier form of kawaii led by the people in the mid 1990s. Aoki created a simplistic formula of shooting people on the streets of Japan and compiled these photographs into a magazine. A regular person can be featured in FRUiTS, this furthered the inspiration for individualism. Aoki interviews with reporter Jessie Weinder from The New Yorker and states, “I want to see people’s inner thoughts; their personalities come to the surface, their individuality that separates oneself from others.” The cover of FRUiTS magazine in December 2013 establishes individuality through an evolutionary stage of harajuku. The woman’s name is Mikako Guppy and she is 20 years old. Her hair is light purple, with pink and green camo pants, complimented with a red striped shirt. In a short description of her aspirations, she describes that she elaborates on her beauty through the exaggeration of cute, it is mellow, but speaks her mind (Aoki). Her unconventional style is a way to differentiate from another person and is lively in comparison to Western fashion.

            FRUiTS became influential to the west and exposed harajuku kawaii to other countries as a magazine of being able to mix cute back into alternative fashion (Wilcox, pg.16). I idolize these women because they are not afraid to test the limits of cute and represent a different form of beauty.The magazine features short biographies on the individual that Aoki finds important to extrapolating along with the image. This is my favorite section of the magazine; it represents women’s style as an alternative fashion statement.

            Aoki believes that fashion is a form of communication; he is interested in identifying why people express themselves through a certain style (Wilxcox, pg.18). The people in this magazine revolutionize expectations of appearance by withdrawing the line of what is normal. Wearing a hot pink-layered skirt with an eyeball t-shirt, or a bright flowered pattern dress, resists traditional methods of not only fashion, but also actions. It represses the consumerism of mainstream fashion and focuses on personal creativity. Designer clothing is only what people take suggestions from and incorporate minuscule ideas. The fashion of the young and the eccentric radical styles inspires mainstream designers. Freedom in expression of appearance is a rebellious mechanism by staying in contact with youth and utilizing fashion as the time machine. It creates independent choices of consumerism and time spent by utilizing a freedom-seeking attitude through cute to create a unique identity.

            When we reach our twenties, western society asks us to mature and drop the freedom of youth. There is a misconception that kawaii interprets into disconnecting with self-reliability. However, it is about living without gentrified limits and societal expectations. Labeling women who dress kawaii as infantile implies that there is a lack of uniqueness and self-will. I love dressing kawaii and feeling confident by withdrawing from the expectations of how society tells me to appear. Enduring criticism from outsiders is exhausting by labels such as “childish” or “immature” because it is easy for outsiders to demean a group of different people. Kawaii is spreading word slowly throughout fashion magazines and television shows. Kawaii slowly is gaining social acceptance as more people take the time to analyze this. As time progresses I feel that the West will view kawaii as an alternative international movement of individual expression.

Works Cited

Aoki, Shaochi. “Mikako Guppy.” FRUiTS. Dec 2013:n.page.Web.23 Feb.2014.https://www.google.com/#q=FRUiTS+fashion+magazine+online

Kinsella, Sharon. “Cuties In Japan.” (1995). 19 Apr. 2005            <http://basic1.easily.co.uk/04F022/036051/Cuties.html&gt;.

Michel, Patrick. “The best Japanese Albums of 2013:Kyrary Pamyu Pamyu.” Japanese Times. 17 Dec 2013: n. page. Web. 23 Feb. 2014. <http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2013/12/17/music/the-best-japanese-albums-of-2013-kyary-pamyu-pamyu-nanda-collection/

Okazaki, Manami. Kawaii! The Culture of Cute. London: Pistel, 2013. 4-25. Print.

Wender, Jessie. “Japanese Street Style.” New Yorker. 3 Apr 2012: n. page. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.

Wilcox ,Clair. Radical Fashion. V&A Publishing. London, 2001.10-23. Worldcat. Web.





6 thoughts on “Kawaii

  1. Hi Stephanie Hal,
    That was quite an interesting read, really. What caught my attention was the word, “Kawaii.” I heard and seen that word in places like some Asian group I hang out with and stores like, Morning Glory. My sister was a big Japanese anime/manga fan and their culture. Kawaii was a pretty popular word I would say. From my own experience, when I heard the word kawaii I just think of the word cute and Japanese. Not to mention, I think of Japanese girls hold up the two-finger-peace sign and say it at the same time. In your paper though, really showed me another view of the word, “Kawaii.” It was like reading the history of that word. “being kawaii is a way to remember the benefits of youth. It is compelling to bend the limits of fashion by using cute to escape the conformation of strict societal norms.” What you said here made me totally think of the word Kawaii differently. I didn’t know fashion played a role in the word Kawaii. This really differ from what people that I see wearing like, American apparel clothing.

  2. Hi Stephanie,
    Hi Stephanie,
    I really liked reading your final Essay. I’ve seen a lot of pictures of my Japanese friends, where they all have the peace sign held out on both hands, and I thought they were just being cute. I didn’t know there was such a story behind not just the peace sign but also their dressing sense and fashion style. I have seen many kinds of revolts and rebellious movements but this is very unique and interesting in its process.
    I can see how kawaii can be related to western artists like Lady Gaga and Madonna. In fact I feel it helps me understand the concept of kawaii even better. Do you feel Lady Gaga is famous in Japan more because of her dressing style and how it relates to kawaii or her actualy vocal talent?
    You say that kawaii is not gender based, but I feel this is more female based than male based. I am sure there are a lot of metrosexuals who can see them selves using kawaii as rebellion but do most men take part in such activities?
    I learnt a lot about kawaii from your article including the different kinds of kawaii i.e. kimo kawaii , guro kawaii harajuku kawaii. I feel all of these different types of kawaii can be some what related to the western culture and styles. Like punk and goth. But I suppose the main idea is about rebellion against the main stream and less of a fashion statement. Which kind of kawaii do you relate with most?

    Overall I really enjoyed reading your essay, I learnt a lot more about eastern culture and the battles they have to face.

    • Rohan,

      Thanks for reading my essay foremost and much appreciated for the feedback. I think that I relate more to harajuku kawaii. I enjoy this style of clothing of punk mixture, I feel the most comfortable with this type of style, although at times guro kawaii is a style that I integrate into my life. With your comment about kawaii being more female based, I think that you are right. Overall, when we look at who is utilizing the style of kawaii most, it is women. Although there is a good portion of people in Japan who are men who do take part in the identity of kawaii, I think that it is a good point that you raise kawaii is more centralized around women. There are men and women who take part in kawaii conventions and in the style of dressing, but overall the theme of rebellion through dressing differently I think is highly utilized through both sexes. Your question that you raise about Lady Gaga and Madonna is very interesting… I think that foremost her physical appearance is highly important along side her vocal talent. However, I think that her style and identity is what makes her famous worldwide. When we think about these artists such as Lady Gaga or Madonna right off the top of our heads, what comes to mind first? At least for myself, it is their physical appearance and the message they are trying to portray to society. After this, there musical talent is what resonates with myself.
      Thank you for your thoughtful questions and insight,

      • I agree the first thing I notice when I see Lady Gaga and Madonna is their physical appearance. They have such alternative and explosive appearances that its hard to ignore them. I do think that part of their fame and popularity is due to their dressing sense which I think is derived from Kawaii. I think they are good singles but they have become great due to their appearances.

  3. Stephanie!
    I was totally intrigued by your paper and did a little bit of research as I was reading. I had NO idea that kawaii was a possible identity, and I’m really glad that you taught me something. It sounds like although you have found some negative aspects of how kawaii is portrayed, your final paragraph is very powerful and I think it is great attitude to have, especially in a society that can not help but tell everyone how to be, feel and act. Thank you for not being as susceptible to societal pressures- as we should be proud of who we are.

    • I also really liked the final paragraph! It was almost a call to action for those who know nothing about kawaii to do their research and get to know the facts. I also really liked how you drew parallels between what the media calls infantile and childish is actually just youthful freedom and a form of self expression.

      Nolan Parker

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