The Japanese concept of kawaii—best translated as “cuteness”—has grown from a national trend to a global phenomenon. Sanrio’s Hello Kitty has been valued at $7 billion; the Oxford English Dictionary named an emoji its 2015 Word of the Year; and Nintendo’s Pokémon Go recently became the most downloaded game in smartphone history. The kawaii movement is wide in scope, spanning Manga comics, Harajuku fashion, and Takashi Murakami’s “Superflat” artworks, but what’s behind the aesthetic, and why is it so popular?
Japan’s culture of cute began in the 1970s with a youth movement developed by teenage girls, involving handwriting in a childlike style. The new script was given a variety of names, such as marui ji (round writing), koneko ji (kitten writing), and burikko ji (fake-child writing), and featured text with stylized lines, hearts, stars, Latin characters, and cartoon faces. Many scholars cite this trend as a reaction against the rigidity of post-World War II Japan, as the pursuit of kawaii enabled youth to find a sense of individuality and playfulness in an increasingly serious and depersonalized environment. While many schools initially banned this writing style, advertisers quickly caught onto the trend, using the new aesthetic to market products to the younger generation.
In 1974, the stationary company Sanrio launched the character of Hello Kitty the ultimate kawaii cat, printing the now-iconic whiskered white cat on a vinyl coin purse. Forty-two years later, Hello Kitty has been placed on over 50,000 products in more than 70 countries, including toaster ovens, alarm clocks, airplanes, and even sex toys. In 2008, Japan named Hello Kitty as its tourism ambassador, an official invite to the rest of the world to join in on the adorability binge that is kawaii.