The adjective kawaii, added to the Oxford English Dictionary at the end of 2010, is fast becoming a loanword in the English language.
While the Japanese term kawaii translates as ‘cute’ there are many specific nuances in its meaning and that is the reason why the English speaking world is adopting the Japanese word.
The word kawaii derives from the phrase kao hayushi (‘face looking more beautiful’) and was commonly used to refer to how the face looks even more beautiful when one blushes.
In generally, kawaii is a massive modern aesthetic in Japan and an aspect of pop culture, clothing, appearance and behaviour.
To be kawaii you must be physically attractive regardless of the gender and to act cute, for example: to shave your legs, put some large contact lenses to make your eyes appear bigger or opt for a double eyelid surgery to get the look. Kawaii is simply everything that emphasises the quality of cuteness, using bright colours and childlike appearance.
And while during the 90s, the term was often translated as ‘lovely’, today its meaning is describing the modern youth of Japan, known as the kawaii generation.
Kawaii was first introduced in 1999, in the story of Lady Murasaki in the Japanese classic literature, The Tale of Genji, where the term was used to refer to sentiments towards the helplessness and fragility of young children.
And while kawaii could still be used in reference to animals, objects, and children (a good example here is the global marketing Hello Kitty phenomenon, launched in 1974 to be valued at nearly $8 billion today, along with the worldwide Pokémon craze), since the late 1960s it came to mainly describe delicate beautiful girls, to nowadays spread beyond gender and culture barriers.
The kawaii phenomenon brought Japanese girls more freedom to express themselves and helped men to better understand and be emphatic toward women, thus becoming a symbol of a more tolerant and understanding society.
As kawaii culture is spreading across the world though Manga comics, Harajuku fashion, and Takashi Murakami’s artworks, some view it as an attempt to preserve yourth hiding one’s unwillingness to face the seriousness of adulthood and the harshness of the real world, while others view it as a creative aesthetic movement penetrating all aspects of life.
One thing is clear, kawaii is much more than cute, and it is hard to explain all the nuances of the kawaii concept, especially to the audience out of Japan.