cute characters at a Japanese train station

Why Everything in Japan Has to Be so Cute

Japan – the country of cute little characters and kawaii culture. Nowhere else will you come across so many girls talking in a high-pitched voice dressed in Lolita dresses. Here you will see childish characters advertise everything, be it food, hotels, travel destinations or credit cards. Frankly speaking, no other nation has mastered the art of cuteness like Japan has. That’s why in this article I’m going to discuss why everything in Japan has to be so cute.

Cute Things in Japan - Some Examples

When I arrived in Japan to start my one-year study abroad, I was astonished by the number of people everywhere, the mix of contemporary and traditional architecture, the tasty food, jingles at train stations and much more. But I always found it strange that everything had to be so cute there.

Whereas in the West companies and people, in general, try to portray an image of being earnest and serious, Japanese companies often do the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the Japanese are all behaving like children. But the difference is significant.

So, let me show you some examples and you should get what I mean.

Cuteness in Everyday Life in Japan

It’s basically impossible to walk around town without noticing that cuteness is a big thing in Japan. Signs, logos, advertisements, train designs, the Japanese are unstoppable in turning everyday-items into something cute.

why do the japanese wear masks?
cute characters at a Japanese train station

In Japan even the food has to look cute.

cute Japanese style bento lunchbox
cute japanese hello kitty train interior

Many Japanese people, especially young women, love taking photos at a “purikura”. A purikura is basically a photo-booth that spits out photos where your eyes are made bigger, your chin pointier, your forehead higher, your skin is made to look softer and everything looks eerily pink.

Due to privacy-concerns I cannot upload any pictures or take any from the internet. If you want to look at some pictures here are some links:

The News in Cute

Not only does the TV news network asahi have a cute little character on its logo, they even have a special character called マスクにゃんちゃん (masuku-nyan-chan) with its own news show.

That one may be targeted at children so that they become interested in the news. But still…

Cute Messaging Apps

Another great example is the popular chat app “Line”. The app lets users customise the look of the app with a feature called “themes”. With those, you can make your chats look exactly like a Disney movie if that’s what you want to do.

Here are some examples:

A theme costs about 150 Yen, which I thought would deter people even more from buying them. But oh boy how was I wrong. Almost everyone around me was using a theme. My host mother had some theme that made the whole app look yellow, a classmate turned the send bottom into a fighter jet from Star Wars and some other friend’s Line looked like some fairy dream world.

The Japanese Government Using "Kawaii"

If I haven’t already convinced you that the Japanese seem to be obsessed with cuteness then take a look at this.
In Japan, official government agencies and even the military use cute characters to purvey messages and information.

cute Japanese poster

A poster used by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare promoting masks and hand washing.

Japanese forces using cute characters on twitter

Even the Japan Self-Defence Forces know how to use characters for their advantage.

And then there are signs on the street like this one:

Translation:

“Beautiful! That’s what I want to call Yao City.
Don’t throw away trash. Littering will be punished.
People walking dogs are obliged to clean up after their dogs.
– The Keep Yao City Clean Promotion Project”

Why is Everything in Japan so Kawaii?

When I went to Japanese high school I heard the word “kawaii” a lot. Some people even called my red water bottle kawaii.Which I still find puzzling to this day. How could my water bottle be considered cute?

To understand why the Japanese seem to be so obsessed with cuteness, you must first know the difference between “cute” and “kawaii”.

What Does Kawaii Mean?

“kawaii” can be used in many different contexts to describe the beauty, attractiveness, appeal, cuteness and prettiness of a person or an object. The word is most often, but not exclusively, used by young women.

An example of a valid use case would be the following conversation:

Mother: This coat is Kawaii and will fit you well, won’t it?
Daughter: Oh how Kawaii it is! But this one is also Kawaii, isn’t it?
Mother: Hmm, indeed both are Kawaii. But I can buy you just one of them. I think either will do, ‘cause you’re a Kawaii girl.
Daughter: I know, I know, I’m Kawaii and will look nice with either one.

Citation: Marcus, Aaron & Kurosu, Masaaki & Ma, Xiaojuan & Hashizume, Ayako. (2017). Cuteness in Japan. 10.1007/978-3-319-61961-3_2.  (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320724406_Cuteness_in_Japan)

The coat in this conversation doesn’t even have to look like something you’d see in some weird anime. It can be any generic, good-looking coat as an image search for 可愛いコート (jap. for “kawaii coat”) will tell you.

a cute mascot in a Japanese subway station

Kawaii can also be used to describe the feeling you get when you see a cute baby animal or a cute girl. In those cases people describe the object or person that makes them feel this way as kawaii. This often applies to soft and fluffy materials. Also round shapes and bright, saturated colours are considered more kawaii then sharp shapes and colder colours.

In conclusion, the meaning and usage of “kawaii” is much broader than the English word “cute”. However, outside of Japan, kawaii is mainly understood to mean “cute”.

Why Everything in Japan Has to Be so Cute

a cute smiley face next to Japanese text saying welcome on an LED display

One hypothesis I came up with is that life in Japan is so grim that the Japanese need at least some joy in their lives, which all those cute things provide.

Considering that the Japanese have a word to describe death caused by working too much, this might seem like a legit reason. But lets be real, life there isn’t any worse than elsewhere… …hopefully.

The real reason why Japan is so obsessed with cuteness comes down to their culture and the so-called baby schema.

Our Perception of Cuteness

One plausible explanation for why the Japanese are so obsessed with cuteness is the baby schema.

According to this theory a baby needs to have the following features in order to trigger adults’ affective response and be caressed:

  • relatively big head
  • round face
  • high forehead
  • big eyes
  • small nose and small mouth.

If a toddler has these traits, adults will find him/her cute and look after him/her.

However, such a response is not only caused by babies with these traits. No, this theory also applies to adults. So, if someone has these traits he/she will be considered cute.

You can see this “in action” at the socalled purikura photo booths. There your eyes are automatically made bigger, your chin sharper, your forehead higher. Also, the whole picture is applied a filter which makes it look all pink and soft.

If you missed the paragraph where I introduced the purikura photo booths here are some pictures. I can’t upload any here due to privacy concerns.

Furthermore, you could argue that if the baby schema applies to characters. If objects can also trigger the kawaii response, why shouldn’t companies use kawaii design to advertise their products?

Well, that’s exactly what companies, public institutions and even the military are doing in Japan. Just scroll up again and look at the various images I’ve shown you. It should become clear why kawaii is almost everywhere.

Beauty Vs Kawaii

Another reason is that, according to this paper, young Japanese women want to be considered kawaii. Apparently they do not care as much about being “beautiful”. However, I’m not sure to what extent this is true. Because as I discussed earlier, kawaii can also mean beautiful.

But it does make sense as kawaii / cute traits will cause the affective response in other people. And who doesn’t like attention?

What this means is that younger women will tend to buy make-up, clothes, phone cases and other accessories hat make them look “kawaii” / cute and many tend to act cute. 

A Simpler Explanation

Here’s another simpler reason why Japan is filled with cute stuff and kawaii culture.

Many people just like cute stuff. And in this aspect Japan is no different from the rest of the world. But there is one difference which I’ll explain now.

Despite the general lack of individualism and a culture of keeping your head down, Japanese people happily show their own fashion style. In big cities like Tokyo and Osaka you will see people walking around in many different kinds of clothes, dresses, etc. And no one judges anyone for what they wear.

Apparel seems to be the one place where the Japanese can express themselves in whichever way they like without being judged too much. This open-mindedness is reflected in the broad and open display of cute items, sailor-uniforms, Lolita-dresses, anime characters and so on.

Japan is more acceptant of different interests and fashion styles. If you want to wear pink dresses all day, go on.

A building in Osaka, Japan plastered with signs showing cute characters

Conclusion

I’d argue that Japanese companies have mastered the art of triggering the affection response in humans. They use, round shapes, bright and saturated colours, cute little characters with big eyes that appeal to almost everyone. This means they sell more products which then means more profit. What business man would say no to that?

Also, in Japan there seems to be a trend to look kawaii. This means that one should have big eyes, a round face, soft skin and talk in a cute voice. This causes demand for cute clothes, accessories, etc. Which explains fashion styles like lolita and what else there might be.

These seem to be the main reasons why everything in Japan has to be so cute.

Still, I’d say that there are many other factors that lead to Japan being the country of high pitched voices, childish characters advertising beverages, weird distorted purikura pictures and anime characters everywhere.

Because not only is kawaii culture a major export “product”, it also paints a distinct image of Japan being some special place. This means many tourists will flock to Japan to see what this magic dream world is really like.

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