hello kitty

Since the 1970s, cuteness, in Japanese the noun kawaisa (literally, ‘lovability,’ ‘cuteness’ or ‘adorableness’), has become a prominent aspect of Japanese popular culture, entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance, behavior, and mannerisms. The term kawaii has taken on the secondary meanings of ‘cool,’ ‘groovy,’ ‘charming,’ ‘non-threatening.’ As a cultural phenomenon, cuteness is increasingly accepted in Japan as a part of Japanese culture and national identity.

Japanese women who perform cute behaviors that could be viewed as forced or fake are called ‘burikko’ and this is considered a gender performance. In Japan, cuteness is expected of men and women. There is a trend of men shaving their legs to mimic the ‘asexual’ look. The original definition of kawaii came from Lady Murasaki’s ‘The Tale of Genji’ where it referred to pitiable qualities. During the Shogunate period under the ideology of neo-Confucianism, women came to be included under the term kawaii as the perception of women from being animalistic was replaced with the conception of women as docile.

The rise of cuteness in Japanese culture emerged in the 1970s as part of a new style of writing. Many teenage girls began to write laterally using mechanical pencils. These pencils produced very fine lines, as opposed to traditional Japanese writing that varied in thickness and was vertical. Also, the girls would write in big, round characters and they added little pictures to their writing, such as hearts, stars, smiley faces, and letters of the Latin alphabet. These pictures would be inserted randomly and made the writing very hard to read. As a result, this writing style caused a lot of controversy and was banned in many schools. During the 1980s, however, this new ‘cute’ writing was adopted by magazines and comics and was put onto packaging and advertising.

Because of this growing trend, companies such as Sanrio came out with merchandise like Hello Kitty. Hello Kitty was an immediate success and the obsession with cute continued to progress in other areas as well. The 1980s also saw the rise of cute idols, such as Seiko Matsuda, who is largely credited with popularizing the trend. Women began to emulate Seiko Matsuda and her cute fashion style and mannerisms, which emphasized the helplessness and innocence of young girls. No longer limited to teenagers, however, the spread of making things as cute as possible, even common household items, was embraced by people of all ages. Now there are airplanes painted with Pikachu on the side, and each of Japan’s 47 prefectures, the Tokyo police, and even the public broadcaster NHK all have their own cute mascots.

Cabbage patch kids did not sell well in Japan, because Japanese people considered their facial features to be ‘wrong’ and ‘grotesque’ compared to the flatter and featureless face of Hello Kitty. Also, Barbie did not fare well in Japan compared to the Rika-chan doll who was modeled after a prepubescent girl.

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