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Kawaii Culture: Don’t Underestimate the Power of Cuteness

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While in many peoples’ minds, it is synonymous with Hello Kitty merchandise and a quintessentially Japanese predilection for sugary appeal based on child-like design sensibilities, Kawaii culture is a trend that is manifesting itself globally. According to Teri J.Silvio, an academic at the Institute of Ethnology in Taipei City-based Academia Sinica: “Cute objects provide a respite from the struggles of daily life”.

A Japanese Speciality

In Japanese, Kawaii means cute or adorable. Kawaii has gradually gone from a small subculture in Japan to an important part of Japanese modern culture as a whole. Many bloggers feel that aspects of kawaii culture such as cosplay (where people dress up as characters from comic books or cartoons), maid cafés and computer games are drawing people closer to Japan. Japanese companies are skilled at transforming products and services not traditionally thought of as adorable or cuddly into the latest kawaii must-have trend. This includes anything from USB keys to police stations which have their own cartoon mascots to Nippon Airlines aeroplanes decorated with colourful anime characters, and even government safety signs featuring cute characters to convey serious messages.  Mark Silato, a blogger on one of the many kawaii websites writes: “Regarding public notices in Japan, they sure beat Western ‘getting yelled at’ any day.”

Cute Appeal Coming to a Place Near You…

A new Lancôme make-up ad has a strong, kawaii feel. Featuring three wide-eyed models, the strapline reads: "The 1st “doll lash” mascara – Hypnôse doll eyes”. Israel’s national airline, El Al, is currently screening a safety film featuring fairy-like winged characters, while once again, Innocent smoothie drinks are covered by cute woollen hats. An article entitled “Baking like Barbie” in the German Sueddeutsche newspaper in September 2013 identified a growing trend for girly, pink-hued, nursery-cute cafes for young mothers. Kawaii culture is just one of many Etsy kawaii shops with thousands of admirers. Taiwan, meanwhile, is in the grip of a new kawaii wave reflected in media coverage of the birth of a giant panda cub, a giant rubber duck installation that is floating in Kaohsiung City harbour and the new Hello Kitty route to LA from EVA airways. The plethora of kawaii-themed websites has led to hubs such as allthingskawaii to help direct fans to specific kawaii themes including shopping and blogs and the many kawaii Pinterest sites.

Kawaii Culture is not Without its Critics

In neon tommy, a University of Southern California blog, Ashley Yang wrote in an October 2013 post that young Asian women, enamoured of Hello Kitty culture well into adulthood, suffer from stunted development. Though a young woman carrying a Hello Kitty iPhone doesn’t realise it, she is “actually infantilising and disenfranchising herself from her right to be independent, respected”.  Moreover, while kawaii culture didn’t intend to be provocative, it is fetishized.

Which New Kawaii-Inspired Offerings are Surfacing?

Journalists have been asking if popular Japanese messaging app, Line, is set for global domination. Millions of smartphone users in Asia and parts of Europe and Latin America are spurning Facebook or Twitter and using Line to share news and opinions with their friends. Crucially, Line also lets users send fun ‘stickers’ resembling emoticons – with Line reporting over one billion of these stickers sent daily. Facebook has noted this, recently adding a sticker option to its messaging application. Meanwhile, New York has seen the first Maid Café on the US east coast, a Japanese concept tailored to manga and anime fans’ fascination with the genre’s demure female characters.

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