February 2024 | Book Break

How kawaii charmed Japan … and then the world

Paul Dale, an expert on American literature who teaches Kawaii Studies at Chuo University, speaks at the FCCJ. © FCCJ

It was the manhole covers on the street that gripped the attention of Professor Joshua Paul Dale. “The tiny motifs – some in color — carved on something as humble as a manhole was an awakening,” Dale said at a recent FCCJ book break.

Triggered by his reaction, Dale, an expert on American literature who teaches Kawaii Studies at Chuo University, decided to launch the first serious study on Japan’ approach to cuteness.

Neon-lit Pokemon Evees - Photo by Joshua Paul Dale
Beckoning cat figures - Photo by Joshua Paul Dale

He noted that kawaii - meaning cute in Japanese – has taken the world by storm through anime, fashion and mascots, and is now a multibillion-dollar business. Kawaii also represents Japan’s most successful soft power export and has become a global term. In 2009, Lady Gaga wore a dress featuring Hello Kitty motifs, taking Sanrio’s beloved cat, her white face framed by a black bob haircut and red ribbons, to new heights. Then there is Pokemon, the yellow monster that became a huge commercial hit in the 1990s. In 2011, kawaii was included in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In his book, Irresistible: How cuteness Wired our Brains and Conquered the World, published in 2023 by Profile Books in London, Dale traces the origins of kawaii in Japan to ancient times, and follows its permeation of modern society.

“I wanted to understand its wide appeal,” he said, referring to the umpteen symbols it has inspired – from little animals and flowers that adorn almost everything sold in Japan and girls who dye their hair blond and wear ornate, puffy dresses, to the myriad mascots promoting everything from sports teams to local government services and agricultural produce.

Antique kimono - Photo by Joshua Paul Dale

Dale says the origins of kawaii combine female innovation and tradition, and cites the classic work The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon, a courtier in the Heian period (902-1100). While the word was not in use at the time, Sei uses stories and illustrations to describe romance and charm in otherwise humdrum lives led by aristocratic women. Her book was about love, court gossip and the beauty of nature, accompanied by adorable illustrations of children, insects and flowers. “Se had a marvellous capacity to show the struggle among upper-class women to survive in a male-dominated world through writing that pierced the heart,” Dale said, adding that Sei had “built a new aesthetic by creating guidelines that revealed the types of objects and interactions that can trigger feelings of cuteness”.

His book mentions scientific evidence that proves that cuteness is associated with small, round and smooth shapes - things people want to keep close by to protect and nurture. He also cites studies showing that Japanese people see cuteness as a force to combat unhappiness and anxiety, or to relieve dissatisfaction with work.   

The book explores the feminine theme further, with Dale noting the role of educated women in promoting kawaii in the late 19th century, particularly the popularity of manga among girls who saw them as providing breathing space between compulsory schooling and marriage. The word shojo – referring to the long-lashed saucer-eyed young woman who dreamed of a happy future - became a theme in manga and girls magazines from the 9940s. “This social trend was the springboard for Kawaii,” Dale said. 

A small girl meets a yuru kyara - Photo by Joshua Paul Dale

Today, the borderless appeal of kawaii is closely associated with the spread of technology, combined with feelings of loneliness and stress, Dale said. Against this backdrop, it represents something unthreatening, even empathetic.

Adults embrace cuteness because of its ability to facilitate social engagement. While people in the West like to dress up in soft, cuddly costumes to display their kawaii credentials, in Japan, the term has found expression through the spread of technology and the growth of robot companions, according to Dale.

Suvendrini Kakuchi is Tokyo correspondent for University World News in the UK.