Kawaii Art Style: Cute Culture and Its Power
The Japanese culture of cute or kawaii has become so dominant that it’s spilling into the US and other Western countries. And while trends come and go, Kawaii is still going strong. The subculture has somewhat of a cult following across the globe. This Japanese take on pop art began as a counterpoint to Japan’s tradition and postwar austerity and it is now one of the defining features of Japan’s popular culture.
Up until recently, there was relatively little interaction between Japanese pop culture and Westerners. However, this is changing rapidly as more and more Westerners have begun to embrace the concept of kawaii, which often features children, pets, and quirky adults. The popularity of the Japanese culture of cuteness or kawaii concept has been growing in recent years and it now has a strong presence in mainstream media, film, fashion, and the gaming industry.
Cute Japanese Art That Is Hard to Put Into Words
The Japanese culture of cute or kawaii is difficult to define due to its wide semantic range. The term can be used to denote a sweet, childlike innocence, the quality of being adorable, especially when describing young women or children, small and pretty shapes and things, but also triviality, someone or something deserving of sympathy, even disdain. Yet there are so many more nuances of meaning that depend on the context.
But it’s hard to miss the elements of kawaii art. Its key defining features include:
Kawaii Art in Manga, Anime, and More
Nowadays, cute kawaii paintings and other forms of cute kawaii art can be seen everywhere. We immediately associate kawaii with Japan.
But for many people, manga is the first thing that comes to mind when they think of Japan. It should be noted that the concept of kawaii-style art isn’t limited to manga alone. The term is broad enough to include anime, J-pop, and idol culture. The popularity and global recognition of Kawaii aesthetics grew out of manga, anime, and even hentai, a peculiar Japanese brand of pornographic content.
In Japan, it was manga or Japanese comics that came first. But elsewhere in the world, manga gained a massive global following through anime. The term comes from the combination of the words: “mo” (whimsical/impulsive) and “nge” (pictures). The great popularity of manga in Japan and the world have turned into a universal cultural phenomenon. This form of Japanese comics is popular among both men and women. Some well-known manga titles include Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball, Naruto, and One Piece.
The Childlike Eyes of Japanese Pop Art and Subculture
Before World War II which ended when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan was a very prosperous nation. The war and its aftermath caused great suffering for the Japanese people. The devastation caused by the war and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to the deaths and long-term health complications of hundreds of thousands, as well as a great material loss.
In response to these atrocities and hardships that ensued, the Japanese have embraced what is kawaii or cute as a way to cope with their woes and find an escape from reality through a feel-good distraction. Cute Japanese art was born. It was manga, a popular source of entertainment in post-war Japan, that introduced it. But kawaii is not just cute, and it is certainly not shallow and superficial.
Kawaii is an important concept in manga tradition, not just in terms of pure entertainment, music, and comedy, but also when dealing with serious topics such as romance, sex, hyperconsumerism, and even crime. It’s not just about happiness and reimagining childhood fantasies, but also about desires, doubts, anxiety, anguish, fear, frailties, and everything else that makes us human.
Kawaii culture inspires children and adults alike to work through difficulties in life in new ways, turning to Japanese pop art to recover from hardships in some way or another.
Kawaii Style Art Riding the Waves of Nostalgia
Kawaii or cute culture began to spread outside of Japan in the 1990s when Japan was building its reputation as a cool, impersonal, tech-savvy nation. Kawaii is a very important aspect of Japanese pop culture, the popularity of which outgrew Japan and has since grown internationally. The Japanese word kawaii (cute) translates through Japanese pop culture as “kawaii” into “cute”. Born out of the nuclear-devastated landscape of postwar Japan, kawaii culture has grown from a personal response to grim times into a global industry, with merchandise flooding stores and epic popularity among children and adults alike.
Cute but Will Fight
In Japan today, characters with oversized eyes typical of kawaii art are everywhere you go. It’s not uncommon for celebrities to be wearing fairy wings on red carpets. Shops are selling everything from plushies to gloss in pastel shades.
Kawaii was derived from and popularized by cute shows for kids (including Japanese anime like Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball), toys, clothes, and other merchandise. One brand that comes to mind is Hello Kitty. And then there were emojis, the Internet, and social media that helped it flourish.
Japan’s kawaii culture has become so potent and dominant that it’s spilling into other parts of Asia, but also into the US and other Western countries, and it has already earned universal recognition.
Known for its distinctive childlike aesthetic, Kawaii culture actually began as a rebellious response to the postwar austerity in Japan. It originated in Japan, a country with a rich history and a nation that also abides by social norms and obligations, focuses on the community instead of individuals, and places great value on tradition and conformity. In a sense, kawaii, often traced to fluffy hiragana, a bubbly style of handwriting that emerged in the 1970s, is a rebellion against all this and the burden of adult life.
Spilling Over into Parallel Universes
The global influence of kawaii or Japanese pop culture on contemporary culture everywhere is apparent. Part of the reason why Japanese pop culture has become more globalized and so readily embraced by Westerners is that it holds a universal appeal and inspires young contemporary artists everywhere.
This has a lot to do with the fact that the kawaii tradition has created iconic characters of its own, but it often adopts and reinterprets concepts borrowed from other cultures, subcultures, and fictional worlds. For instance, kawaii shares the cute and whimsical fantasy aesthetic with the works of Walt Disney or Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol.
After all, children everywhere are all the same. Everywhere in the world, children’s literature features anthropomorphism, where animals or even objects have human attributes, and kawaii is no different.
Cute Japanese Art Hits the Runway
It’s not uncommon to see young girls wearing clothes with cat ears or other aspects of kawaii culture, especially in major cities like New York City or Los Angeles. Kawaii, or at least some of the elements of the kawaii art style, is an extremely popular trend in fashion and design.
Kawaii culture, often inspired by the uniforms of high school girls, has opened a new door of opportunity for fashion designers. Due to the child-like qualities of this fashion style, the clothes can be worn by kids and adults alike.
And of course, Japan’s cute street-style fashion has been an integral element of the global cosplay community. For many, cosplaying is a lifestyle, and one of the largest growing sectors of this imaginative subculture is in the United States.
Elements of the kawaii style of clothing have become a globally accepted craze that has crossed over from Japan and spread across Asia, as well as to the US and other countries. It can be seen in many young people across the world.
Infectious Cuteness Overload
It’s not surprising that the internet age added a twist to Japanese pop culture. Japan is known for its technological advancements and the pivotal role of technology in its people’s daily lives. The kawaii concept has also given rise to internet celebrities. Influencers with large followings on social media who post things for their own personal gain often exploit kawaii. They create extremely cute crowd-pleasing content, and they are usually seen wearing some type of kawaii clothing. Some of the most popular characters are often thrown into popular anime shows or even have their own respective series created for them.