Big in Japan: Hello Kitty and the Culture of Cute (Part II)

This post is the continuation of yesterday’s column on Hello Kitty and the Culture of Cute.

You don’t have to look too hard in Japan to find something cute.

From ruffled clothing and dollhouse shoes to smiling mascots and anime characters, evidence of kawaisa (cuteness, ??????) is everywhere in Japan. Even beyond consumer goods, being cute has become something of a national obsession, with women (and increasingly men) of all ages striving to achieve their own unique expression of kawaisa.

Surprisingly, cute culture is increasingly being accepted as a part of the national identity. Indeed, there is a growing sense of pride in the fact that cute things are immediately thought of as being ‘Japanese.’

In recent years, kawaisa has even been successfully exported to neighboring Asian countries and to a lesser extent the West. Beyond Hello Kitty, Japanese super-cute fashion is all the rage in Taiwan, South Korea and parts of China, and even Americans can now identify Harajuku Girls thanks to the pop sensation Gwen Stefani.

Of course, this brings about the question: why do the Japanese love cute things?

Much has been written about this subject, and sadly I don’t have the time or the space to outline everything here. But, there is no shortage of theories out there trying to explain this surprisingly profound question.

For instance, some academics claim that kawaisa is the modern manifestation of the Japanese obsession with harmony and order. Then again, when I ask my students why they dress in bright pink and neon green, they usually reply, ‘It just makes me feel very very very happy.’

With that said, there is a growing minority of Japanese people that hate the idea of kawaisa, and find cute culture to be extremely juvenile and degrading to the society. This opposition to the mainstream is not hard to understand, given that past Japanese culture focused on restraint and minimalism. Consider for a moment the time and skill it takes to study calligraphy, tea ceremony, zen meditation, karate or any of Japan’s traditional arts.

So, is it possible for a culture to simultaneously embrace sumo wrestling and Pokemon?

Clearly, modern Japan is in a state of flux, which is one of the reasons why it’s such an interesting place to live. In the span of a few hours, it’s possible to take in an afternoon performance of live kabuki theatre, and then blow a few thousand yen playing the latest arcade games.

But, no matter what happens to mainstream Japanese culture in the years to come, one thing is for sure – Hello Kitty is here to stay. Since 1983, she’s held the position as the US Children’s Ambassador for UNICEF, and has been sported by celebrities as diverse as Mariah Carey, Cameron Diaz and Paris Hilton. Sanrio stores can be found across the globe, and the face of Hello Kitty adorns everything from clothing and stationary to jewelry and electronics. Despite her syrupy sweet image, Hello Kitty has even appeared on adult underwear, wedding dresses and even a, well, how should I say this – ‘personal massager.’

Hello Kitty – she’s not just for children anymore.

(Hello Kitty Vibrator picture sourced from If you’re over 21, yes – you can buy one).

** Special thanks to Flickr users Beggs (Cosupre Girl) and Morbuto (Alice in Wonderland) **