How to Use Kawaii (かわいい): Japan’s Obsession with Cuteness

It’s a normal walk on the streets of Tokyo when you hear your tenth “Kawaii!”, exclaimed by a random Japanese, somewhere. Anyone who’s either studied the language, lived in Japan, hold an interest in Japanese pop culture (or all of the three) has probably heard the word — like, a bazillion times. Often mentioned in manga and anime, it basically a Japanese adjective that means ‘lovely’, charming, ‘cute’, or ‘adorable’, but beyond meaning cute, kawaii (written かわいい or 可愛い) rakes a big part of Japanese modern culture, too.

But what is kawaii culture in Japan exactly, and how did this single word become a sort-of obsession in Japanese society? And, maybe more importantly, how do you actually use ‘kawaii’ in a sentence?

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What Does Kawaii Mean?

While we think kawaii simply means cute, you’ll notice soon enough that this is not the case. The easiest way to think of kawaii is to look at the characters associated with it: “cute” (of course), “tiny”, “lovable” and “childlike”.

In other words, the word kawaii encompasses a whole range of definitions: lovely, pretty, beautiful and even sexy. A piece of jewelry can be kawaii. A girl acting cute is kawaii. A good haircut is kawaii. A breathtaking late art is kawaii. Confusing, right? Of course, everyone is different, and one person’s idea of kawaii can differ from another’s, but the point is that the use of kawaii is very universal.

For example, while it still maintains a feminine nuance, people can often describe (Japanese) men as ‘kawaii’ too. The common point kawaii things have are youthful and child-like features. 

Kawaii originally came from the Japanese word kao hayushi (かおはゆし), which can be written as 顔映ゆし. The phrase is comprised of the kanji kao, or 顔 (かお), which means face, and the character 映, which translates to ‘reflection’. Together, they literally mean ‘glowing face’. Think of it when you look at someone who looks so bright you can’t see them. The shortened form is かはゆし(kawayushi).

Initially, the word is used when “you can’t see someone because they look pitiful”. This definition came from the Japanese literature, The Tale of Genji.  During the Shogunate period, the term kawaii covers women who are perceived as ‘animalistic’, before it switched to the concept of women as ‘docile’. Not necessarily the best compliment, we know. 

Over time, however, it adopted a more positive meaning. In the Muromachi period, it was used to describe something that is “cute”. The pronunciation changed to kawayui (かわゆい) until it became the word we know today: kawaii. 

Once a popular word of choice among lower social classes, kawaii became commonly used in the 19th century — around the same time as the word “cute” arrived in English. Eventually, modern Japanese bounced back its original meaning. 

Check out: How to use the Japanese word “かっこいい (Kakkoii)”

Kanji for Cute and How to Write Kawaii

The kanji character of kawaii helps us understand the true concept of かわいい.

  • : The ‘ka’ part of the Japanese word, this character translates to ‘can’ — or, in English, the suffix of ‘-able’.
  • : Read as ‘ai’, the kanji means love, affection or favorite.

Together, “kawaii” literally means loveable in Japanese. The kanji characters were originally picked because they have the same pronunciation as the word, but it’s pretty convenient that the literal translation and actual interpretation is synonymous.

Now, kawaii can be written in both hiragana, kanji and katakana (look at the Japanese writing systems chart here). The ateji (one or more kanji compounds) is 可愛い. The katakana for kawaii is カワイイ.

You might wonder: kawaii is clearly a Japanese word, so why do some people type it with the katakana writing system? This is because besides being used to write loanwords, katakana is used to emphasize a word. There will be some cases in the manga where you will see this. For example, the word まじで (really, seriously) is written as マジで.  If you’ve used mobile app stickers (like LINE), you will probably see that a lot of typical Japanese words are written in katakana too. 

How to Use Kawaii in Japanese

Sometimes, the word means anything that is “small”, “lovely” or even “shy”. Either way, kawaii has no ties to negative traits today and is generally used to compliment something or someone. Kawaii celebrates all things adorable, referring to items, humans and non-human things that resemble sweet features of young children and animals. 

Check out the modifications for kawaii below.

Present かわいいkawaiicute
Present negativeかわいくないkawaikunainot cute
Pastかわいかったkawaikattawas cute
Past negativeかわいくなかったkawaikunakattawas not cute

Kawaii can be used alone without any objects or verbs attached to it. Say you saw a new, limited-edition doll in a store. Or maybe your partner surprised you with a flower. Or your hairstylist just revealed your final haircut. In English, to say a compliment for these three scenarios may require three different remarks: cute, beautiful, cool. In Japanese, however, you can think of kawaii as an umbrella term for all of them.

There is no limit to the use of kawaii when it comes to giving flatteries. You can simply say “かわいい!” at just about anything and people will take it as a good thing.

The next time a barista makes a bear in your cappuccino foam, you’ll know what to say.

So cute!

Below are typical situations where you’ll use the word. Because kawaii is an adjective, you can make it into a modifier to describe a noun.

Imouto chan wa kawaii desu ne!
(Your) little sister is cute!

Kawaii akachan ga naite iru!
The cute baby is crying!

See how the role of both kawaii and good ol’ cute is similar?

To be more expressive or exaggerate, you can add the word meccha (めっちゃ) or mecchakucha (めっちゃくちゃ) before it.

Ee! Meccha kawai!
Wow! (That’s) so cute!

Of course, while the original usage of kawaii is to compliment or speak fondly of something or someone, you can modify it into a negative and past tense — which can alter the message of the conversation. Let’s take a look at some cases.

Kanojo wa kawaikunai yo.
That girl is not cute.

Keep in mind that in the Japanese culture, people tend to avoid direct insults. The Japanese people are generally indirect communicator. They may be ambiguous when answering questions as a way to maintain harmony, prevent a loss of face or out of politeness. This is why you’ll not often see people coming as straightforward as saying, “You’re not cute” in front of your face.

They might not talk negatively about you directly, but there are a few ways they can subtly give you a hint. For example:

Tanaka-san wa, kodomo no toki ni kawaikatta kedo, ima wa chotto…
Tanaka-san was cute when he was a child, but now he’s a bit…

In this case, someone is saying Tanaka-san was cute — it can both mean physically or personality-wise. They’re implying he’s no longer.

Kawaii Culture in Japan

A popular theme in real life and alongside anime and manga, kawaii refers to the “culture of cuteness” in Japan. Kawaii aesthetic and cultural style incorporates bright, pastel colors and child-like features. In a society that values youth like Japan, men and women want to adopt the kawaii aesthetic as a way to escape work and social pressure. 

Joshua Paul Dale, a professor at Tokyo Gakugei University, said, “Kawaii communicates the unabashed joy found in the undemanding presence of innocent, harmless, adorable things.”

Now, kawaii culture covers a range of categories. You can see this in themed cafes, fashionable clothing, anime characters — and down to Japanese city mascots. This pop culture is so popular that even the Japanese government used this as part of their tourism strategy.

One of the first truly kawaii characters is Hello Kitty. You’ve probably heard about or seen the fictional white cat with a bow created by Yuko Shimizu. Originally, the character was targeted at young girls, but its branding eventually pushed to the wider demographic and into things that have nothing to do with childhood: backpacks, food trucks, kitchen appliances and adult toys. They even have a Hello Kitty-dedicated amusement park, Sanrio Puroland, in Tokyo.

kawaii pokemon plane japan
Image courtesy of ANA. Pokémon is a trademark of Nintendo

Another example would be the famous Pokémon Jet operated by ANA. The airline literally covers a few of their airplane with Pikachu and a few of their adorable monsters. It doesn’t stop at the exterior, though. Inside the plane, the headrest, food containers, inflight entertainment and souvenir bags feature Pikachu. Even the flight crews are decked out in Pokémon themes.

Japanese singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is a prime example of the kawaii culture incorporated into entertainment. The song and debut single, “PonPonPon” (stylized as PONPONPON), became the catalyst for a renewed interest in Japanese kawaii culture abroad.

How to Dress Kawaii in Japan: Cute Fashion

Of course, you can’t talk about kawaii culture without talking about its strong link to the Japanese fashion sense. Cute clothes are part of the trend, which you will specifically notice in hip areas like Harajuku, Shibuya and Shinjuku. You’ll see it as soon as you exit the train station: young adults dressed in clothes that appear to be made for young children. And then there’s a term used to describe adorably-dressed women strolling in Harajuku: Harajuku girls.

There are plenty of variations of kawaii style, but you’ll notice a pattern emerge: all of these kawaii fashionistas use ultra-feminine clothing, often incorporating frills, ruffles, knee socks, short hemlines and doe-eyed makeup. A lot of them will wear bright, pastel-colored clothes like blue and pink, but this isn’t always the case. In fact, there’s another kawaii subculture that focuses more on punk and grunge culture.

Currently, the two most popular Kawaii styles are decora and lolita. Lolita style is what you’ll probably imagine a traditional kawaii style: exaggerated child-like dresses with frills. Fashion choices include Bo Pepp collars, petticoats and clunky Mary Jane shoes.

Decora kawaii girls, on the other hand, are more vibrant in terms of color choices. They wear a lot of colorful bracelets, hair bows and accessories.

Kawaii also has strong ties to schoolgirls, specifically school uniforms. The Japanese sailor uniform is the token image of kawaii. Japanese girls will purposely shorten their skirts and wear knee-high socks to look the part. This fashion is so popular that even adult women who are not enrolled in a school will wear it around the Harajuku streets.

Want to sound like a young, trendy Tokyoite? Check out: 25 Japanese Slang to Learn by 2022

How to Act Kawaii

The full embodiment of kawaii goes beyond dressing cute. Mannerism, from the way you talk down to how you act, can help evoke the image of youth. For example, kawaii girls will try to use a higher pitched voice — almost similar to how you would do baby talks. The higher you go, the better.

Another display of kawaii characters is to become “weak” but not in a literal sense. In the most charming way, a kawaii personality draws people to protect them, even if it’s just small things (like flying insects). That is to say, to be cute by Japanese standards is to be submissive rather than assertive. Kawaii individuals are agreeable.

Some people will use their own names as first-person pronouns to sound more child-like.

Koto wa ureshii!
(I) am happy!

Other child-like qualities that make a girl (or a guy) cute are:

  • Acting and pretending to be dumb.
  • Laugh or giggle a lot at small jokes, even if they are not funny.
  • Write Japanese in big, round characters. This type of writing is called maruji (round writing), konekoji (kitten writing) or burikkoji (fake-child writing).
  • A very animated reactions to cute and exciting things.

How to Look Kawaii

You’ve nailed the fashion and personality to be cute. Looking kawaii is also part of the Japanese beauty standard. Women tend to go for the innocent, childish look when putting on makeup. Having large eyes helps to give you a youthful face (as children have eyes that are usually quite large in proportion to their faces). You’ll see Japanese people, men or women, attempting to create illusions that their eyes are bigger by wearing contact lenses, false eyelashes and makeup.

Speaking of makeup, there’s a particular way kawaii men and women prep their faces. Dark mascara helps make your eyes appear wider and more circular — which is why it’s common practice to use it on your lower lashes, too. Instead of heavy on contour, Japanese makeup tends to put the stress on blushes. Refrain from using dark red lipsticks, as light color (pink or nude) is considered the right option.

People will also go all the way to bleaching and coloring their hair paster-colored to resemble an anime or manga character.

To Wrap it Up

Kawaii is the word commonly uttered by the Japanese in their daily lives. It has become a standard, go-to choice to compliment or praise something or someone because culturally, the word has no distinction between “cute”, “pretty”, or “beautiful”.

Of course, there are other ways to give a compliment in Japanese. For example, you can opt for the Japanese loanword kyuuto (キュート), which is Japanized version of “cute“. You can also say kirei (きれい), which means pretty.

Just be careful: there are Japanese words that sound very similar to kawaii but have a completely different meaning. A misspelling or mispronouncing kawaii can risk offending your Japanese friends. The word kowai (怖い), translated to “scary”, is only one sound different than the word, but you don’t want to mix them up (check out 10 hilarious Japanese language mistakes all learners fall for).

What is the real meaning of kawaii?

Kawaii means ‘lovely’, charming, ‘cute’, or ‘adorable’

What is kawaii style?

Kawaii style is the Japanese artistic and cultural style that emphasizes the quality of cuteness, using bright colours and characters with a childlike appearance. Dressing kawaii usually means wearing bright colors, eye-catching patterns, and unique clothes and accessories..

How do you use the Japanese word kawaii?

You use it to compliment something or someone, typically when it’s related to looking and being adorable.

Does kawaii mean cute?

Kawaii roughly means cute, but it is more or less an umbrella term for “pretty”, “beautiful”, “adorable”, “lovable”, “tiny” and other childish qualities.

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