Since the 1970s, cuteness, in Japanese kawaii (可愛い) (literally, "loveable" or "adorable") has become a prominent aspect of Japanese popular culture, entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance, behavior, and mannerisms.
The rise of cuteness in Japanese culture emerged in the 1970s as part of a new style of writing. Many teenage girls began to write laterally using mechanical pencils. These pencils produced very fine lines, as opposed to traditional Japanese writing that varied in thickness and was vertical. Also, the girls would write in big, round characters and they added little pictures to their writing, such as hearts, stars, smiley faces, and letters of the Latin alphabet. These pictures would be inserted randomly and made the writing very hard to read. As a result, this writing style caused a lot of controversy and was banned in many schools. During the 1980s, however, this cute new writing was adopted by magazines and comics and was put onto packaging and advertising. From 1984-86, Yamane Kazuma studied the development of cute handwriting, which he called Anomalous Female Teenage Handwriting, in depth. Although it was commonly thought that the writing style was something that teenagers had picked up from comics, he found that teenagers had come up with the style themselves, as part of an underground movement.
Later, cute handwriting became associated with acting childishly and using infantile slang words. Because of this growing trend, companies, such as Sanrio, came out with merchandise like Hello Kitty. Hello Kitty was an immediate success and the obsession with cute continued to progress in other areas as well. The 1980s also saw the rise of cute idols, such as Seiko Matsuda, who is largely credited with popularizing the trend. Women began to emulate Seiko Matsuda and her cute fashion style and mannerisms, which emphasized the helplessness and innocence of young girls. No longer limited to teenagers, however, the spread of making things as cute as possible, even common household items, was embraced by people of all ages. Now there are airplanes painted with Pikachu on the side, and each of Japan’s 47 prefectures, the Tokyo police, and the government television station all have their own cute mascots. Currently, Sanrio’s line of more than 50 characters takes in more than $1 billion a year and remains the most successful company to capitalize on the cute trend.
Cute elements can be found almost everywhere in Japan, from big business to corner markets and national government, ward, and town offices. Many companies, large and small, use cute mascots to present their wares and services to the public. For example:
Cute can be also used to describe a specific fashion sense of an individual, and generally includes clothing that appears to be made for young children, outside of the size, or clothing that accentuates the cuteness of the individual wearing the clothing. Ruffles and pastel colors are commonly (but not always) featured, and accessories often include toys or bags featuring anime characters.
The fashionableness of cuteness has recently been challenged by the more Western-oriented ero kawaii image of sexiness.
As a cultural phenomenon, cuteness is increasingly accepted in Japan as a part of Japanese culture and national identity. Tomoyuki Sugiyama, author of "Cool Japan", believes that "cuteness" is rooted in Japan's harmony-loving culture, and Nobuyoshi Kurita, a sociology professor at Musashi University in Tokyo, has stated that "cute" is a "magic term" that encompasses everything that's acceptable and desirable in Japan.
On the other hand, those skeptical of cuteness consider it a sign of an infantile mentality. In particular, Hiroto Murasawa, professor of beauty and culture at Osaka Shoin Women’s University asserts that cuteness is "a mentality that breeds non-assertion ... Individuals who choose to stand out get beaten down."
Other translations of kawaii can include adorable, precious, lovable, or innocent. According to sociologist Sharon Kinsella:
"Kawaii is a derivation of a term whose principle meaning was shy or embarrassed and secondary meanings were pathetic, vulnerable, darling, loveable and small. In fact the modern sense of the word kawaii still has some nuances of pitiful whilst the term kawaisô derived directly from kawaii means pathetic, poor, and pitiable in a generally negative if not pleasing sense."
In some Asian and western cultures, the Japanese word for cute kawaii has joined a number of other Japanese words borrowed by overseas Japanophiles, sometimes in the wrong context. While the usage is almost entirely limited to the otaku subculture, it has been used by American singer Gwen Stefani, who gave kawaii a brief mention in her Hollaback Girl music video, Gwen also released a line of fragrances inspired by this love of kawaii dubbed harajuku lovers
The concept of kawaii has spread to Europe,, including to Russia, where there is a Kawaii Factory brand which sells kawaii accessories.