Kawaii culture in Japan and its implications for marketing campaigns
Meaning “cute”, “childlike” or “adorable”, kawaii is a significant feature of Japanese culture.
Characterised by the use of bright colours, cute imagery and playful designs, kawaii is something of a phenomenon and has proved crucial to the success of many products and services in Japan. It is now integral to the country’s national identity and should always be considered when evolving any marketing campaign.
What exactly is kawaii, how did the style evolve and how does it impact commercial success?
The origins and history of Kawaii
The word kawaii was evolved from blending elements of several Japanese words and phrases. Originally it was the word kawayui that was used but this has become kawaii in modern times. The first example of the term being used in writing appeared in an 11th-century novel where it described pitiable qualities. Kawaii and derivatives of the word are still used in modern dialects to mean embarrassing, ashamed, splendid or admirable. But in general usage, the meaning of kawaii now encompasses the sense of cuteness, vulnerability and youth.
Cute culture appears to have first emerged in Japan during the student protests of the 1960s. Young people were rebelling against authority and shunned lectures in favour of reading comics (manga). The students were protesting about the rigidity and prescribed nature of academic programs.
From the 1950s to the 1970s Illustrator Rune Naito produced illustrations for Japanese girls magazines of baby-faced girls with large heads and also of cute cartoon animals. He has been credited with pioneering what would become the kawaii aesthetic.
The Japanese economy grew impressively in the 1970s and 1980s. Consumer subcultures began to appear and cuteness as an aesthetic began to be expressed through childish handwriting. Cuteness then started to appear in fashion, food and other products. At the same time, women became more visible in the workplace and the concept of childlike women emerged. This was possibly a move by women to make themselves appear less of a threat to male dominance.
It was in the 1990s that the exploitation of the cute aesthetic to promote goods and services began in earnest. Japanese anime, movies and music all started to reflect the Kawaii style.
You could say that the ultimate Kawaii brand is Hello Kitty. Originally aimed at children, the Hello Kitty range was expanded to include products targeted firmly at teenagers and young adults.
Today, cute culture is everywhere in Japan and is embraced by people of all ages, perhaps because it represents an antidote to responsibility and competition in the workplace.
What exactly is kawaii?
Kawaii culture is one of cuteness, childlike qualities, vulnerability and being loveable. It can be utilised to characterise the look and mannerisms of both people and animals. The style may also be applied to objects and is typically expressed by bold, cartoon-like lines, rounded forms and bright colours. People and animals are given disproportionately large heads, large round eyes and small noses. They exhibit minimal facial expressions and so can be attributed with any emotion. It is worth noting that Hello Kitty does not have a mouth.
In Japan, it is acceptable for both men and women to be cute and to adopt a kawaii look. Women may attempt to alter the size of their eyes and often wear dramatic eye makeup. Young men may shave their legs and those considered to be particularly cute can become teen idols.
Kawaii style and themes have inspired huge commercial success. Hello Kitty products have proved to be enormously popular. The Kawaii aesthetic is also seen in Pikachu and Pokémon generally. It can inform almost any product or service and in a variety of ways. For instance, respected institutions have adopted kawaii in the form of funny or adorable mascots.
Kawaii has spread globally through video games, anime, popular music and fashion. The global cosplay costumes market was valued at $4.62 billion in 2020 and is projected to reach $23.00 billion by 2030, according to a report by Allied Market Research.
Kawaii and commercial success
While Hello Kitty and Pikachu have proved popular both in Japan and around the world, many products that have been highly successful globally have not found favour in Japan. Cabbage Patch Dolls flew off the shelves in many countries but were largely ignored in Japan, most likely because their features were considered ugly and did not reflect the Kawaii aesthetic. Barbie dolls also flopped in Japan as they portrayed adult women.
It’s easy to see that Kawaii can be the key to commercial success in Japan and so must be considered when evolving marketing strategies. The implications for translation and localisation are also clear.
A good example of Japanese localisation can be seen on the Starbucks Japan website, the site uses the Kawaii aesthetic to create a fun, playful atmosphere. The homepage is filled with bright colours and cute characters as well as larger-than-life illustrations of cherry blossom coffee cups. Using the Kawaii aesthetic, Starbucks demonstrates how powerful Kawaii culture can be when applied to marketing campaigns.
Translation, localisation and kawaii
Translation can be described as the process of translating words or text from one language into another. Of course, translation should always be much more than that. It’s the process of adapting messages so that the translated text communicates the concepts of the original material and produces the intended emotional responses. To resonate with the target audience, text may also require localisation.
Localisation is the adaptation of text or content to suit the culture of the target audience. Skilled translation and localisation will deliver messages that are perfectly tailored to their audience. The right words move beyond literal meaning to create an experience.
Japan is a notoriously complex and difficult market to crack but it can be done. However, the intricacies of the country’s culture, language and etiquette cannot be addressed merely with translation tools or any form of translation alone. Localisation and even transcreation is often essential and could involve the significant adaptation of words and imagery to create messages that truly resonate.
Brands have found success in Japan through localisation and transcreation that incorporates kawaii. For instance, TikTok included filters that enabled Japanese users to create cute images at the touch of a button. But kawaii is a culture that is nuanced. The localisation of marketing material to reflect kawaii requires insider knowledge and experience. It demands the attention of those with the intuition for what would be considered cute in Japan.
The future of kawaii
Kawaii has grown to play a significant role in Japanese culture. What was once attractive to children is now embraced by adults. Kawaii is comforting as it is nostalgic and enables people to capture the essence of childhood. It is, therefore, emotionally compelling and so is probably here to stay.
Cuteness is a concept and aesthetic that is gaining traction globally. With the world having experienced so many challenges in recent times including Covid-19, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the earthquake in Turkey, Kawaii provides the perfect foil for all that negativity. Kawaii is certainly crucial to the marketing of diverse products and services in Japan and that is a situation that is unlikely to change for the foreseeable.