To Westerners, the word “kawaii” is often associated with cuteness. However, in Japan, the term takes a whole new meaning. “Kawaii” (whose noun is Kawaisa) embraces the concept of cuteness, non-threatening, lovable, innocent-looking, and well-meaning friendliness. The word itself is derived from the Kanji ideograms “ka” (meaning “acceptable”) and “ai” (meaning “love”). So, combine the two, and it’s safe to say it’s a culture of love in Japan.
But wait, what about cats?
Cats are an integral part of Japanese culture. They are featured prominently in Japanese art and literature, not forgetting the tradition of Neko-Manju (cat-shaped confectionery). The reason for this is that cats (and especially kittens) share many of the desirable traits associated with Kawaisa — cute, cuddly, non-threatening, lovable, innocent-looking, and well-meaning friendliness. In particular, modern Persian cats, with their round, large-headed appearance and an inviting facial expression, tiny mouths, ears, and nose, and exaggerated large eyes, are inherently kawaii. They convey the same playfulness and helplessness a baby is thought to possess, making them lovable and huggable, especially to young women. That explains why these furry little balls of fun are so popular in Japan and why they are often associated with Kawaisa.
The Origin of the Kawaii Culture
The culture of Kawaii first originated in Japan in the late 1960s, following students’ protests against the rigid culture of post-World War II Japan. The protests were sparked by a growing disillusionment with Japan’s role in World War. It started with students refusing to attend lectures and reading children’s comic books (manga) in protest against prescribed knowledge. This new cute style allowed youths to express their individuality and discontent through fashion. Clothing became colorful, loose-fitting, with oversized coats and platform shoes – inspired by children’s clothing style. This new trend led to many changes in Japanese society, which evolved rapidly over the following decades. While most schools banned Marui Ji, this playful writing style would gain massive popularity in the world of advertising in the 1980s, leading to the invention of some of the most famous Kawaii characters today, including Doraemon and Hello Kitty. Today, Kawaii influences art streams, including Anime/Manga, music, advertising, television programs, character goods, and fashion. You can see it everywhere in Japan – from school uniforms for pre-teen girls to the way people dress at homecoming festivals. It’s an attitude of thinking that reflects innocence and joyfulness with a touch of playfulness.
So, What’s a Kawaii Cat?
A kawaii cat is a kawaii character in the form of a cat. They’re found everywhere in Japan, from anime to manga, to futons and bead sets. The culture of Kawaii is like an unstoppable cultural movement in Japan that uses cute characters or characters with kawaii traits (such as the iconic Hello Kitty) to create a mass appeal.
The most famous kawaii cat is Hello Kitty. Invented in 1974 by Yuko Yamaguchi, Hello Kitty’s first appearance was on a vinyl coin purse. The character is now seen everywhere — from toys to mugs, clothes, rooms, pencil cases, and more. “Hello Kitty” is a super-cute white cat with a pink bow and no mouth. Her lack of mouth makes it kawaii as it symbolizes that she is “perfect” and doesn’t need to open her mouth to prove that.
Another popular Kawaii cat character is Gudetama (alias lazy egg), a female calico cat created in 2013 by Sanrio. Her name means “relax,” and she does indeed look quite relaxed, with her eyes shut and body almost in a comma. Gudetama has graced the pages of several Japanese magazines and even has her own Twitter page and a line of stationery items.
Doraemon is a cat-like robotic cat from the future and one of the most famous characters in Japan. He was created by Fujiko F. Fukaya and first appeared on TV as a manga character in 1969. Doraemon solves problems with his special “Anywhere Door,” which transports him anywhere or any time. His best friend, Suneo, often accompanies him, and he is one of the most selfless characters on TV as he always places other people’s needs over his own.
Also worth mentioning is Rilakkuma, a bear born from a Japanese corporate logo, who first appeared as a mascot for the Japanese express company. He is always seen in a kawaii pink hoodie and without any limbs. One of his main characteristics is laziness, but surprisingly he’s also very tidy and organized. Other famous kawaii cats include Charmmy Kitty (2004), Pusheen (2009), and Totoro (1985). Bear in mind that these cats aren’t real but a figment of their creators’ imagination, designed and drawn to virtual life.
Catgirls and Kitty-chan
Catgirls are also a popular Japanese character, often seen in Anime and Manga. A catgirl is a girl with cat ears and/or a cattail but no other feline characteristics. Catgirls are linked to kawaii culture because of their sweet and innocent appearance, almost childlike. They are often seen as a sign of good luck and happiness in Japan, and many people even associate them with fertility. This type of character is often used to describe female characters that look cute or girlish but aren’t necessarily children. Kitty-chan (a combination of the Japanese word for cat, “neko,” and “-chan”) is a more mature version of the typical catgirl. She’s usually portrayed as an older woman with cat ears and/or tail, often seen with glasses or in some other way that distinguishes her from the younger-looking kawaii girls.
The original concept of kawaii came from Lady Muraski’s “The Tale of Genji”, written in the 11th century. It referred to pitiable qualities, such as the frailness of a sick child. Later on, kawaii was used to refer to pitiable heroines of folk tales who were often underdogs and sometimes helped by animals. In time, it became a way of describing character types that are vulnerable or weak in some way but who still attempt to win over other characters’ hearts. Kawaii style is a mix of cuteness, sweetness and innocence. The kawaii style is often exaggerated to look even cuter – for example, big eyes, small noses, large heads etc. Hairstyles are also drawn bigger to show how bouncy or fluffier they are.