Of all the unique and interesting trends associated with Japan, kawaii culture may be one of the most unassuming, quirky, and, of course, adorable. Roughly translated to "cute" in English, kawaii now includes a wide variety of mascots, fashion styles, and plush toys, but the trend had less than adorable origins. Kawaii, as people know it today, grew out of Japanese student protestors in the 1960s who were tired of tradition and wanted to reclaim their individuality. They did so by adopting childlike adorability in their fashion, speech, and even handwriting. Sanrio noticed the purchasing power of these young consumers and began producing all the cute items anyone could ever want, including their most popular item, Hello Kitty.
Hello Kitty's history does not include Japan alone. After artist Yuko Shimizu created Kitty White for Sanrio in 1974, the character went on to become one of the most popular commodities in the world - not bad for a schoolgirl without a mouth. Due to Hello Kitty's success, other companies jumped on the kawaii bandwagon, and the trend took off. Modern visitors to Japan will now see cute cartoons everywhere, including on street signs, as mascots for companies, and even decorating the sides of commercial aircraft.
Years after its defeat in World War II, the country saw fully embracing kawaii as a way to set itself apart and appear nonthreatening. Now with theme parks, her own stores, and a UNICEF ambassadorship, Hello Kitty remains one of the most popular faces of cute. How she got there, however, is a long and troubled story.
'Kawaii' Is A Result Of 1960s Student Protests Against Authority
The word kawaii is thought to have first been used in the Heian period from 794 to 1185 CE to mean "faces flushed from embarrassment," kawaii referring to cuteness didn't become common until years later. In the late 1960s, social upheaval took place worldwide and Japanese people took part by protesting and speaking out against nuclear weapons and the conflict in Vietnam. In 1968, Japanese college students took their protesting to campuses and refused to attend classes. Instead of reading their textbooks, they read manga. While this was partially due to their beliefs about world events, young people also rebelled against the strictness of traditional Japanese culture and the expectation that everyone has a predestined role in the social construct.
These protests continued into the 1970s, as female students embraced the innocence of their youth and tried to avoid adulthood. They even went as far as using rounded and horizontal handwriting to establish individuality. Teachers considered this to be childish and difficult to read, and many schools banned its use.
Despite the controversy it caused, others noticed kawaii beginning to trend and used it to attract young consumers. Manga and magazines used the cute new handwriting style to appeal to readers, and Sanrio produced cute stationary that girls could use to practice with. Eventually, it became a more mainstream concept, embraced by all genders and ages alike.
The Founder Of Sanrio Discovered He Could Capitalize On 'Kawaii' Culture And Hired Cartoonist Yuko Shimizu To Design Cute Characters For His Merchandise
Shintaro Tsuji founded the Yamanashi Silk Company in 1960 and focused on creating products people could give as gifts. Two years later, he realized sandals with cute characters sold better than any of his other products, and decided to focus his company around this. Tsuji changed the name of his business to Sanrio in 1973 and hired several artists to design characters for his products with a focus on cuteness. Yuko Shimizu was among these artists and created a white catlike character wearing a red bow and blue dress whom she called Kitty White, or Hello Kitty.
She first appeared on a plastic purse in 1974, later followed by a variety of stationary items, including notebooks, pens, and mechanical pencils. Consumers loved Hello Kitty immediately, and although Sanrio intended her to attract mainly young female consumers, everyone from all demographics began purchasing Hello Kitty products. She became the most popular of Sanrio's characters and quickly expanded her reach to consumers outside Japan.
The 'Kawaii' Trend Developed During A Period Of Hyperconsumerism In Japan, Intensifying Its Effect
Consumption of kawaii expanded during the 1970s and 1980s, as companies produced more and more cute products and people purchased them. Idol Seiko Matsuda also helped the trend as she became famous for her innocence and purity. While many women copied Matsuda's cute style, others went further by wearing childish clothing in pastel colors, adopting baby talk, and collecting cute toys and stationary products. Marketing of kawaii products evolved past stationary products and cute characters, soon appearing on towels, toiletries, lunch boxes, and in plush form. It was no longer only adolescent girls purchasing these products, as adults and males also bought into the trend.
Due to the success of Hello Kitty and other characters, Sanrio became one of the leaders of the trend. After expanding to the US in the mid-1970s, Sanrio licensed Hello Kitty to McDonald's to use for Happy Meals and to credit card companies to print on their credit cards. Americans loved the character so much, UNICEF chose her as a US child ambassador. Sanrio continued creating cute characters that consumers loved, and in 1990 the company turned its massive brand into a theme park called Puroland. It appeared the political turbulence and industrial growth experienced after WWII throughout the 1960s gave way to rampant consumerism.
The Economic Crisis In The ‘90s Led Commercial Industries To Employ 'Kawaii' Culture As A Marketing Tool
The Japanese economy went through a crisis in the 1990s that affected not only companies making kawaii products but also the anime and idol industries. Banks declared bankruptcy after the value of Japanese yen decreased drastically, and Sanrio limited the kawaii merchandise it made available.
During the mid-1990s, however, people began to embrace kawaii once again despite the tough times. In an effort to soothe their troubles through nostalgia for simpler, less stressful times, families flocked to the recently opened Sanrio theme park, Puroland, and consumers gobbled up items featuring a droopy, floppy character named Tarepanda.
Other companies noticed this consumer trend and also brought back kawaii, both in their products and in their marketing. Tamagotchi and Pokemon allowed consumers to interact with kawaii characters and combined different media formats, including manga, games, and anime. Companies saw embracing kawaii as a way to attract consumers outside of Japan as well, effectively using cuteness to brand the entire country.