Aesthetic Exploration: Kawaii

While the word “kawaii” in Japanese means “cute,” its meaning transformed from simply describing something that was lovable to a specific aesthetic that is prevalent in many forms in popular culture today. It was an aesthetic I was obsessed with growing up and it was reflected in a lot of my artwork, but I wanted to explore its origins and how it has evolved or developed branch-offs into more niche styles.

The aesthetic originated from a handwriting style, called “maru-moji”, that emerged during the Taisho Era (1912-1926) in Japan [1]. The script was characterized by its rounded edges that resembled the handwriting of children, which was a big contrast to the traditionally sharp and rigid Japanese lettering. While it became banned in schools for being improper, the style came to be associated with femininity and cuteness. 

[1] The image shows examples of maru-moji lettering, in which the rounded and bubbly style of the handwriting can be seen.

The revival of the “kawaii” aesthetic took shape during 1960, when students protested the authority of the rigid academic system by refusing to attend lectures to instead read manga, also known as Japanese comics. More specifically, kawaii was prevalent in “shojo”, or manga targeted towards a young girl audience, because they depicted female characters with cute and soft features [2]. At the same time, Japan was becoming more modernized and the economy was growing after the second World War, which resulted in more disposable income that went towards consumer culture [3]. This is when the popular Sanrio character Hello Kitty was introduced in 1974, and became an global icon for many consumer products and imagery. The company started off by printing the cute images of Hello Kitty on stationary, which gave personality to ordinary school supplies and appealed to young schoolgirls [10]. However, the target market today includes even adult women, as the innocent and sweet “kawaii” images of Hello Kitty on many goods is a way women can hold onto a nostalgic piece of their childhood. 

[4] Popular shojo manga written and drawn in 1960s by Machiko Satonaka called “Pia no Shouzou”
[5] An official product picture on the Sanrio website advertising a calculator designed with distinct Hello Kitty features. The “kawaii” aspects can be seen with the simple but cute Hello Kitty figure at the top and the simple but iconic kitty-shaped buttons.

While “kawaii” is associated with “cuteness,” the specific aesthetic is associated with the following common themes. Characters are baby-like, with a large head, small body, protruding forehead, large eyes, and chubby cheeks [1]. These characteristics are meant to elicit the same affectionate and nurturing feelings one feels towards a child, which is vulnerable. However, the aesthetic can also be applied to anthropomorphic images, such as putting dainty eyes and mouths on foods or objects to make them “kawaii.” Furthermore, the limited to no expressions on the character’s face leaves room for the viewer’s interpretation and for the viewer to project themselves onto that character. Nowadays, common kawaii characters can be taken from Japanese children’s storybooks, animes (Japanese animations), or by simply putting a dainty, cute face on any object/creature. 

[6] My favorite “kawaii” character is Sanrio’s Gudetama, who’s name is literally “lazy egg.” His minimal but nonchalant expressions are a playful and cute take on the relatable feelings of being overwhelmed with everyday stress and the desire of wanting to give up and be lazy.

The motivations of “kawaii” culture have split opinions in today’s culture. On one hand, “kawaii” is seen as a form of escapism from the strict work culture of Japan and a way to express oneself through implementing it in one’s art, fashion, and lifestyle [3]. On the other hand, it raises concern for the infantilization of women by perpetuating the stereotype that women should act “cute” and “lovely” while also encouraging excessive consumerism and superficiality [1]. 

Other artists have taken inspiration from the aesthetic and created off-shoot styles, such as “guro-kawaii” (grotesque but cute), “kimo-kawaii” (creepy but cute), and “buso-kawaii” (ugly but cute). A more distinct and niche aesthetic from “kawaii” also emerged thanks to artists like Takahshi Murakami, for his “Superflat Art Movement” characterized by its bright colors and bold outlines, and Yoshiomo Nara for his cute yet sinister depictions of children and animals [2]. With the vast interpretations and inspirations of the “kawaii” aesthetic, the meaning and message of “kawaii” art continues to shift and evolve even today.

[7] Character called Kobito Dukan created by artist Toshitaka Nabata for his children’s book that is representative of the “kimo-kawaii” aesthetic.
[8] One of Yoshitomo Nara’s work depicting a child holding a knife, a juxtaposition between the innocence and violence.

[9] A work of Takashi Murakami featuring his iconic smiling flowers.


[1] Jain, Himanshu. “Kawaii Culture: The Power of Cuteness.” EJable, 29 Dec 2023.,traditional%2C%20rigid%20Japanese%20writing%20styles

[2] Cole, Margherita. Taggart, Emma. “What is Kawaii? Discover What Led to Japan’s Culture of Cuteness.” My Modern Met, 1 Jan 2022. 

[3] Meyer, Isabella. “What is Kawaii? Understanding Japan Cute Culture.” Art in Context, 7 Sept 2013.  

[4] Satonaka, Machika. “Pia no Shouzou.” 

[5] “Hello Kitty Classic Calculator.” Sanrio,

[6] “Gudetama.” Sanrio,

[7] “Kimokawaii: Both Cute and Gross at the Same Time.” Tofugo. 

[8] Nara, Yoshitomo.  “Nobody’s Fool” Asia Society. 

[9] Murakami, Takashi. “School Entrance Ceremony.” Hang Up, 

[10] Walker, Esther. “Top cat: how Hello Kitty conquered the world.” Independent,

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • Nice post! Sanrio characters are definitely cute and it is interesting to see the world outside of Sanrio. Learning about the origins of the aesthetic was definitely informative. One thing that I was wondering about: Are there other recent characters other than Sanrio? I would be interesting to see more in that area. Overall, very nice!

    • While Sanrio was definitely the source of the “kawaii” aesthetic gaining popularity globally, there has definitely been new characters introduced. However, the aesthetic of “kawaii” is quite broad, and it has been adopted in many forms such as in children’s books, animes, and even a lot of goods with prints involving objects/animals big eyes and cute expressions. Sanrio still dominates in terms of “recognizable” kawaii characters.

  • Great job on your post! I love when people take inanimate objects and turn them into cute little characters and now I know that is a part of the kawaii aesthetic. Seeing that Gudetama character makes me really happy so thanks for sharing that! You briefly mention the origins of Hello Kitty and I would be interested to know more about that. I remember Hello Kitty having some popularity when I was a kid and I bet that has a lot to do with the appealing nature of the Kawaii aesthetic.

    • So glad you enjoyed the post! Apologies for not including more detailed about why Hello Kitty was so effective, but it mainly had to so with the character being printed on children’s stationary (ie. notepads and journals) that gave the plain items more personality. It became a form of expression that carried on into adulthood, and now, girls and women enjoy Hello Kitty branded items as a fun way to express themselves and to also hold onto the nostalgia of childhood.


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