What is Kawaii and why is it important in design?


What is Kawaii?

Kawaii has become a new English word!

“Kawaii” is a well-known Japanese word for younger generations that is often used in art, fashion and music as well as used in daily life.

Reflecting growing numbers of people who use Kawaii in the world, Collins English dictionary added “Kawaii” as one of the new vocabulary to the dictionary (BBC 2017).

Let see what the dictionary says.

Japanese artistic and cultural style that emphasises the quality of cuteness, using bright colours and characters with a childlike appearance.

(Harper Collins, 2016)

It seems Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, a kawaii J-pop singer who wears bright coloured costume and has a childlike character is perfect match to their definition of kawaii.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – PONPONPON ©Warner Music Japan

Ok, Kyary’s character, costume and songs are all kawaii. I think the definition for kawaii is not too bad as a western’s “new vocabulary” but as a Japanese I have an objection. I must say it doesn’t fully explain the meaning of the word.

So, what does it mean then?

kawaii late art
Credit: @HYPERJAPANevent

Kawaii is an adjective that can be translated into cute, adorable and lovable in English. The things that are kawaii also consist of “undertones of a certain innocence (Cross Media Co, 2017)” that can make people to be relaxed and happy and can release the stress because it is harmless: this is why kawaii things, kawaii people and even a moment of kawaii are so popular.

However, the things that can make people to be relaxed and happy are depending on their taste, and it is therefore, “kawaii can be used to represent pretty much everything that is acceptable and desirable in Japan (Cross Media Co, 2017).”

To sum up, although a lot of kawaii things involve bright colours, that is not a crucial point to call it kawaii.
Kawaii is anything that you think is cute, adorable and lovable, and it can make you relaxed and happy because it is innocent and harmless to you.

The power of kawaii designs

Stimulating economic growth

Kawaii Shop in Portsmouth
Credit: Tofu Cute, 2016

While kawaii is cute and innocent that seems harmless, it has power over people; it encourages people to consume kawaii products.

For example, the world famous kawaii character Hello Kitty brand has been valued at $7 billion a year (BBC 2014), while Nintendo’s Pokémon Go has become the most downloaded game in smartphone history (Steele, 2016).

These examples illustrate how much people love kawaii stuff and show their willingness of owning it.

Promoting tourism

Credit: ©2010 kumamoto pref. kumamon

47 governmental offices of Japanese prefectures have its own kawaii mascot characters. These mascots, known as yuru-chara- another word of kawaii characters, represent each prefectures’ characteristic, culture and history, and are used to promote tourism (Wikipedia, 2016).

Kawaii hero Carebot

Care Robot RIBA
Credit: © 2015 Vox Media, Inc.

The impact of kawaii power doesn’t stop just for economic growth but a field of elderly care too.

RIBA, a white kawaii carebot bear, was developed to support elderlies. Dr Mukai said RIBA’s kawaii appearance is very important to gain trust from patients. Having a cute and friendly appearance for RIBA can ease the patients’ tensions and creates friendly atmosphere as a result. It works especially for those elderly people who tend to dislike mechanical looks (Byford, 2015).

Why is it important in design?

Kawaii Products
Credit: Screenshot on Pinterest

Kawaii designs can be seen everywhere; clothes, stationery, kitchen applicants, food packages or food itself, websites, apps and so on.

But why is kawaii so important in design? Because kawaii design has positive impact on people’s emotions and behaviour; they can have relaxing and happy feelings by using kawaii stuff or just having them around. Moreover, kawaii designs are hugely popular; it can help drawing more attentions to the products, services or anything as a maker’s desire.


BBC (2014) Hello kitty at 40: The cat that conquered the world.
Byford, S. (2015) This cuddly Japanese robot bear could be the future of elderly care.
Cross Media Co (2017) HYPER JAPAN: The UK’s biggest j-culture event.
Harper Collins Publishers (2016) ‘Definition of kawaii’, in Collins English Dictionary
Hello kitty stuff (2014)
HYPER JAPAN (2010) HYPER JAPAN on Twitter.
Steele, D. (2016) Pokemon GO game is the most popular mobile launch in history.
Tofu Cute (2016)Twitter, 8 December
Warner Music Japan (2011)Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – PONPONPON.
Winkler, M. (2013) What exactly is this Japanese trend known as ‘Kawaii’ all about?
Yuru-chara (2016) in Wikipedia.

Posted by Aiko Ohakoda