From our small digital screens into the real world, kawaii is bringing a whole new level of cuteness.
Despite its lack of physical borders, internet culture varies around the world. So much so that pop culture icons may be hugely popular in one country or region may be virtually unheard of in another. Such is the case with Kawaii culture, the brand of Japanese “cuteness” (think Hello Kitty, tamagotchi, Kumamon etc) that has invaded much of the Asian continent and has, over time, been linked with internet culture.
What in the World is Kawaii?
Kawaii can be translated simply as “cute,” but as one expert points out, “the word has broad, multi layered meanings, encompassing a range of sweetly alluring images and behaviors.” Other words associated with the phenomenon include “sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine, gentle, vulnerable, weak and inexperienced.” Its popularity in Asia is big business. In 2015 alone, “Kumamon earned $1 billion in 2015, Hello Kitty four or five times that.” This proves that considering this a only as a niche trend would be a vast understatement.
The culture of kawaii predated internet times and is said to have “sprung out from a trend in cute handwriting, but that childlike cuteness became the dominant pop culture and fashion aesthetic of the period.” However, since web access has become increasingly commonplace, it has certainly proliferated online in the form of memes, videos, and games. In fact, the digital space is the perfect place for kawaii culture to flourish, as there is no limit to the cuteness that users can inflect into their habits and communication as it doesn’t require a large bedroom to store stuffed animals and untold numbers of objects.
However, though kawaii’s place in internet culture is quite deeply-embedded by now, but it has more or less stayed geographically in the Asian region, with the most devoted hotbed of Kawaii enthusiasm in Japan. Slowly but surely though we’re seeing interest in this grow in the west, proving that internet culture can sometimes transcend borders.
One of the main ways kawaii culture seems to be spreading is via stickers—digital stickers, that is. Since the likes of Snapchat and Instagram made it commonplace for adults to adorn photos and social media posts with cutesy creatures and stickers, western internet users have seemingly grown an appetite for the cute. As Mashable pointed out, “The release of iOS 10 brought a significant upgrade to the Messages app formerly known as iMessage: stickers. Seen in a host of other apps popular in Asia, such as WeChat and Line, stickers allow you to pop large graphics into your messages — kind of like souped-up emoji.” It’s not just iMessage that offers these kawaii-themed stickers. Numerous other apps available to western smartphone users include Cat Quest, Zen Koi, and Zap Zap Math, all created by Asia-based developers. Perhaps because these stickers are digital, we don’t feel shy or embarrassed about using them as adults in the same way we might if they were real objects.
Real World Adaptation
In Asia the popularity of stickers on WeChat and Line has crossed over from the smartphone to real life, as Line shops can be found in Japan selling physical versions of the stickers on the app. As one reporter described: “For ¥200 ($1.66) you can buy a pad of sticky notes in the shape of that bear, who’s known simply as Brown. If you spend ¥390,000 ($3,238), you can take home a Swarovski crystal-encrusted version of Cony, the rabbit. The checkout queue snakes all the way down the stairs to the far corner of the lower level.” This cross over from analog to digital and back again is something that we could see in the west as the taste for kawaii cuteness spreads from our smartphones into real life.
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