“Kawaii desu ne!”
You can not escape going to Japan without hearing this phrase chanted en masse by children and grown ups alike- it literally translates as “How cute!” When I lived in Japan, it started to annoy me-the childlike cuteness of everything around me including high quality products aimed at adults. The eagerness to brand everything as cute (myself included on some occasions) was an affront to my false sense of maturity and felt to me like a lack of depth of sincerity and a clumsy way to describe things that deserved more variety of expression. Little did I appreciate that the Japanese don’t communicate the way I do with great verbal explanations and do actually have an immense appreciation of aesthetic beauty, but also how embedded in Japanese culture the concept of “kawaii” actually is.
At a recent Business Language Champion’s event, I gave a presentation to secondary students on the”kawaii” culture to help them come up with a suitable manga character to put on merchandise. Naturally, we looked at Hello Kitty, Pikachu and my favourite “kawaii” children’s character: Doraemon. However, I also realised how much the kawaii culture affects branding, marketing and consumer buying trends. I discovered immense amounts of adult Hello Kitty branded products (toilets, chainsaws and exhaust pipes included) and that Doraemon is being used in Taiwan as a promotional character for a Japanese global payment brand using this cute character on credit cards and other serious financial products. (He is now a special ambassador for the Olympic bid-see News page)
A recent tweet from “Tech in Asia” reports how kawaii “never goes out of style” and that its use has helped secure funding for a niche photoapp called Decoalbum, aimed at young women, that customises images with cute pictures of what seem to be love hearts, musical signs and doughnuts!. This builds on the “kawaii” trend that I well remember from 17 years ago of going into photo print booths with friends and printing out pictures of us adorned with lots of cute animals, love hearts, phrases etc. A Japanese friend recently told me there is fierce compulsion amongst mothers to make “kawaii” lunchboxes for their children for school with food made into faces and animal shapes, which did make me smile imagining my son’s reaction to that appearing in his lunch box.
Some psychologists have attributed the reasoning for the somewhat “childish” behaviour and tastes of Japanese adults to the amae element of the Japanese psyche-meaning to mother and be mothered. Most people who have spent a significant amount of time in Japan will also have seen the sinister side of this and I am not so sure how it impacts on the perception of women in society but that is a whole new discussion. Regardless of its origins, it is a very pervasive element of Japanese society and plays an important role in branding and marketing a product to Japanese consumers.
Read more about the kawaii culture and how it is being exported in News May