Living in the Land of かわいい

Surprisingly, I’ve almost never made mention of the “cuteness” of Japanese society in the ten months that I’ve had this blog. One of the first words that a foreigner almost always learns to describe Japanese culture is かわいい (kawaii). It means “cute,” and it’s a word that I hear almost every day, whether it’s my students describing the charms dangling from my cell phone or I say it myself when greeted with an adorable drawing that accompanies an essay homework.

(I also learned pretty quickly that when you’re first learning Japanese, かわいい and 怖い [kowai] can sound pretty similar. One means ‘cute’…one means ‘frightening.’ I’m pretty sure I told more than one student that I thought their Pikachu-adorned pencil case was scary.)

This was one of the first drawings I got when I started teaching. It still makes me smile.
This was one of the first drawings I got when I started teaching. It still makes me smile.

Japan even has a term for something so ugly that it’s cute: キモかわいい (kimo-kawaii). Why this term has not caught on in the rest of the world still baffles me, especially when so much of the Internet is dedicated to pugs and their antics.

Whatever the scenario, the essence of かわいい abounds. This is, after all, the country of Pokémon and Hello Kitty. Every prefecture has their own mascot, and most of them are pudgy, huggable, and so cute that you’ll want to take them home with you. Ridiculously cute emoji are a part of life. Who knew, that if you lined up some random symbols in just the right order that you’d get a smile that you can’t help but chuckle at? Suddenly the basic “:)” just doesn’t cut it anymore. \(^o^)/

Basically, the Japanese mentality is “If it’s got a face, it best be chubby, the cheeks best by rosy, and the mouth best be smiling.” And if it doesn’t have a face? …it still better be cuter than a Golden Retriever puppy. That extends to basically every single thing possible. There are no boundaries. I can buy bananas adorned with Hello Kitty’s face in my local supermarket. Last weekend, I had to buy contact solution. In America, you basically cannot get packaging more boring than that. Not in Japan, though.

Anthropomorphize all the things! Even contact cases and lens solution bottles.
Anthropomorphize all the things! Even contact lens solution bottles.

And when it comes to snacks, it’s the rare children’s treat that isn’t かわいい. My favorite are コアラのマーチ (Koala no Marchi), and naturally they’re cute enough to make Teddy Grahams look pathetic by comparison. (And they’re filled with a delicious crème; strawberry, pumpkin, white chocolate, hazelnut, and chocolate are just a few choices.)

A few weeks ago, a co-worker returned from a trip to Tokyo, and she’d brought back the requisite edible souvenirs for the office. Tokyo Bananas are a fairly famous おみやげ from the city…but since they’re not exactly “cute” in their standard form, giraffe spots up the ante.

Everything must be かわいい.
Everything must be かわいい.

My favorite recent encounter of the かわいい culture occurred a few weeks ago when I bought a nice, new, huge 鍋 (nabe, hotpot) dish from my local home store. A handy recipe book was included with the pot, and most of the suggested dishes were pretty standard. Except for one, which took the cuteness factor to a whole new level.

Dinner: heavy on the veggies, extra heavy on the "cute."
Dinner: heavy on the veggies, extra heavy on the “cute.”

I don’t know what parent has the time to make little chicks and piglets (complete with tiny faces) for their kid’s nabe, but hats off to them. For me, I’ll just stick with my adorable little koala cookies.

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