Cute: To Be or Not to Be…..That is the question.

By: Alice An


かわいい。귀여워. Cute.

There are so many different words that the world uses to describe the concept of cute.So what exactly does it mean? According to Sharon Kinsella, kawaii is a style in Japanese pop culture that essentially means childlike and “celebrates sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine, gentle vulnerable, weak, and inexperienced social behavior and physical appearances” (Kinsella 220). According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, cute is defined to be “ attractive or pretty especially in a childish, youthful, or delicate way” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). But what does cute actually look like in these countries?

Cute in Japan 

In Japan, cute embodies itself in many different forms- from handwriting and stuffed animals to mannerisms, clothing, and makeup. In 1974, a growing number of teenagers, especially women, began to write using a new extremely stylized set of rounded characters with English, katakana, and little cartoon pictures like hearts, faces, and stars. In 1971, Sanrio, said to be the Japanese equivalent of Hallmark Cards, started to produce cute designs on stationary and fancy diaries for students to write in everyday with their cute handwriting. In the creation of these fanshi guzzu (fancy goods), Sanrio started to produce different merchandise such as stationary, toiletries, lunch boxes, bags, towels, stuffed animals, and other paraphernalia.

During the first half of the 1980s, the most fashionable design house in Tokyo, Pink House Ltd., started to produce cute outfits that were designed to make the wearer appear childlike and prim. Cute clothes started out as “simple white, pink and pastel shades for women and more sort of bright and rainbow-colored for men…often fluffy and frilly with puffed sleeves and lots of ribbons” (Kinsella 229). As Kinsella mentions in her article concerning the concept of cute in Japan, the demanding model of cute fashion created a desire towards the consumption of goods that would be able to transform a person to look and feel like a child. Cute fashion originally started as one that idolized childhood and depicted “playfulness, individual emotional expression, and naiveté…. not consistent with traditional social values” (Kinsella 250). However, cute took many different forms throughout the world.



Cute in South Korea

In South Korea, there are even different versions of the word cute to apply to different situations to describe different attributes. For example, 귀여워(gwiyuhwuh), can be used broadly to describe a child that is cute, an animal, a stuffed animal or anything that has cute attributes such as big eyes, round features, and/ or child-like characteristics. 애교 (aegyo) is a term that is used when describing a bubbly personality one may have that very much resembles a child. Women who have more aegyo are seen to be more attractive by many Asian men and are perceived to have a more innocent and attractive look to them because of their mannerisms.  In addition, cute clothing has been made to appeal to mainstream culture and has become more acceptable in South Korea as well as many other Asian countries. The steady incorporation of bright color, ribbons, lace, and peter-pan collars are just a few characteristics of this gradual transition and acceptance of the cute style.

Effects of Cute Around the World 

Venus Angelic

Venus Angelic

The influence of the notion of cute in Asia has seen its effects all over the world. Although cute may have started off in the form of more material goods, the transition across transnational borders has had an interesting impact on the aesthetics of beauty and what it means to be cute. Venus Isabelle Palermo, a popular YouTube star, was born and raised in Brugg, Switzerland and later moved to Spain where she started to upload videos of herself made up to look like a living doll and teaching viewers how to achieve this look. The videos gained attention worldwide and her video, “How to look like a doll” went viral in March 2012. From circle lenses and whitening skin products to lacy dresses and bows, Venus taught her viewers how to not only look cute but act cute as well. In the eyes of Venus and her avid fans and viewers, looking and acting cute is beautiful.

Commodification of Cute

Cute-Korean-makeup-beauty-products-300x300The perception of beauty is commodified- through not only its consumers but also those consumers who choose to advertise items such as circle lenses, lace dresses, ribbons, and various makeup items such as whitening creams. Cute has not only embodied itself in merchandise such as stuffed animals and stationary but has also entered into a realm of affecting the aesthetics of beauty and what it means to be beautiful. The emergence of cute culture was seen as an escape from reality- an escape into “childhood memories; nostalgia has been a door to people’s collective past” (Kinsella 252). But what can this imply about its transition to an aesthetic of beauty? As more and more women started to use this childlike escape, the innocence, purity, and naiveté associated with cute characteristics started to become more and more attractive to not only these women but also to men as well.


According to a popular blog post on the notion of cute, the author describes beauty as requiring “willpower, mastery, and effort” but the simplified image of cute does not have these qualities. Instead of challenging these notions, the author notes the cute has the purpose of soothing. This author argues that Japan loves cute because with the culture based on humility, being cute and helpless is not boasting your authority but rather being able to be whatever you want to be without repercussions- without “hiding….acting as free as if you were a child.” Cute style, she argues is an “anti-social style, because it is a pre-social style”, because it reverts back to a time when it was okay to be socially awkward and carries the connotation of not carrying social responsibility.

Perhaps it is the idea that not carrying social responsibility in turn connotes a young and innocent mind that is not tainted by the negative vibes of society. Perhaps it is for this exact reason that the perception of thinking younger means looking younger and that has carried over transnational borders to become a measure of beauty.

Discussion Questions 

1. Do you think the definition of cute changes as it crosses transnational borders? Why or why not?

2. Do you think that the consumption of cute is seen primarily marked as Japanese? Or culturally odorless concept that could just be mass consumed by a wide audience?

3. Would you say that the notion of cute can also be reflected into Orientalist terms? That is to say, do you think that the Occident’s perception of cute is seen as “better” than the other? Why or why not?

4. Why do you think that the cute has become an aesthetic of beauty? Is it more of an attainable escapism from current reality, or a nostalgic turn toward the child-like innocent past, or just a fad?


“Beauty, and What It Means: Thoughts on a Word: Cute.” Beauty, and What It Means: Thoughts on a Word: Cute. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.

Kinsella, Sharon. “Cuties in Japan.” Women, Media and Consumption. Ed. Brian Moeran, Hawaii: Hawaii University Press, 1995. 220-254. Print.

“Fifteen Theses on the Cute.” CABINET //. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.

“How Cute Korean Girls Get What They Want – 애교 (egyo).” Seoulistic. N.p., 18 June 2012. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.

“On Being Cute in Japan.” This Japanese Life. N.p., 30 Nov. 2011. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.

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Alice An


My name is Alice An and I am currently a senior at the College of William and Mary and will be graduating in May 2015 majoring in International Relations with my language focus on Japanese. I transferred to William and Mary my junior year from New York University. I’m interested in the Japanese culture and language because both my grandfather and mother can speak Japanese as well as Korean. My grandfather worked as  a diplomat in Japan for a few years and my mother spent some of her childhood growing up in Japan so as a young child, I also grew up with Hello Kitty and yakisoba being made in our home. I’m excited to learn more about aspects of Japanese culture that I never knew about!