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.

Related Links:

Not Your Typical Magical Girl: The subculture of Grand Narrative Consumption.

Hiroki Azuma proposes that within postmodern otaku culture there is a lack of desire to consume the grand narrative, and instead otaku seek to consume a character database. However, there are several anime that can be pitted against his theory. One is called Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica, a magical girl anime that completely deconstructs the magical girl genre. Madoka Magica is one of the few anime with a grand narrative that have made it into mainstream anime consumption. Azuma’s theory is that there is a lack of a grand narrative in postmodern anime and I agree that the grand narrative is dissipating, however, what can’t be seen on the surface of otaku culture is that there is still a subculture of anime that focuses on a grand narrative.

Database Consumption

Azuma built this idea off of Otsuka Eiji’s theory of narrative consumption. He modernizes it by claiming that postmodern otaku culture has further digressed from the consumption of small narratives in the 1980’s to a different consumption behavior in the 1990’s that focuses more on the desire for a specific set of characteristics a character may have that otaku feel “moe” towards, and he calls this “database consumption” (Azuma 38). The database is a list of these characteristics that many otaku find appealing, and what they strive to consume. Instead of looking for a story with meaningful plot they look for the characteristics of a character that they find attractive. There are also other attractive “moe-elements” other than visually appealing characteristics that include the way a character speaks, “settings”, “stereotypical narrative development”, and the “specific curves” or body proportions of a figurine (42). An example of this could be a character that is typically seen as a klutz and dimwitted. Otaku search out anime that contain this particular character trope and endlessly consume it. Magical girl characters are a perfect example of this character consumption model. The magical girl genre stereotypically contains characters that are cute, heroic, and seek to bring justice to those that do wrong. They can also contain typical anime characteristics like cat ears, maid-like or school-like uniforms, and colorful unnatural hair colors.

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Not so typical Magical Girls

However, there is a popular magical girl anime that breaks down Azuma’s Theory of database consumption that is called Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica. It was written by Gen Urobuchi and directed by Akiyuki Shinbo, and is a series about Madoka Kaname, an eighth grader who decides to become a magical girl which is granted by a creature named Kyubey (MAL). Kyubey in turn grants them one wish, but in order for their wish to come true they must become a magical girl. Once they become a magical girl they receive a Soul Gem. These magical girls battle an opposing force called witches and this is supposed to represent a “good vs evil” framework. Throughout the anime we are confronted by dream-like and ‘cutesy’ imagery and also database representations of what a magical girl looks like, which is a magical girl fighting uniform and also unnatural hair colors. The main Character, Madoka, comes across as a naïve and hardworking junior high student who doesn’t have any hardships in her life but wants to selflessly help other people.

Initially Madoka Magica comes off as a generic Magical girl anime, but after the first few episodes the anime starts to take a darker more psychological turn. It completely “deconstructs” the magical girl genre and throws fans through a loop (Wu). After the death of one of the main characters there was an uproar within the fandom. Especially since the death came so “sudden and without warning” (Wu). The death threw the characters and fans into emotional turmoil and they started to discover the truth about what it meant to be a magical girl. By becoming a magical girl they are in a sense giving up their humanity, and this is shown in episode 6 when “Madoka threw away Sayaka Miki’s Soul Gem” (Wu). By doing this Madoka Magica uses a bait-and-switch style of marketing in which is presents the grand narrative to its viewers regardless of whether or not they were seeking it. They used the database as a camouflage and as a result, we are presented with a series that breaks away from the database as soon as it seduces its viewers.

YouTube Preview Image

Madoka Magica also contrasts with mainstream database consumption anime merely by the amount of episodes that it is composed of. Unlike other magical girl anime, Madoka Magica is a 12 episode anime. Most magical girl anime are compose of approximately 50 or more episodes in which there is a generic repeating story arc where the characters face a new evil and defeat it successfully. Story arcs can be repeated hundreds of times and contain many filler episodes that contain no plot and only a light-hearted interactions between the characters in the series. Sailor Moon is a perfect example of a popular magical girl anime that is based off of character consumption with a small narrative in contrast to Madoka Magica that contains a database framework but also a grand narrative. Sailor moon is a series that contains 46 episodes in the first series, and goes on to repeat the good vs evil fight in several different story arcs. Despite the small amount of episodes, Madoka Magica successfully produces a grand narrative that is resolved within the last episode and leaves you fully satisfied with the story line.

Even though Madoka Magica strayed from the path of a typical Magical girl anime it was very successful. The very moment the true nature of Madoka Magica was revealed during episode 3 “the popular forum 2ch achieved a record-breaking number of posts discussing the anime” (Wu). The unexpected inclusion of a grand narrative solidified the consumer’s emotional investment into the story line of an anime that started off in a very generic way. The success of the anime was further confirmed when “the first Blu-ray Disc volume sold more than 50,000 copies in the first week of sales” which broke “the original record held by Bakemonogatari” and was only “surpassed a month later by its own second volume”(Wu). Though reactions to the anime were polarizing at times. Some original fans of the Magical girl genre opposed the deconstruction of what it mean to be a magical girl and don’t consider it a true magical girl anime. Even so, based on the differing reactions the anime drew, the subculture of otaku that still crave the grand narrative were drawn to the concept of the anime. Some even consumed it entirely for the purpose of the grand narrative it was said to contain. This shows that the database consumption model can be used as an effective marketing tool to draw viewers into a grand narrative.

Discussion Questions:

  • Do you think that the grand narrative is something that is currently on the rise in comparison to the 1990’s?
  • What do you think of the concept of genre deconstruction?
  • Do you think disguising the grand narrative in the database as a way to shock viewers is a good or bad thing?


Azuma, Hiroki. “Chapter 2: Database Animals.” Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2009. 29-54. Print.

MAL. “Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica.” My Anime List. MyAnimeList, LLC. Web. 5 Apr. 2015. <>.

Wu, Justin. “The Madoka Legacy: A Brief Review of Puella Magi Madoka Magica.” The Artifice. N.p., 22 Sept. 2013. Web. 05 Apr. 2015. <>.

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Loose Socks as Molotov Cocktails: Finding the Rebellion in Japanese Teen Girl Subcultures

Within examinations of Japanese girls’ culture, there lies a wide gap between a perception of traditional subcultures as docile, meaningless cultural consumption based only on non-Internet sociality, that belies the truth. Japanese female-driven subcultures have long been portrayed as more old-fashioned, in-real-life groupings than concurrent male subcultures. This is changing as female otaku become a more pronounced population in online communities and fandoms.
Most popular preconceptions of Japanese subcultures, especially in the Western world, tend to focus on otaku, which roughly translates as geek or dweeb. While the connotations of the word “otaku” have drastically changed in the past few decades, from a term loaded with derision and accusation, to one of pride, a constant element of otaku culture is that it (at least in the minds of both Japanese and Westerners) is mainly comprised of males. Most likely, this stereotype was driven into the public consciousness by the Miyazaki child murders (the so-called “Otaku Murders”) and other otaku-perpetrated crimes, and remains prevalent due to headline-ready, majority-male sub-subcultures, like the shut-in hikikomori.
While the advent of the Internet allows for female enthusiasts to enter the world of otaku fandom with far greater visibility, female otaku are not a new phenomenon. Contrary to the popular image of otaku as male, the market for female-directed doujinshi has been in full force since the advent of Comiket in the 1970s. The rise of otaku, commonly considered to be the 1970s, is concurrent to the rise of shonen ai (boys’ love) stories in shojo (girls’) manga.  Today, the market for manga and anime made for female fans is easily comparable to the market for male fans, and female otaku are becoming a much more vocal part of online fan communities.
In contrast to this reality, many prevalent notions of female Japanese subcultures are often much more traditional notions of what a subculture should resemble. Unlike otaku, subcultures like loli and kogals are seen has participating in a face-to-face group, with tangible artifacts, largely independent of the internet. Frequently, these subcultures feature a strong fashion or visual component, where the participant must posses a certain aesthetic, and a devotion to that aesthetic in order to be considered genuine. Frequently, these groups are demonized either for their perceived sexuality (as with kogals, ogals, and loli), or conversely, for their lack of sexuality (as with the kawaii and kigurumin). Additionally, the necessity of in-real-life interactions within these groups has somewhat faded in recent years, as the Internet enables these groups to form and evolve without ever meeting in person. For a brief overview of these subcultures and their general aesthetics, please left click  on the slideshows above, and select “View Image.”
Among the many subcultures formed by Japanese girls in their post-Bubble society, three have captured international imagination: kawaii, kogal, and loli girls. A few other such groups enter into this discussion of female fandom, like the lesser-known ogals/ganguro/manba and kigurumin. The subcultures described above have existed in Japan in some form for at least the past two decades, and are part of an international image of young Japanese femininity. Among those groups whose flame extinguished more quickly are the ganguro/ogals/manba family of subcultures, and the kigurumin.
While these subcultures might seem disparate, they all follow a few traits common among female subcultures in Japan. All employ cute aesthetics, although what is defined as cute might drastically change over time. Each of these groups has been demonized by mainstream Japanese society as a sign of society’s decadence, and the inability of youth to affect social change. Further cultural stigma is assigned to the girls of these groups if they are seen as either extremely sexualized, like kogals, or as purposefully asexual, like the original kawaii, as the desexualized kigurumin, and the seemingly repellant ogals.
Furthermore, these subcultures are widely seen in mainstream culture as meaningless consumption of culture devoid of value. The decline of post-Bubble youth is marked by their apparent failure to oppose the mainstream, with such youth revolt defined by the student protests of the late 1960s. However, Sharon Kinsella successfully argues that this consciously passive consumption of culture whose meaning is not defined by the mainstream is its own successful form of rebellion. Kawaii works as a reactive subculture because it does not register as particularly rebellious. Because the mainstream definition of youth rebellion is explicitly active, the mainstream fails to see a youth in revolt when girls tan, party, and don’t shower to excess. In other words, these girls are not seen as rebellious even as they utterly reject societal definitions of youth, aging, beauty, and femininity.
And while Dick Hebdige’s seminal work on subcultures in limited in its specificity to 1970s British youth and other Western groups, it still applies quite aptly in its discussion of subculture as an act of resistance. Hebdige’s discussion of drugs as aspect of style distinction is a bit less relevant in Japan than it was in 1970s Britain, but his definitional style elements like clothing, music, dance, and make-up are particularly appropriate when one considers the manba’s para-para dancing, and kawaii idols’ presentation within their own community. His trajectory of a subculture, from marginalized resistance to commercialized mainstream, is easily visible, especially within the everything-kawaii aesthetic visible virtually anywhere in Japan today, and the prevalence of loli subcultures outside the context of Japan. The marketing of cute, which has occurred concurrent to the emergence of kawaii, marked beginning of the end for that same subculture, as the opening of the Moi-Meme-Moitie brand similarly doomed the edginess of goth loli style. Furthermore, Hebdige’s ideas on subculture as an expression of rebellion against the raw materials of culture dovetail cleanly with the theory, as expressed by Anne McKnight in her work on French influences in Japanese subculture, that Japanese subcultures are a reaction against the American post-WWII Occupation.
Viewing all subculture as a form of resistance seems to help explain the motives for creating, entering, and consuming these subcultures. However, a single pat answer can never fully explain the complex motives behind self-identification. Chalking up all subculture, especially in the non-Western world, to some kind of rebellion ignores and dismisses other potential motivators, like a positive sense of belonging, a desire for a feminine, feminist space, or even more obscure subcultural sources. While the loli groups are commonly referred to as Victoriana-fetishists, who idolize all that is European, it is entirely possible that the loli aesthetic can also be attributed to the Japanese styles worn in the Meiji period, which, while Westernized, were rarely fully Western. What’s more, Japanese notions of what constitutes a subculture are quite different from Western ones, and the air of deviance that accompanies most Western subcultures is not necessary in Japan. Kawaii has progressed so far down Hebdige’s subculture life-cycle that it is now mainstream in everything but name, and kawaii goods are everywhere. In fact, kawaii aesthetics and manga are two alleged subcultures where it is far more revolutionary not to partake of them. Clearly, examinations of Japanese subcultures must be made even more specialized in order to analyze these subcultures within their own cultural context.
In Japan’s post-Bubble culture, young women and girls have frequently been pushed away from developing subcultures like otaku and its attendant online communities, while being pushed into subcultures which, through their non-Internet presence, tangible artifacts, and familiar set of distinct style elements, represent a more traditional model of subculture within Japan. Ironically, in maintaining seemingly harmless, meaningless subcultures built on cute aesthetics and seemingly meaningless style elements, young Japanese women are able to transgressively resist a mainstream culture that continues to work as a patriarchy, even as the wreck of the Bubble economy leaves other pillars of Japanese culture toppled.

Discussion Questions
1. Where do you think female otaku fandom and female subcultures might be headed in the future?
2. While not discussed here, how do you think Azuma’s database model might apply to female otaku? How might the system apply to non-otaku female subcultures?
3. How might female fandoms and female subcultures intersect?
How do you feel about the combined (Kinsella, Hebdige, etc.) idea of Japanese subculture as resistance, especially to the Occupation? How might resistance to the Occupation fit in here?


  • Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku, Japan’s Database Animals. Minneapolis, MN: University Of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.
  • Galbraith, Patrick W. “Akihabara: Conditioning a Public “Otaku” Image.” Mechademia. 5. (2010): 210-230. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <>.
  • Hebdige, D. Subculture, the meaning of style. Padstow, Cornwall: Methuen and Co. Ltd, 1979. Print.
  • Kinsella, Sharon. “Cuties In Japan.” In Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan. Lise Skov and Brian Moeran. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995. 220-254. Print.
  • Macias, P., I. Evers, and K. Nonaka. Japanese schoolgirl inferno, tokyo teen fashion subculture handbook. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books Llc, 2007. Print.
  • McKnight, Anne. “Frenchness and Transformation in Japanese Subculture, 1972–2004.” Mechademia. 5. (2010): 118-137. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. < >.
  • Toku, Masami. “Shojo Manga! Girls’ Comics! A Mirror of Girls’ Dreams.” Mechademia. 2. (2007): 19-32 . Web. 11 Nov. 2012. < >.
  • Winge , Theresa. “Undressing and Dressing Loli: A Search for the Identity of the Japanese Lolita .” Mechademia. 3. (2008): 47-63. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <>.


Blood-Spattered Innocents: The Cachet of the ‘Grotesque Cute’

by Gregory Ranzini

Uh, ouch?

Introduction: Attack of the Cake-Demon

At 11:56, on January 20, 2011, the popular Western imageboard 4chan’s (link not safe for work/life/anything) anime and manga board, /a/, was watching live Japanese TV. This was not, in itself, unusual- although not as (in)famous as its sister board /b/, /a/ too boasts a very active community of Internet addicts more than willing to while away a few hours in the middle of the day (or night) with scabrous chatter and streaming video. Nor was their choice of show particularly surprising: Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica,, a mahou shoujo (‘magical girl’) program from the reliably competent SHAFT Animation that had been getting muted, but positive, buzz. It was not shaping up to be overly original, of course, but that was beside the point. Madoka was being marketed as a genre piece; therefore, as with many such codified forms, its appeal was one of familiarity: an ‘ordinary’ middle-school girl is offered supernatural powers, accessed through a talismanic gem and associated with a change in costume, that she might fight for her ideals and to protect others. [Read more…]

Hello Couture Kitty! Sanrio Kawaii as “Re-juvenilization”

Based in Tokyo, Japan, the Sanrio Corporation was founded by Shintaro Tsuji as the Yamanashi Silk Company in 1960, intended to produce a line of character merchandise and stationary appropriate for Japanese gift-giving occasions. In 1973 the company was officially established under the name “Sanrio,” which combines the Japanese word “San” (meaning three) and the Spanish word “Rio” (meaning river). By 1990, Sanrio was the largest greeting card company in Japan, with a cat named Hello Kitty as its most popular character. Currently, Hello Kitty represents roughly 5,000 of the 15,000 Sanrio products available, and she accounts for over half of Sanrio’s annual sales, which reached approximately $1.2 billion dollars (¥139 billion) in the year 2000 alone. Despite the fact that Hello Kitty has helped Sanrio gain worldwide notoriety, more than 90 percent of the company’s sales are generated in Japan, where Sanrio owns a restaurant chain, movie theaters and a production company, a television and video game series, book and magazine publications, two amusement parks, and a franchises a chain of more than 2,500 retail stores. [Read more…]

Mukoku- Kitty: The Postmodern Cat

Hello Kitty Airplane-704368

Hello Kitty is one of the most recognizable characters of Japanese cool.  Created in 1974, Kitty-chan merchandise has been marketed worldwide to children and adults alike, and she was recently named the Ambassador of Tourism for Japan.  So what is so special about this kitty?  What exactly are Americans consuming when we take part in the Kitty Boom?  Are we buying Japan, or is it just cute? [Read more…]