What is the Exact Origin of “Kawaii”? –The “Kawaii 2.0” Theory Vol.2

「かわいい」の起源はどこだ!?——「かわいい 2.0」論(2)
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What is the Exact Origin of “Kawaii”?  –The “Kawaii 2.0” Theory Vol.2

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Where did “kawaii” originate from?
During the last piece I wrote about the need to update the concept of “kawaii”, and began to sketch out a simple model. But this rough model isn’t enough to zero in on its exact nature. In order to explore what “kawaii” is, we have to find out about its past, or in other words, its origin. So where exactly did “kawaii” come from?

In critic Inuhiko Yomota’s “Kawaii Theory”, which we previous cited, the origin of the word “cute” was analyzed in detail. According to Yomota, more than 1,000 years ago, the words “kawayushi” and “kaohayushi” were used. “Kawayushi” means “so pitiable one can’t stand it”. “Kaohayushi” is used similarly, to describe when “your face feels hot from embarrassment” or “when you feel guilty and your face turns red”. In either case, these words are associated with a negative image, and in no way the same as the present word “kawaii” to describe something small or childish.

Yomota pointed out that the word “utsukushi”, similar to the meaning of “kawaii” as we know it today, was used during the Heian Period (794 – 1185). To illustrate this, here’s a passage from The Pillow Book (Makura no Soshi), typically used an example of this era, and Japan’s most famous classical literature essay.

*Adorable Things. (Utsukushiki mono)
The face of a child drawn on a melon.
A baby sparrow that comes hopping up when one imitates the squeak of a mouse; or again, when one has tied it with a thread round its leg and its parents brings insects or worms and pop them in its mouth – delightful!
A baby of two or so is crawling rapidly along the ground. With his sharp eyes he catches sight of a tiny object and, picking it up with his pretty little fingers, takes it to show to a grown-up person.
A child, whose hair has been cut like a nun’s, is examining something; the hair falls over his eyes, but instead of brushing it away he holds his head to the side.
(Quoted from The pillow book of Sei Shonagon / translated and edited by Ivan Morris. )
*The author thinks the word “Utsukushiki” should have been translated into Pretty or Cute, not Adorable.

Here Sei Shonagon, the author, when she writes “the small face of a child drawn on a melon” and “a baby sparrow that comes hopping up when one imitates a mouse squeaking”, or “a baby around two years of age, finding a tiny object and picking it up with his small fingers and showing it to a grown-up” and “a child with a bowl cut, who holds his head sideways instead of brushing the bangs in his eyes away”, is referring to things that are “cute/adorable”, or “kawaii”.

The use of the word “utsukushi” in The Pillow Book is almost the same as the way “kawaii” is used today. In other words, it was used to describe things that were small, young, or immature. In this sense, I agree with Inuhiko Yomota that this is where “kawaii” originated.

However, it made me wonder if The Pillow Book was the first form of literature to use the word “utsukushi” to mean “kawaii”. And actually, it wasn’t. It first appeared in Japan’s oldest tale, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”(Taketori Monogatari). In this story, which is part of the legend of Princess Kaguya, and begins with a cute girl of about nine centimeters appearing out of some bamboo that an old man was cutting one day. I recommend looking up the story somewhere like Wikipedia, where the girl in the story is described as being “ito utsukushi”, or “very cute”. This was the original model for “kawaii”, and following this model all the way up until the present, you could say it affirms the origin for the unique Japanese appreciation for small and immature things.

"Kaguya Hime" film 2013, animated and produced by Studio Ghibli

“Kaguya Hime” film 2013, animated and produced by Studio Ghibli

So what can we learn from this? We can now see that Princess Kaguya, the nine-centimeter girl from Japan’s oldest tale, Pokemon and Hello Kitty, and various other anime characters, are all characters born from this sense of appreciation, and are of the same lineage. And at some point miniaturized, unrealistic things began to be referred to as “kawaii”, instead of realistic, life-size things. This is represented by a deeply rooted sense of appreciation of the ancient Japanese spirit.


Hello Kitty

Pokemon (Pikachu)

Pokemon (Pikachu)

At the origin of the phenomenon of small and immature things miniaturized, referred to as “kawaii”, and spread as global content, and the origin of the phenomenon of creating “kawaii” characters, is Princess Kaguya. In this series exploring the exact nature of “kawaii”, this is very important and something we’ll be revisiting several times. Princess Kaguya, who was described as “very cute”, was the first of the first generation of characters representing “kawaii” culture.

On another note, the word “utsukushi” transformed into the word “utsukushii”, which means “beautiful” in English, and has became the term used to praise life-size, realistic things for their prettiness. At the same time, the positive concept of “kawaii” completely separated itself from the word “utsukushi”, absorbing the previously associated negative “so pitiable one can’t stand it” connotation of “kaohayushi” and “kawayushi”, and wiping out its negative image. Inuhiko Yomota notes that this change became visible roughly around the Muromachi Period (1336 – 1573), and at that time, a paradigm shift occurred where things previously viewed in a negative light were seen in reverse.

And gradually from there the word “kawaii”, which was first seen as a weakness, or what we might feel sympathy for, began to take on positive strength. Then in the 20 century, the word “kawaii” became strongly linked with subculture in particular, and which was the basis for the “kawaii” phenomenon. However, at the same time, as modern times approached, the word took on a different negative nuance. In the next edition of this series, I’d like to explore the word “kawaii” as one that dominated men and women in the 20th century, and how it developed that way.


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Writer, Book Reviewer. Having the degree of MA. (Japanese Literature) I love Japanese Girl's Popular Music, such as YUKI, Chara, Makoto Kawamoto, and Seiko Oomori.

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