Consumerist Society and the Birth of “Kawaii” Culture – The “Kawaii 2.0 Theory” Vol. 4

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Consumerist Society and the Birth of “Kawaii” Culture – The “Kawaii 2.0 Theory” Vol. 4

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Finally, we’ve arrived at the moment where we can begin writing about the moment when “kawaii” culture began. Even though the concept of “girls” existed between the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, “kawaii” culture did not. But from the second half of the 20th century, “kawaii” culture made its explosive arrival. This happened during the span of Japan’s consumerist society.

We know that Japan’s consumerist society occurred from the 1970s until the end of the 1980s, and was a society made up of people that had begun to consume information and goods related to various products. The value these goods were not measured by their usefulness, but from the brand image they represented and their desirability. So while owning a GUCCI bag would be significant, owning a similar bag without the GUCCI name would not. Though this consumerist society began in he 1970s, it is still influential today.

This was around the time when fast food chains like McDonald’s, Mister Donut, and Baskin Robbins and convenience stores started out in Japan. That is, they combined the values of the general public, creating an optimal environment where consumption according to these values was quick and enjoyable. Thus, the flower of “kawaii” culture blossomed during this time.

The introduction of so-called fashion and information magazines in succession served as the foundation. The magazines an・an, non・no, and Pia were launched in 1970, 1971, and 1972, respectively. Next time we’ll get into fashion magazine and consumerist society’s involvement with “kawaii” culture, but for now please keep in mind that media that influenced “kawaii” culture was created during this consumerist society period.


So let’s take a closer look at how exactly the bond between consumerist culture and “kawaii” culture came about. First of all, in 1973, a company called the Yamanashi Silk Center renamed itself to Sanrio. I don’t think Sanrio, and subsequently the “Sanrio Miracle” behind the creation of characters one after another like Hello Kitty and My Melody, requires any explanation. At the same time Sony Creative Prodcuts and Gakken, referred to as “fancy businesses”, began to expand their business with “kawaii” character goods, jumpstarting a huge boom.


Additionally, the Rika-chan doll, a dress-up doll similar to America’s Barbie, but marketed to Japanese consumers, began to exceed the sales of the Barbie line around 1970. Eiji Otsuka, the same critic we also quoted before, captured this era by saying, “This is when it became possible to sell products based on the symbolic value of their cuteness (‘kawaii’), rather than the value of their usefulness,” making an important point that here things were not created for the sake of creation itself, but created to add in the element of cuteness. In short, “kawaii” culture was born within the consumerist society, with the word “kawaii” just one of many symbols that evoked a sense of desirability among the public, which then led to it becoming a specific item trend.


Additionally, two things were born from the “kawaii” culture created within consumerist society. The first was “non-standard girlish script”, a cute lettering style that became popular among girls. According to the non-fiction writer Kazuma Yamane, this typeface was introduced in 1974, and was heavily adopted by high school girls all across Japan five years later. Yamane says girls imitating fonts used by fashion magazine an・an was a factor behind this, as was the spread of the mechanical pencil, causing the traditional style to take on a roundness to it. There are many who object to Yamane’s theories, but in any case, “kawaii” culture began to encroach upon girls’ culture, and had a significant impact on girls’ handwriting.


The other was a change in girls’ manga magazines. As Eiji Otsuka continued to study girls’ manga magazines, he noticed that around the 1970s there was a change in the freebies that came with these magazines. Until then photos, posters, and the like of male idols had been bundled inside of them, but in 1975 this changed to pouches and cases with “kawaii” characters from girls’ manga printed on them. Those made with paper served little used in everyday life, as they would soon fall out while carrying them. Thus they had little value as useful items, and instead were valued for the “kawaii” character symbols they displayed. However these items were popular with girls. Otsuka captured the phenomenon with his analysis, “The poor useful qualities of Mutsu A-ko’s (a mangaka) characters = nothing more than the establishment of Ribon’s (a girl’s manga magazine) freebies as “fancy goods” in order to meet the desires of girls overcome with the idea of “kawaii” symbolism,” and he was spot on.



So as we see here, consumer society created “kawaii” culture. Following this, “kawaii” culture had a dramatic effect on girl’s culture. This would become a major event that changed women’s everyday perspectives. In order to give more attention to this topic, next time I’d like to delve into the “kawaii” culture involvement of girls’ fashion magazines such as Olive and an・an.

Translated by Jamie Koide

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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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