Why is kawaii so popular in the West?

Angela Chen wrote about the popularity of cute culture from Japan, known affectionately as “kawaii”. The main focus of the article was Hello Kitty, with its global popularity a source of contention from some who thought it “infantilized” the country:

The widespread Japanese embrace of cute has always been self-aware and political, according to Yano. Icons like Hello Kitty were always intended to be global and the Sanrio’s founder even said that it was meant to be “the Japanese cat that overtook the American mouse.” The attitude toward kawaii has, of course, at times been mixed. Op-eds and critics have suggested that it infantilizes the country, calling Hello Kitty a potential embarrassment abroad, linking Japan too closely to kitsch.

The aggressive development of this aesthetic was not fully organic, but in fact developed with a “global wink,” as part of Japan’s plan to build cultural cachet overseas. Being associated with coolness and youth, especially globally, brings a lot of power—just ask any of the social-media sites desperate not to lose their teen users.

The fact that Japan has a cartoon culture ambassador (hi, Doraemon!) is cool to me. It’s not for everyone as many people see cultural icons such as Hello Kitty and Pokémon as “stuff for kids” but these phenomena have bypassed generational boundaries. Have the Looney Tunes made the USA look childish (it’d probably have to get in a long proverbial queue if it did)? Is Peppa Pig an embarrassment to the UK (same sentiment as before applies)? These cultural moves from Japan may be laced with capitalist ideals but they’re no worse than any other Western country doing the same. Keep it cute and keep it moving.

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