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Why Kawaii Culture Drives Japan to Devour Cuteness

Karen Yossman

There’s no better way to experience Japan's cuteness-driven kawaii culture than by literally consuming it.

Intermittent squeals of "kawaii!" reverberate around the café, which is located in a mall in Tokyo's Shibuya shopping district and packed with women aged between 15 and 35, each one clutching a camera in her hands while staring intently at her plate. It's already 4 PM, but a ticket machine outside is still dispensing timed entry receipts, instructing customers to return in two hours. Later, when they come back at the designated time, their ticket will merely allow them to join the seemingly permanent line that trims the exterior of the café, a pop-up that opened more than six weeks ago.

Miffy Cafe Latte

A Miffy Cafe latte.

Oh, I get it, you're probably thinking. It must be Michelin-starred. Or Zagat-rated. Or maybe someone once spotted Zayn dining there. But you'd be wrong on all counts. The reason these women (and occasional man) are prepared to spend hours waiting to eat at this outwardly unassuming cafe is because it's Miffy-themed, and all the food—burgers, cakes, even curry—is decorated to resemble the Dutch cartoon rabbit.

Miffy Cafe Curry

Miffy Cafe curry.

Such is the power of Japan's insatiable kawaii culture.

"Kawaii," which is pronounced kah-why-ee, is a ubiquitous word in the Japanese language. In fact, wandering around Tokyo's main shopping quarters, such as Shibuya or Harajuku, I hear it cooed so frequently by groups of high-pitched young women pouring over one adorable trinket or another that the word begins to take on a Smurf-like quality, as if it could mean anything. What "kawaii" actually means is "cute" or, by extension, "cool," but its etymology also has undertones of "helpless" and "pathetic," which is why it's so suited to describing baby-like characters with huge heads such as Hello Kitty.

PomPomPurin Latte

A PomPomPurin latte.
Sailor Moon Cafe Burger The Sailor Moon Cafe burger.

From the 1970s onward, kawaii developed in Japan as a subculture for young women via merchandise, media, and fashion, encouraged by companies like Sanrio, who own the rights to Hello Kitty and her numerous anthropomorphic friends. One of these is PomPomPurin, who is—and this is easily my favorite factoid ever—half dog and half custard pudding, according to one Japan-focused website. He also has his own themed café in Tokyo, where I ate yellow rice shaped like PomPomPurin's face and sipped a caramel latte with PomPomPurin-printed marshmallows.

While kawaii came to the West largely as a fashion trend through Harajuku-obsessed singers such as Gwen Stefani, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry, in Japan it has morphed into a permanent element of the country's postwar culture, where even banks have cute animal mascots while regular cafes still boast an anthropomorphic dessert or two, such as the dog and monkey éclairs I stumbled across at a coffee joint in Shibuya. Nor is this likely to change any time soon, given that Japanese Millennials, known locally as yutori sedai, or "the pressure-free generation," often live at home until they marry, which is increasingly well into their late twenties and thirties. This leaves them with plenty of disposable income to fritter away on clothes, cuddly animals, buttons, keyrings, collectibles, and other cute merchandise, all of it branded with characters such as Pokémon, Sailor Moon, and, of course, Hello Kitty.

Patisserie Swallowtail Cakes

Patisserie Swallowtail cakes.

Part of this almost pathological consumerism is driven by a dual desire to seek comfort in items associated with childhood while simultaneously playing at being an adult in the same way kids play "house," with the baby-like proportions of kawaii characters provoking a maternal urge, especially in light of Japan's declining birth rate. Companies such as Sanrio capitalize on these emotions by producing an ever-evolving range of merchandise featuring familiar childhood figures such as Hello Kitty. "Hello Kitty and other kawaii objects act as prompts for an empathetic response of caregiving," writes Christine R. Yano in Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty's Trek Across the Pacific. "However, in Japan, there is an additional twist: some consumers do not only want to adopt the cute commodity… they want to become it."

Kawaii Monster Cafe Strawberry Decor

The interior of Kawaii Monster Cafe.

In the past "becoming" kawaii was limited to dressing up in saccharine, frilly outfits known as "Gothic Lolita," adopting baby-ish, curvy handwriting and affecting high-pitched voices. Now, however, companies are offering consumers a fully immersive experience through themed eateries, like the recently opened Kawaii Monster Café, where giant strawberries and macarons line the walls, and a nightmarish, fully working carousel dominates the entrance. In many of these places, however, it is not simply enough for the décor to look cute; the food must be cute too, causing Japanese chefs to become ever more inventive in their efforts to produce dishes that are not only mouthwatering but meta, such as the Cookie Monster-shaped ice cream cookie sandwich I devoured at the Sesame Street-themed Elmo Café in Harajuku.

Elmo Cafe Ice Cream Sandwich

Elmo Cafe ice cream sandwich.

Like the initial kawaii fashion trend, the craze for cute food is slowly making its way West, with a Hello Kitty Café truck currently traversing the West Coast, selling donuts with bows and macarons printed with Kitty faces, while Europe's first Hello Kitty café is scheduled to open in London this week. No doubt more will soon follow. Because, as those in Japan already know, there's no better way to experience kawaii culture than by literally consuming it.