Watching a documentary that followed the success story of the well-loved Sanrio character Hello Kitty reminded me of how big a phenomenon the kawaii culture has been since I was a kid (And I’m 38!). The cute and adorable aesthetics influence everything from fashion to food. But what does this obsession with all things “kawaii” say about us psychologically?
At its core, kawaii is all about cuteness and innocence. It’s an aesthetic that celebrates things that are small, round, and cuddly, with exaggerated features that make them even more adorable. From Hello Kitty to Pikachu, kawaii characters have become beloved pop culture icons.
One reason kawaii is so appealing is that it taps into our innate desire for nurturing and connection. The cuteness of kawaii characters, upon my research, triggers the same response in our brains as seeing a baby or a small animal – it activates the release of oxytocin, the hormone associated with bonding and social connection. By surrounding ourselves with these cute, friendly characters, we feel a sense of community and belonging.
Another reason kawaii is so popular is that it provides a sense of escapism from stress. When we immerse ourselves in the world of kawaii, we can forget about our problems and focus on the simple pleasures of cuteness and innocence. This is why kawaii is often associated with the concept of mindfulness, self-care, and a focus on the present moment.
A study by Japanese researcher Hiroshi Nittono and his team in 2012 that viewing cute images affects cognition and makes participants become more intentional with their behavior. They are observed to engage in tasks with a better focus on details.
However, there is also a darker side to kawaii culture. Some critics argue that the obsession with cuteness can be infantilizing, especially for women. The prevalence of kawaii fashion, which often features pastel colors, frills, and oversized ribbons, has been criticized for perpetuating gender stereotypes and encouraging women to conform to a child-like ideal of femininity. In local slang, this would be tagged as “pabebe” (an evolution of pa-baby or trying to look or act like a baby).
Moreover, the emphasis on cuteness can also be seen as a way of avoiding the complexity of adulthood. By retreating into a world of kawaii, we can avoid the difficult emotions and adulting responsibilities.
Despite these criticisms, it is clear that kawaii culture will continue to be a major influence in popular culture.
Whether we see it as a harmless indulgence or a problematic trend, the appeal of kawaii lies in its ability to provide comfort, a sense of playfulness, and connection. After all, in anything we do, the best recommendation is still moderation.
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