The Power of Cute

Hello Kitty, protecting Japanese roads

Japan is very cute.

No really, it is.

Like a religion, it’s widely embraced and widely impactful. Almost 90% of public instructions are communicated through cute visuals. Absolute pop-culture permeation through entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance, behavior, and mannerisms. Even the traffic cones are a special kind of Hello Kitty ‘kawaii’.

The word “kawaii” literally means a “radiant face”, but more commonly referred to the blushing of an embarrassed person.

Over time, the meaning changed into the modern meaning of “cute”, according to Daniel Harris, author of Cute, Quaint, Hungry And Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism. This cultural phenomenon is increasingly accepted in Japan as a part of Japanese culture and national identity. Tomoyuki Sugiyama, author of Cool Japan, believes that “cuteness” is rooted in Japan’s harmony-loving culture, and Nobuyoshi Kurita, a sociology professor at Musashi University in Tokyo, has stated that “cute” is a “magic term” that encompasses everything that is acceptable and desirable in Japan.

‘Rilakkuma’ means relaxing bear in Japanese

After all, this is the same nation who brought us ‘The Ring’ and also introduced us to ‘Rilakkuma’, a relaxing bear with his very own, highly lucrative merchandise ecosystem. A society can seldom be painted in such wide strokes. There are segmented audience spectrums, of course. However, the question is how did Japan’s underbelly become so soft?

It has been debated that it was the atomic bomb that triggered this cuteness explosion. Perhaps Japanese cultural-savants, born in the 50s and 60s, saw the country’s plight and rebelled with a new kind of language. Innocent, emotive, and unthreatening. A public movement to express happiness in a externally oppressed and internally repressed society.

A lot of countries manufacture cute, but none employs it like the Japanese.

A cat carrying it’s kitten is the identity for Yamato Holdings, Japan’s largest door-to-door delivery service company

I call it the Power of Cute.

But what exactly is it? And how can brands use it?

I believe its our innate affection for infants. Adorable creatures filled with promise and hope, pulling with an emotional tug and causing instant behaviour change. Don’t believe me? Try voting yes to legalise clubbing baby seals. Or saying no to puss-in-boots toddler eyes.

Window at Tokyo’s popular Harajuku district

But in a world filled with aggressive noise, can ‘cute’ really break clutter? When it comes to mass communication, nobody is noisier than Japan. Perhaps ‘cute’ is a quieter way to sparkle through.

Whether it’s a grief combat mechanism or a devious ploy to appeal to the inner child, I don’t know. But if used well, it has mass appeal like no other.

For brands trying to get in touch with their customers, perhaps getting a pair of pinchable cheeks might just do the trick.