Japanese Culture: Would You Rather Anime or Kawaii?

Japanese pop culture exports have given the rest of the world plenty to think about. One of the hottest such exports right now is anime. A close second is kawaii, also known as the ‘Japanese cute culture’. Perhaps you’ve seen examples of kawaii in children’s toys, television cartoons, and so on. If so, here is a burning question that demands an answer: would you rather anime or kawaii?

Anime is technically the animated version of Japanese cartoon illustrations. But over the years, it has become a catch-all phrase to describe a style of cartoon artwork typical of Japan. Companies like Umai create original artwork for their anime sweatshirts, T-shirts, etc. They use the term despite the fact that their artwork isn’t animated.

As for kawaii, it is all about being cute. Originally developed to appeal to young children, creators began adapting the kawaii mentality to adults in the 1960s and 70s. Today there is kawaii for all ages. It is really a matter of whether you can stomach so much cuteness. For some people, it is a complete turnoff.

A Brief History of Anime

Anime is the natural successor of manga, the Japanese version of comics. The art form from which both are derived is centuries old. As for anime itself, it began coming into its own about the same time as American animation. Yet Japanese creators were firm in their belief that anime should be distinctly different from its Western competition.

With that in mind, Japanese anime creators decided their characters needed to look more realistic. They avoided the more unrealistic proportions of Western animation. They also tended to stay away from animating animals.

The other thing Japanese creators did was embrace themes and stories that American animators would otherwise avoid. The goal was to keep things as realistic as possible. Japanese anime was never about living happily ever after or riding off into the sunset on a white horse.

A Brief History of Kawaii

Kawaii is actually considerably older than manga and anime. Its earliest reference dates to an 11th century novel in which kawaii’s qualities were designed to portray women as frail, docile, and somewhat pitiable. What eventually became modern kawaii was established in the 1950s as a way of reaching Japanese children – particularly young girls – with the traditional messages of Japanese culture.

Kawaii truly took off for adults with the development of handwriting that followed a basic aesthetic. This occurred in the 1970s. The aesthetic features a lot of big, round characters and symbols that are traditionally less imposing. The nature of the aesthetic makes kawaii handwriting difficult to read among people not used to it.

The popularity of kawaii handwriting led to an explosion of still art, animated TV series and films, books, toys, and even clothing lines. Kawaii remains extremely popular in Japan among both anime fans and non-fans. It is pretty hot here, too.

Both Are Acquired Tastes

Despite the popularity of anime and kawaii, it is safe to say that both are acquired tastes. At least that is the case here in the West. There is no doubt that the two forms of art are uniquely Japanese. There is no doubt that they act as an entry point into Japanese culture for many people. But there are plenty of Westerners who shy away from anime and kawaii.

How about you? Would you rather anime than kawaii? Would you rather wear a Umai anime t-shirt or a kawaii sweatshirt? There is no right or wrong answer. You can prefer one over the other. You can love them both. Whatever floats your boat.