Want to know what the cutest thing in the world is? Kawaii.
No, you didn’t read that wrong. It’s not Kauai, the eldest of the Hawaiian Islands. We’re talking about the Japanese cultural trend of Kawaii, meaning “cute”.
It began decades ago and has since spread around the world, with merchandisers snapping up the market on cute. Kawaii is the basis for video games, movies, books, comics, fashion trends, artistic movements, and even its own written language.
And the stars of the Kawaii show are the characters themselves. The army of Kawaii characters that have come and gone over the last four decades represent a playful charm that even the most cynical adults can appreciate.
They come in every color, shape, and size. And they represent almost every animal (fictional or real). Some of these characters, you probably haven’t heard of. But others are some of the most famous characters in the world. Unlike the subdued palette of bohemian fashion, or the folksy charm of the modern farmhouse movement, kawaii characters are colorful and in your face with their happiness.
Want to learn more about this cultural phenomenon? Here’s your 2022 guide to Kawaii characters.
What Exactly is Kawaii?
Kawaii translates to “cute”, or “cuteness”, or “adorable” in Japanese. But it’s much more than a word. It represents a movement in Japanese pop culture.
And the avatars that represent that cultural movement are Kawaii animation characters.
They’re shaped like babies, with large, round heads and chubby bodies. And they’re known for their simple facial characteristics with large eyes and small noses and mouths.
Many of the characters are cute drawings of animals, like frogs, bunnies, kitties, and puppies. But many others are fictional creatures. Simple pastels make up the color palettes for Kawaii creators.
The basic philosophy of the Kawaii movement is to create something that’s cute and simple. Something relatable to the masses and easily merchandised. But something that brings a sense of joy and whimsy to the people who love them.
And it’s not only in Japan where these characters get their stardom. All you need to do is walk into Claire’s in any mall in the US to see how much Kawaii has taken over. The idea works on any accessory a girl could want, from socks to headbands and everything in between.
Kawaii culture has even made its way into your cell phone. Download the latest version of Pokemon Go to get your own dose of Kawaii everywhere you go.
But the Kawaii culture is nothing new. It’s been a part of the hip, Japanese teenage culture for over 40 years.
A History of Kawaii
Look to the oldest novel ever written to find the first use of the word Kawaii. Written by Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century, The Tale of Genji details the life of a prince named Genji. In the novel, Lady Murasaki says the definition of Kawaii is pitiable or pathetic.
But the word itself has grown over the last thousand years. It’s one of the most widely used words in the Japanese language, covering a broad spectrum of thoughts and ideas.
The real “cuteness” of it all started in the 1970s when Japanese school girls began using a new form of writing. Instead of writing with heavy, dark strokes to create their characters, girls started using thin, whimsical symbols.
They did things like dotting their “i’s” with hearts and little kitten heads. It came to the point where many Japanese schools banned the new writing style because it wasn’t legible with all those cute text symbols and tiny strokes. They called it “kitten writing”.
Enter capitalism. A company called Sanrio, which had been around since the 1960’s making silk sandals, came up with the idea of creating special cute drawings of adorably cute characters to market around gift-giving holidays.
They named one of their characters, which first appeared in 1974, Kitty White. She appeared on a small purse, as a gift for young girls. You might know her better as Hello Kitty.
You guessed it. Hello Kitty was an immediate hit. Since that time, she’s been the most recognizable mascot for Kawaii culture around the world.
But Miss Kitty isn’t the only uber-famous, super-cute character. Ever heard of a little (or really, huge) group of fictional creatures called Pokemon? They’re part of the same cultural trend.
The Pokemon franchise started as a video game for the Nintendo Game Boy system in the mid-1990s. You might recognize the star of the Pokemon show: Kawaii character Pikachu, a yellow and black rabbit-looking creature with a jagged tail and a huge grin.
Pokemon characters, like Pikachu, played a big roll in the continued success of the Kawaii cultural movement. They are now found all over the place including plastic lunchboxes, on the side of jumbo jets, and in your very own smartphone.
The Top Kawaii Characters of 2021
Kawaii characters started as a treat for young girls looking to carry around a backpack shaped like a cat. But now, people of all ages and genders appreciate the adorable characters.
They’re part of fashion, music, home decor, and seasonal decorations. And whether you’re buying it for yourself or for a loved one, Kawaii makes an awesome gift. Why not add a little cuteness to someone’s life??
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular characters in 2021.
You don’t get better than Hello Kitty. In the world of cute characters, none are as popular as she is. Which means you’ll have more selection when you’re looking for cool merchandise.
Hello Kitty is so famous, she’s even paraded down the streets of Manhattan. In 2007, the Hello Kitty balloon debuted in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Pikachu: The Star of Pokemon
Like Hello Kitty, Pikachu represents one of the oldest characters on our list. He, too, has paraded through Herald Square as a float in the Macy’s parade. His balloon was introduced in 2001.
The great part about Pikachu and his other Pokemon friends is that they appeal to boys and men too. The main character of the show is a cute anime boy after all. Most traditional Kawaii culture is aimed at girls. But the Pokemon adds that bit of Kawaii whimsy to the video game world.
You’ve probably seen Pusheen before in the sticker options of your smartphone. This chubby, gray cat has been around since 2010. Pusheen is the only character on our list that’s not Japanese.
She was created by Clair Belton and Andrew Duff as a comic strip for their website. They’ve since given Pusheen her own website. And written a book full of Pusheen comic strips.
You’d recognize Keroppi, even if you’re not familiar with the name. This little, wide-eyed frog is another one of the Sanrio characters. He’s often seen wearing a red and white striped shirt under his over-sized head.
He lives in a place called Donut Pond and has a bunch of friends and family that look similar to him with big eyes and thick, black outlines. Keroppi’s best known for liking baseball and boomerangs. And he proves that even frogs can be super cute.
Cinnamoroll is a group of characters created by Sanrio in 2001. The main character of the series is Cinnamon, a white puppy with a curly tail that looks like a rolled up cinnamon roll. His face is simple, with blue, hollow eyes.
He’s also got floppy ears and round, pink cheeks. The other Cinnamoroll Kawaii characters are similar-looking white puppies with names like Latte and Nuts. They’re the basis for their own video games, anime movies, and comic books or Manga.
Did you know that there are Kawaii Disney characters?
The Disney Ufufy is a line of palm-sized plush toys that came out in 2016 in Disney’s Japanese market. All the classic Disney characters are available in these little pint-sized versions: Donald and Daisy Duck, Goofy, Pluto, and of course, Minnie and Mickey.
Ufufy make great gifts for small children. They all share the same egg shape but with different features to match the Disney characters. And the Ufufy even smell good, with little scent packets in them.
Creative & Popular Ways to Give the Gift of Cuteness
Looking for cool Kawaii phone cases? The Hello Kitty brand offers the most variety. They come in every variety from subtle, to completely over-the-top.
For anyone that loves Pokemon, try a Pikachu shaped stocking cap. You can also get hoodies, knee socks, and t-shirts with the Pokemon of your choice adorning them. And the Pokemon playing card game is a popular choice among kids in 2021.
If you know someone who loves to draw and color, there are tons of adult and child’s coloring books available. Squishy toys are also super popular right now. And if you know someone who bakes, give them a Kawaii cookbook to make their own adorable little cute Kawaii cakes.
Japanese Kawaii Characters for All!
In the 1970s, a few school girls got creative. They pushed back from societal norms and created their own language. “Kitty writing” was born.
And from that beginning came a cultural movement that’s spread all over the world. Starting with Hello Kitty, making her first appearance on a purse in 1974. To the most advanced version of Pokemon Go to date.
Kawaii characters are some of the most beloved characters in pop culture. They represent a childish enthusiasm that many of us lose as we go about our adult lives. But it’s never too late to get it back.
So… Are you ready to add some cuteness to your life? Ready, set, Pokemon Go!