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Kawaii is a Japanese style that’s all about cuteness. Mascots like Hello Kitty and Pikachu, with their big eyes and round faces, embody the innocence that’s at the heart of kawaii life and fashion. But kawaii is also about making your own individual style, instead of becoming a cog in a machine – it’s a rebellion of niceness against the corporate world.

Kawaii is Japanese for Cute

If you’ve played Pokemon Go or bought a Hello Kitty handbag, you’ll have experienced kawaii (pronounced ‘ka – why’) first hand. Kawaii means ‘cute’ in Japanese, but it’s a Shorthand expression for a whole cultural phenomenon.

While kawaii started as a fashion craze for 14- to 18- year-old women, it has now spread to Japanese society at large. Police boxes are now decorated with cute mascots, and construction sites are sometimes guarded by bright pink railings there’s even a special cute mascot who urges you to file your tax form online.

Kawaii is unthreatening. It conveys the values of harmony and acceptability. (You could see it as the opposite of the threatening and anti-social values expressed by the Goth and heavy metal aesthetics.) Innocence and gentleness are kawaii virtues.

Kawaii comes in different flavours. Lolita fashion with its soft colours, ruffles, frills and lace is probably the best known outside Japan, but there’s also Decora, a colourful style whose advocates decorate themselves with badges, bangles, and multiple accessories in order to create highly individualised outfits.

Kawaii is about childhood. It encapsulates the innocence and vulnerability of the small child, like with the typical mascot characters’ round faces and big eyes. (One kawaii character only drinks tea and eats sweets – a typically childish idea of a good diet.) But at the same time, kawaii can be rebellious; some Japanese girls adopted Lolita fashion to rebel against what’s still a male-dominated society, using fashion to express their disdain for the world of wage slaves in the same way that western hippies did back in the 1960s.

Adopting a kawaii style involves a new colour palette; pastel and white with Lolita fashion or a more vibrant and bright mass of different colours in Decora style. Understatement is the antithesis of kawaii; instead, add as many ruffles, ribbons, frills, and decorations as you can. Simply adding a couple of lines of lace to the bottom of a shirt can turn it from businesslike to kawaii.

Kawaii isn’t just for girls any more. Older women have become fans, too, though some of the more childlike aspects (for instance, white school socks) aren’t appropriate to an older wardrobe. In Japan, many men also dress in kawaii style; soft layers, soft fabrics, and a feeling of youthful cleanness are all part of the style. Kawaii men tend to grow their hair relatively long (down to the shoulder, but not below), are clean shaven, and prioritise boy-next-door style approachability rather than status or strength in their attitude.

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