LAUREN CRAVEN WRITES — Kawaii, a term meaning “cute” in Japanese, has morphed into an entire culture that can be seen in the everyday experiences of Japanese natives, tourists, and even in the lives of those outside of Japan. In the 1970s and 80s, the Kawaii aesthetic started as a schoolroom trend where students wrote in a more rounded “cute” style, adding images like pink hearts and cuddly animals to their writing. This soon was readily adopted in Japan as companies started to capitalize on the trend by using Japanese Kawaii to sell products that embodied this “cute” look, such as the cartoon character Hello Kitty added to backpacks.
But what began as a schoolroom trend quickly turned into a subculture of Japanese fashion for adult women who started to dress in clothing typically reserved for very young girls or even dolls. Women can be seen wearing ruffled dresses with giant strawberries on them, long and lacy stockings, dainty shoes, heart shaped bags, and animal ear headbands or candy themed barrettes in their hair. These Kawaii women often talk in higher pitched voices, giggle more than most, act very sweet and wide-eyed, and are overall the embodiment of the word “cute.”
This culture of cuteness and innocence may seem fun and harmless at first glance, but is it really? The term “burikko” goes hand in hand with the culture of Kawaii, giving new meaning to a seemingly lighthearted term. Burikko is a Japanese word used to describe women who exhibit “feigned naïveté,” and can be considered derogatory. The word itself comes from the term buru, which means ‘to pose, pretend, or act,’ and the suffix -ko, which can mean “fake child” or “phony girl.”
In Japan, it is seen as fashionable to be treated as a child, especially for women. And might this not lead some men to think it is ok to treat women as beneath them, or even to think of them as children in both the workplace and in daily life?
The Kawaii term “amae” can also be used to help explain this phenomenon. It means “childlike behavior to obtain care that might include whining, behaving in a spoiled manner or taking liberties with others.” Amae could cause a power dynamic in any kind of relationship but most frequently one in which the woman, very engrossed in Kawaii culture and its childlike undertones, presents herself this way, so that the man sees her as a child and treats her as such.
Whether the desire to act innocent and naïve stems from childhood rejection, a desire to shift one’s responsibilities to others or a sincere attempt to escape the stress of adulthood, this phenomenon, deeply rooted in Japanese culture, seems like it is here to stay. Could it be contributing, at least in some way, to holding back the cultural liberation of Japanese women, in some ways, and the overall negative treatment of women in Japan? Maybe, whether they themselves know it -or not.