From beautiful to cute: shifting meanings in Japanese language and culture

Laura Miller, Carolyn S. Stevens

Research output: Contribution to journalReview ArticleResearchpeer-review


Japanese visual aesthetics as represented in traditional arts such as flower arranging, calligraphy and tea ceremony have long been celebrated or even emulated as exemplary expressions of beauty. The Japanese term utsukushii (beautiful) can be used to describe a wide variety of pleasing aspects of daily life, ranging from the human form to nature and even the gustatory experience. This article outlines traditional notions of beauty in the Japanese language, sketching forward to more contemporary expressions of visual culture that cluster around the term kawaii. This word is often translated as “cute” in English, but we maintain that kawaii extends well beyond its denotative sense to encompass a more complex spectrum of meanings. For example, it can be used to describe objects and practices which have both sentimental charm as well as dark humour. We argue that the kawaii aesthetic has been successful because it serves important emotional and social functions. Finally, the differences between the terms utsukushii and kawaii are gendered and class based, with kawaii often providing a democratic expression of resistance to gendered processes of aging, ideas of class and taste, and attractiveness in Japan’s postmodern society. This essay begins with an overview of the semantic meanings of the concepts of beauty and cuteness in Japanese, followed by a discussion focused on the historical antecedents of the Japanese notion of cuteness. The third section shifts to an analysis of the expansion of the kawaii concept in post-war society and its socio-cultural functions. The essay closes with exploration of a few of the hybrid offshoots derived from kawaii, demonstrating that concepts of beauty in Japan are constantly changing and reacting to social and historical trends.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)62-83
Number of pages12
JournalInternational Journal of Language and Culture
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Aesthetics
  • Japan
  • Kawaii culture
  • Language
  • National culture

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