‘Kawaii’ culture taking hold in U.K.

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo News

LONDON — Japan’s “kawaii” (cute) pop culture style is making an impact on Britain’s youth and influencing the wider society, according to experts.

Over the last 10 years, the country’s youngsters have started to embrace the whole spectrum of kawaii — from the extremes of “cosplay” (costume play) down to the purchasing of accessories adorned with cute “anime” and manga characters.

Kawaii has also crept into mainstream art and fashion, even though members of the public may not actually be aware of the fact, according to analysts who recently attended a panel discussion in London on the kawaii craze.

But observers are divided on the extent to which kawaii has taken hold and argue that Britain’s cute culture is more superficial than Japan’s.

The cute phenomenon in Japan took off in the 1970s and is typified by Sanrio Corp.’s Hello Kitty brand of products. But it also includes people dressing up in “Lolita-style” Victorian clothing and fans of cute “moe” manga and anime characters.

Helen McCarthy, a British-based expert on Japanese popular culture, said that over the last 10 years — with the growth of the Internet — this culture has become more visible in Britain, particularly in urban centers where there are more opportunities for people to purchase kawaii items and dress up.

“Kawaii has made inroads but is not embedded yet,” she said, adding that its influence can be seen in TV shows and subway posters.

Fashion and accessory designers have also been affected by kawaii, according to Carri Mundane, who created the Cassette Playa range of clothes that were on display in London’s Barbican arts complex Jan. 20.

Mundane, who draws great inspiration from Japan and describes her bright clothes as “cartoon couture,” believes cuteness is becoming more mainstream in Britain, saying that “kawaii is a phenomenon, look at the popularity of the Alessi (kitchen utensils) range of products. It’s all about play, fantasy, color and imagination.”

She thinks kawaii can be subversive and dark — often empowering young women — and because of this it flourishes in traditional countries like Britain and Japan.

A London evening newspaper last year claimed the kawaii trend was gripping the capital, making reference to adults’ desire to become children again by eating cupcakes and watching cute animals on YouTube.

But McCarthy doesn’t think the trend for manufacturers to adorn utensils with cute characters really amounts to Britons embracing the cute culture, whatever the marketing men might want us to believe.

“Kawaii motifs are used as an accessory in Britain, rather than embedded into a lifestyle, and I think that people tend to see them as a counterpoint to something,” McCarthy said.

“The idea of cuteness as a philosophy of living — that softness, openness and childlike attitude — really hasn’t made waves in Britain at all.

“We (British) are still quite a masculine and patriarchal culture, and we have never embraced the cute, soft side like France and Japan. We are not ready to go full-on cute yet and whether we ever will be is a moot point.”