Word of the Week: かわいい

It’s time for Word of the Week again! Last week we looked at a Japanese word or phrase beginning with ‘o’ (お), and focussed on the phrase お疲れ様です (otsukaresama desu); a useful phrase said at the end of the day or after completing a task. This week I’m looking for a word or phrase beginning with ‘ka’ (か). A big thank you to those who joined in with suggestions this week:

Japan Australia suggested ‘kantan na’ (簡単な), ‘easy’; kawaii (可愛い), ‘cute’; ‘kakkoii’ (かっこいい), ‘cool’; ‘kashikomarismashita’ (かしこまりました); ‘I see/understand’; ‘kanpai’ (乾杯), ‘cheers’ (when drinking); katta (勝った), ‘win’; and lovelycomplex22 suggested ‘kamikakushi’ (神隠し); which means ‘to be spirited away’, like in the famous Studio Ghibli film.

There were some nice ideas this week and, although this is perhaps quite an obvious choice, in the end I decided to write about…



‘Kawaii’ (可愛い / かわいい) is fast becoming a ‘loanword’ in the English language and I wouldn’t be surprised if in five or six years time it had become a mainstream word. In fact, it already appears to be in the Oxford English Dictionary online:

'Kawaii' in the Oxford English Dictionary online

‘Kawaii’ in the Oxford English Dictionary online

According to Danny Choo, ‘kawaii’ has been in the Oxford English Dictionary since 2011. I wonder if it’s eligible as a Scrabble word yet…?

Anyway, what does it mean? In case you don’t know, ‘kawaii’ is an adjective meaning ‘cute’ (although kawaii pioneer Sebastian Masuda believes ‘cute’ is lacking in the emotion that comes with ‘kawaii’). Interestingly, cultural perspectives of exactly what ‘cute’ is seem to differ a little. When you search Google images for かわいい (in Japanese) you get mostly images of cute or sweet looking people:

Search for かわいい on Google image

Search for かわいい on Google image

Whereas when you search in English, you get pastel colours and wide-eyed cartoon animals:

Search for 'kawaii' on Google images

Search for ‘kawaii’ on Google images

Interesting. When I think of ‘kawaii’ it’s certainly the second search which first comes to mind. To me, ‘kawaii’ is things like Japanese characters such as Hello Kitty, Rilakkuma and manga/anime characters. This is what I think of when I think of ‘kawaii’:

Kawaii Rilakkuma

Kawaii Rilakkuma

(Image source)

The word ‘kawaii’ is often written just in hiragana – かわいい – but can be written using kanji too: 可愛い. The first character – 可 (ka) – means ‘acceptable’ and the second character – 愛 (ai) – means ‘love’. Hiragana is usually used, though.

Kawaii is an important and central part of modern pop-culture in Japan, especially for girls. Many girls like to follow kawaii Harajuku-style fashion, and kit themselves out with the latest kawaii accessories and clothes. Pop stars such as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (きゃりーぱみゅぱみゅ) play a big role in making kawaii popular through fashion and music:

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's super-kawaii video for 'PONPONPON'

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s super-kawaii video for ‘PONPONPON’

(Image source)

Kawaii is not just for girls and children though – it is an important part of Japan’s national identity, and you will find kawaii things absolutely everywhere in Japan. From prefectural mascots to company logos, food and drink to shops and restaurants, kawaii is ingrained in Japanese society. What I find really interesting is that kawaii is so acceptable. Here in the UK, I can’t imagine many adults (especially men) wanting to have cute key rings or mobile phone charms, but in Japan is perfectly fine and acceptable.

Kumamoto's mascot Kumamon

Kumamoto’s mascot Kumamon

(Image source)

Not only is kawaii culture a massive part of Japanese culture, it’s a perfect example of Japan’s ‘soft power‘. Japan has successfully sold kawaii-ness to the world, making Japan cool, and making people want to be there and buy Japanese goods. One only needs to attend an event like Hyper Japan in the UK to see how popular kawaii culture has become overseas.

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘kawaii’?


(Image source)


Next week’s post will be about a word or phrase beginning with ‘ki’ (き), so please leave your suggestions below. The word can be a verb, adjective or expression, but no nouns please! For example, ‘ki o tsukete’ (気をつけて) meaning ‘take care’ would be acceptable, but ‘Kii Hanto’ (紀伊半島 ), the place, would not. I look forward to reading your ideas! (*^_^)v

Word of the Week 2014

13 thoughts on “Word of the Week: かわいい

  1. Great post 🙂 It was both informative and interesting!
    Good old Rilakkuma, stuffing his face 😀 I definitely think of what you think of when I think of kawaii, but it’s also true that the girls at school tend to yell kawaii at each other or at teachers. I was never told I was anything like kawaii until I came to Japan 😉 I love it!


    • Thanks! Yeah, I guess people have said kawaii to me before, and I’ve heard other girls saying it about a new haircut or something. But it’s always characters and things that I think of first. 🙂


  2. Looks like I’ve missed quite a few posts. Great idea! ^___^
    Kawaii is probably one of the first words somebody learns when studying Japanese. *g*

    Ki suggestions:
    kiseki (奇跡)
    kisetsu (季節)
    kibun (気分)


  3. Thanks for using my suggestion! Kawaii is such a big part of the culture here in Japan. A few more suggestions for next week are:

    Ki ni shi nai de kudasai (気にしないでください) Never mind / Don’t worry about it
    Kimochi ga ii (気持ちがいい) Feels good
    Kimae ga ii (気前がいい) Generous


  4. Thanks for a great post! I love kawaii! Not so much the fashion side of it though (it’s a bit girly for me). When I think of kawaii, I mostly think of all the cute characters like Hello Kitty & Rilakkuma, kawaii stationery, cute Japanese snacks etc.


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