Expression of Kawaii ('cute'): Gender reinforcement of young Japanese female school children

Year: 2012

Author: Asano-Cavanagh, Yuko

Type of paper: Refereed paper



This paper presents an analysis of Japanese word kawaii which is often translated as 'cute' in English. Previous studies show that pre-school teachers frequently say the word kawaii in showing positive feelings toward things in the classroom. Especially, the teachers use the word kawaii in making assessments, and in glossing children's affectionate actions. These studies also show that female children are the primary users of the word kawaii, which suggests that they are acquiring kawaii as an index of female gender identity. On the other hand, cross-cultural psychologists point out that kawaii is not lexicalised in other languages. While English speakers may use the word cute for compliments and other social actions, the scholars suggest that kawaii is tied to empathy and relationships. The question arises as to what kind of emotions Japanese speakers intend to convey by saying kawaii. Although kawaii phenomenon has been discussed in detail by many scholars, there has been no rigorous semantic analysis presented in the past.


The corpus includes information about school uniforms, school bags, stationery, lunch boxes and textbooks. The design of these artefacts was done in conjunction with the school staff, and community members. The analysis adopts the framework of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) approach to explicate the exact meaning of kawaii to non-Japanese speakers. The meaning is analysed via a set of 64 universal and culture independent concepts called 'semantic primes' such as I, YOU, THINK, FEEL, and SEE. This provides an accurate English interpretation of the meaning and context for the term and its use.


A new explication is presented to illustrate the meaning of kawaii. The analysis indicates that the core meaning of kawaii is linked to a notion of a 'child', and the emotion is explained as 'when I see this, I can't not feel something good'. In addition, the desire of 'touching' is characteristic. The resultant explication is useful for capturing the meaning of kawaii as used in classroom and generally. This sheds lights on cross-cultural ways of issues in gender specific terminology concerning young children.


Being kawaii is considered desirable in many aspects of communication. The kawaii syndrome reveals a Japanese cultural characteristic which puts greater emphasis on being 'gender appropriate' in society and schools. The NSM approach has utility for identifying meanings and comparing similar concepts cross-linguistically. The analysis has implications for understanding gender construction and expression in non-western cultures.