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What is Kawaii?

While often translated to “cute,” in English, this translation is a misnomer. Masuda’s definition of kawaii is distinct from that which rose in the commercial kawaii of the 1980s. Instead, his definition focuses on a spirit of kawaii, continuing a powerful narrative of Japanese pop culture that bloomed during the Edo period (1603-1868). Ukiyo-e captured the demimonde of “the floating world,” a popular culture distinct from courtly life. In his work, Masuda echoes the creativity and contemporaneity of the ukiyo-e artists before him, embracing a special, vibrant realm: the kawaii subculture. Within a bright and sensational visual layer, the kawaii spirit is akin to that of the punk or hippie movement, a rebellion against the norms and standards of mainstream culture.


Contributing to the Time Capsule at the Japan Society (source: Sebastian Masuda's official facebook page)

But what exactly is kawaii? Where did this idea originate? Kawaii is an influential and subversive culture in dialogue with centuries of Japanese popular culture. The idea can be traced back to the Heian period (794-1185), to a new genre of popular court literature that focused on details of daily life. In The Pillow Book, the court lady Sei Shonagon describes “the behavior of a chirping sparrow, the small leaf of a crest...”[1] as utsukushii, referring to simple moments that stirred the heart. During the Taisho period (1912-1926) the utsukushii developed into kawayushi, before arriving at the current kawaii. Throughout its development, kawaii came to describe things that evoke feelings of care, love and protectiveness. [2]


Dressed in their kawaii best for the opening of True Colors! Dressed in their kawaii best for the opening of True Colors!

In recent scholarship, the contemporary kawaii culture is often linked to 1914, to a stationary shop in Tokyo that specialized in “fancy” items. Though the shop originally catered to young women, the allure of kawaii spread far beyond its target clientele. Today’s movement attracts audiences of all ages worldwide, existing in many different iterations and influences. While aspects of kawaii have become commercialized in contemporary times, the core of this unique culture is a distinct spirit. This spirit can be lived through kawaii fashion, or expressed through art. As Sebastian Masuda considers the global reach of kawaii culture, he regrets that often “only the surface aspects have spread… The spirit of kawaii was left behind, which is very sad.” In his current exhibition, True Colors, Masuda pursues his mission “to bring back the core spirit of kawaii and reunite it with the superficial kawaii.” Through his three distinct series—Colorful Rebellion, True Colors, and Emotion—Masuda invites the viewer to experience and explore the complexities kawaii.


Sebastian Masuda, More is More from the Colorful Rebellion series, 2016. Ronin Gallery.

Select Sources
Grau, Oliver. Imagery in the 21st Century. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011. Print.
Iwata-Weickgenannt, Kristina. Visions of Precarity in Japanese Popular Culture and Literature. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.
Okazaki, Manami. Kawaii!: Japan’s Culture of Cute. Munich; New York: Prestel, 2013. Print.