Kawaii may be the only real Japanese word many people know. And they really don’t know what it means.
It’s usually translated as “cute”. And that’s one of the meanings, for sure. Maybe it’s even the primary meaning. But that’s not really what it means. They actually have another word for cute, “aikurushii” which seems to have a more pure meaning of “cute”. Not pure innocence-wise, but it seems to be more of a direct translation to our word “cute”.
I think a better translation of kawaii is “childlike”. That’s still not a perfect translation, but it’s a little more accurate, I think. The word “kawaii” has a connotation of innocence, of carefreeness, of being cute as a child is cute.
As a westerner, I don’t think you can’t even come close to understanding the Japanese folks until you understand this… not optimal translation. They don’t really like cute things as much as they like childlike things.
It’s an understandable mistranslation. Much of what the Japanese call kawaii is cute, indeed. In fact, in English, we do use cute when referring to children, animals, etc. But we don’t have that built in connotation of innocence. In fact, I think we use it more as a substitute for “attractive” than “childlike”, but as with Japanese, it’s a bit of a wooly word. But I really do think there’s a substantial difference in how we perceive the concepts.
This explains some things that are otherwise incomprehensible to us westerners. Why are idols trying so hard to be youthful, energetic, childlike? Why do they wear school uniforms and behave as one would expect a particularly adorable child to, even if they’re in their twenties? Simple – they’re being kawaii. Not cute, but kawaii. Childlike. Putting themselves forth as innocent. For some reason, the Japanese seem to very much value that.
So much so that even many of their AV stars are kawaii and behave that way. I don’t think it’s really so much about a power imbalance for them, as it is about their attraction to kawaii. When we see kawaii in the west, if it’s not from a child, it’s much less desirable.
Quite honestly, I think this is a part of the origin of weeb culture. The Japanese offer a kind of path back into childhood that the west actively eschews (which is one reason why that word is considered an insult in some circles).
Make no mistake, the Japanese kawaii obsession can be unhealthy, and lead to unhealthy behaviors. But it’s not all bad. We in the west seem to try to drive that kind of innocence out as quickly as possible, even as the Japanese celebrate it. Perhaps something is to be learned by both cultures.
But back to the original point of this post: don’t misunderstand what kawaii is. If you just call it cute, you’re missing a lot of context.