The Value of Cuteness

“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment.”  I Peter 3:3a


Although we all seem to intuitively grasp the subtle difference in nuance between “cute” and “beautiful,” it is actually a concept that is quite difficult to explain. Japan certainly has a deep appreciation of beauty, which is demonstrated in the diverse mediums of music, traditional arts, cultural ceremonies, fashion, nature and personal physical appearances. But when the idea of cuteness is closely examined, it seems to lurk somewhere else on the spectrum of beauty, including other components that sets it apart as a slightly different value. This vague quality referred to as “cuteness” is highly treasured in Japan and drives many current cultural trends.

Known as “kawaii” (かわいい or 可愛い), this popularly used word is typically translated as “cute,” “loveable” or “adorable.” One often hears excited exclamations of “kawaii!” uttered by giddy young girls in an exaggerated inflection to describe a variety of objects, mannerisms and people. Kawaii has rapidly become one of the most overused words in the Japanese language and it should not be confused with similar sounding terms “kowai” (scary) or “kawaisō” (pitiable) which can lead to some humorous but humiliating language mistakes.

Kawaii comes in many forms in Japan. For example, there are cute forms of handwriting that many girls try to emulate. There is a plethora of kawaii merchandise on sale everywhere often featuring cute anime characters that are typically accompanied by hearts, flowers or rainbows. Cute pop idols seem to appear and disappear overnight, sporting kawaii fashion styles and employing cutesy mannerisms that are soon mimicked by their adoring fans. Kawaii mascots seem to be omnipresent, decorating planes, station platforms, businesses, post offices and other public places. Following this trend, each prefecture in Japan has developed and marketed its own cute mascot to promote tourism in their respective area. This cuteness phenomenon has spread to such an extent that many sociologists claim that kawaii has overtaken the traditional values of beauty and refinement in Japan. Others say that kawaii has even pushed aside some of the more violent elements in Japanese society and serves as a visible indicator of Japan’s steady drift towards a more pacifist national psyche.

Such sweeping generalizations are quite difficult to quantify, but the recent value of kawaii, now firmly embedded in Japanese culture, provides a form of evidence of the younger generation’s unhealthy preoccupation with seemingly shallow and temporal matters. Of course, this tendency to get things out of balance as to how one perceives people or things is certainly not unique to Japan. How we define and value beauty takes many forms around the world and the popularity of kawaii is just one example in how our priorities can become easily skewed.

This is where the concept of beauty seems to take on a different value that requires a closer inspection and a greater appreciation. Genuine beauty delves below the surface to deeper qualities that Peter hints at when he advises wives that their “beauty should not come from outward adornment.” (I Peter 3:3a) Beauty is certainly a sought-after quality, but it seems to have different layers to it, with some being eternal in nature while others are merely temporal. This contrast indicates that we may be tempted to focus on external elements like makeup, fashion, hairstyle or physical attributes as essential components of beauty, but godly character, actions and attitudes comprise the true essence of real beauty that God Himself treasures. That kind of beauty lasts forever, long after cuteness will be forgotten.

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