We’ve all been victims of cute-baiting online, and many of us have participated in it in one way or another. Be it through incorporating a light-hearted puppy story by the end of a particularly heavy TV news bulletin, or creating a whole trend revolving around cats on TikTok, cuteness is definitely a social pillar that captivates most of us. However, for one place in the world, cuteness is incorporated in pretty much every level of life. Japan is known to be the home and birthplace of “kawaii” culture, from movies, through fashion and make-up, to, of course, advertising and communications.
Usage of mascots that make a product cuter, sometimes seemingly unnecessary, is something the Japanese ad industry is not a stranger to. Overall, mascots and cute characters as faces of representation or a necessary component of media are something so common that it almost seems unnatural to avoid them now. Familiar faces like Hello Kitty, Pucca or Rilakkuma have spilled out of Japan and into Western culture, where from a niche interest they have slowly become just as prevalent as in their homeland.
Only recently IKEA Japan utilised BLÅHAJ
, the shark real-estate agent, for their Tiny Homes campaign, where an admittedly adorable shark in a suit becomes IKEA’s official spokesperson. As the aforementioned characters, BLÅHAJ blew out of proportion to the point where merch with his face was being sold internationally and IKEA’s campaign followed his adventures in a three-episode-long campaign journey where he sells and refurbishes Tokyo’s tiny flats.
Japan’s love for kawaii culture has spilled into mainstream media outside of advertising as well. Dua Lipa, in her ‘Levitating’ music video
took on the iconic look of Sailor Moon, another character too big for her own universe. The Sailor Moon aesthetic dominated the early ‘00s, but seems to be coming back along with Y2k fashion trends and Western pop culture is quick to catch up. Be it characters created for their own fictional universe like Sailor Moon herself, or even Pikachu, or those created solely with marketing purposes, Japan definitely goes crazy over cute mascots. And they all sell products very well, both back home and overseas!
So what is the reason behind advertisers using cuteness? Why is there a need to humanise inanimate objects (and especially make them look adorable) in order for them to sell better? And can this conversation, on the flip side, open another question about Western media, where I feel everything seems to need some sex appeal in order to sell (for example some oddly sensual car commercials, what’s that about)?
Nobu Yamamoto, chief strategy officer at M&C Saatchi Tokyo, believes it all circles back to manga and anime’s prevalence within Japanese culture. “Manga has long been deeply rooted in Japan as a culture,” he says. “It’s not just shallow entertainment that is consumed quickly, but serious work that covers science, history, dictators, heroes and heroines, love, family, future, war and religion. The authors’ messages to society are delivered through manga works. This is what movies do for the US, however the difference between movies and manga and anime is whether you have a real person or a unique anime character.”
Nobu believes that what the Japanese audience is truly drawn to is the idea of the messenger – an objective bystander that has, realistically, nothing to do with the real world we live in, but is delivering a message. “We are good at letting created personalities speak our messages,” explains Nobu. “This is a kind of communication methodology. Therefore, it might be a reason why anime characters and any sort of cute idols are often used in adverts – they are the messengers or avatars of advertisers.” And when it comes to utilisation of messengers, anime and manga have already laid the groundwork of becoming so prominent that Japanese people are naturally more emotionally involved with 2D fictional characters and find it easy to relate to them, no matter their form.
It remains true that messengers, especially cute ones, have been prevalent historically in Japanese culture. The ‘70s and ‘80s saw cuteness become the biggest social influence on Japanese youth culture, with everything becoming cutified in some way or another, or infused with a certain level of innocence or infantility. But are those the main components of what ‘kawaii’ really means?
Haruko Kuzuya, creative director at BBDO Japan gives two reasons as to why Japan is the leading country for mascots – one, echoing Nobu’s point of view of how deeply embedded anime and manga culture is within the country, and secondly, the depth of what ‘kawaii’ actually means.
“The word is usually translated as cuteness or cutesey, but when we say kawaii, it is not necessarily made up of only positive components such as beauty, adorability or innocence. As the words “Yuru Kawa (dull-kawaii)” and “Kimo Kawa (gross-kawaii)” suggest, the people of Japan find the negative elements in cuteness, such as slight weirdness and gaps. While Korean idol groups, for example, debut with their perfect singing, dancing and looks, Japanese idols debut in their immature state, because Japanese fans love to ‘watch them grow’,” says Haruko. This mentality might also very well lie in the ‘Wabi’ and ‘Sabi’ spirits of loving imperfection, very prominent in Japan.
Haruko also points to another reason animated characters might be so beloved, namely, ‘animism,’ which is the ancient Japanese religious belief that “gods reside in all things.” “In Japan, cats, dogs, insects, snakes, mountains and rivers are all gods. Even if it is an inorganic object, we accept that it has a soul without a question. Everyone’s favourite films, Totoro and Nausicaa, are also based on this point of view.”
Another important point to consider is the escapism those fictional universes and characters provide. A country well known for its workaholism embedded in every level of life, Japan might just be the perfect breeding ground for finding some kind of solace in those characters, especially when you’re looking to find your new favourite brand or product. George Sugitomo, executive creative director at geometry Ogilvy Japan, knows that whether Japanese people are scrolling through their phones or riding on the train, they cannot escape what he calls “Kyara,” the abbreviation for character.
“From children to adults, Kyaras are as versatile as language for the Japanese people, as they can add highly contextual meanings and leave visual impressions rather than conveying them through words. The speed at which information can be obtained or given is dramatically different and appealing,” explains George.
“It can also be said that modern Japanese society is a society where every generation cannot escape from stress. In such a society, the existence of characters has been accepted by many Japanese as an object of "healing.” There is even a survey that shows that "favourite Kyaras" are more comforting than their own parents or close friends.”
Not only this, but George believes that the evolution in what these characters look like and what ‘kawaii’ actually is on paper is a reflection of how socio-cultural developments unfold in Japan. As society has become more stressed in every age group, people find it less appealing to look at more assertive characters, but look for those with no facial expressions, such as Hello Kitty, Tarepanda and Afro-dog. “They are so popular, because they can project their own emotions and thoughts, and the expressionlessness that faithfully reflects their appearance is what makes them kawaii. This is because modern Japanese, who seek comfort in Kyaras, find that healing is not a fad, but a concept of the characters itself.”
George also echoes Haruko on the depth of what kawaii has become and the different branches of kawaii culture: “There is now a trend for ‘Kimo Kawa,’ an abbreviation for ‘Kimoi=Creepy’ and ‘Kawaii’ combined. It seems that Japan is the only country in the world that mixes the two completely opposite words into one. Another reflection of our unique society today.”
At the end of the day, no matter the reason behind it, these characters seem to be dominating the screens, billboards and any sort of mainstream media since what seems like forever. A complex of societal changes have made cuteness not so straightforward today, but have still kept it prevalent in how Japanese people interact with products and branding, and also how the West learns from those trends and changes their own ways accordingly. Will we see a moment in time when Western advertising will turn away from its traditional ways and maybe dip its toes into what Japan has been doing successfully for years? Perhaps. For Haruko Kuzuya, one thing is certain: “No matter how old we are, we can find soul and love in mascots that are a bit inadequate or lacking in some respects – that's us Japanese.”