The Cult of Kawaii: Cuteness in Japan

Japan’s ‘Kawaii’ culture, i.e. the cult of ‘cuteness’ is often celebrated on the internet: Cute cats, wide-eyed loveable animated characters and insanely cute designs are only the start of it. Hello Kitty is popular across the globe, as are the beautiful animations from Studio Ghibli, such as My Neighbour Totoro and countless other anime and manga series from different studios. It’s hardly surprising that it was a Japanese study which found that looking at cute animal pictures can make you more productive. While most of the aforementioned cute icons are only really seen on paper or on screens, upon entering Japan, fiction becomes reality.

  1. Yanaka, near Sendagi Station in Tokyo.

My friend lives near Sendagi Station, so Yanaka was one of the first things I saw upon arriving in the city, coming from the airport. This was the first revelatory experience for me, overwhelming my mind with cuteness and definitely making me feel more productive… Yanaka is a relatively chilled out neighbourhood in Tokyo, many sweets are for sale, such as shaved ice and syrup, mochi (filled rice cakes) and dorayaki (best described as a sandwich made of two scotch pancakes and a filling such as cream, adzuki bean paste or custard.) But the sweets are not the first thing that you look for in Yanaka; every shop window is saturated in cuteness. Cats are the main attraction, but there are hundreds images of adorable I-don’t-know-what-they-ares with big smiling eyes.

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2. Domesticated Wildlife

In Europe and the US, wildlife organisations go to great lengths to ensure that wildlife stays, well, wild. It doesn’t seem like such laws are in place in Japan, where wildlife has become Domesticated. Tourists are often surprised to see overly friendly deers in the grounds of the ancient capital of Japan, Nara, and the island of Myajima, just off the coast of Hiroshima. It is possible to feed deers in both locations, though in the second destination I wouldn’t recommend it. I turned my head  for one second to admire the Great Torii, and found a sneaky dear consuming my island map.

 

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Unafraid,

 

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Map munching thief, Miyajima island

 

3. Cat Cafés

These concept cafés are so popular that they have made their way to Europe, though the name is often a little deceptive. While café infers sitting down for coffee, cake or light food, this is not what cat cafés in Japan are usually about.

To my surprise, you pay for your time spent in the café not consuming anything. You just get to pet cats. What is more bizarre is that these oases are far from being novel in Japan, they are truly ubiquitous. In cities, you can find one in most neighbourhoods. My Japanese friend took me to a cat café tucked away on the 4th floor of a high rise in a Tokyo district. Inside were lone students and business men, holding toys and trying their best to engage the bored cats in physical activity.

 

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A self-confessed crazy cat lady, this should have been my place, though I am not sure whether the cats enjoyed my company as much as I did theirs, given the number of guests coming into the café. The felines did have an area where they couldn’t be disturbed fortunately. I think this would be a perfect concept for cats which are unable to be homed and are in need of love while searching for a new owner. Oh, and if you don’t like cats (how very dare you!), Japan is also home to dog cafés, at least one owl café and, for those who don’t like real cute animals, a café where you can treat your favourite plush toy to an unforgettable meal. For one. Sorry, no humans allowed in this one.

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4. Okunoshima: Bunny Island

Before heading to Japan I was familiar with the once viral video featuring Okunoshima, aka Bunny Island. I knew I had to go to this paradise island where bunnies rush at you in stampedes. It seemed unlikely that such a cute place would be so close to Hiroshima, one of the only two cities in the world which was hit with an atom bomb. From JR Hiroshima station just take a Shinkansen to JR Mihara Station, and from here you can catch a ferry to Okunoshima. It should only take around 2 hours to reach the island.

I had no idea what to expect, but reallllly didn’t expect what came next.

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The ruins of what was a second world war chemical weapons factory

Soon after stepping onto solid land I came across these ruins, whose history I had been ignorant about before meeting a major television channel crew from Tokyo. Say what…?

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After being probed about my knowledge of the darker history of the island, which embarrassingly I knew very little about, and whether I had seen the viral video, the crew filmed me feeding bunnies. This soon appeared on one of Japan’s main channels. Apparently there are not so many Western tourists who come to Okunoshima.

The origin of the army of bunnies is disputed, though they were potentially set free from aforementioned factory. Today, Japanese tourists flock here to feed the bunnies and take photos with ‘Kawaii’ as a caption. So did I…

Okunoshima merits its contemporary name, Bunny Island.

 

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So there you have it. The legends are true, Japan truly is the land of cuteness. I will undoubtedly return to the country in the not-to-distant future to check out Cat Island.

 

 

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