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The Death of “Kawaii”

March 30, 2011 By: Nopy Category: Other Stuff, Random Wonderings

When you visit any online anime community, you will see a lot of Japanese terms being thrown around such as moe, ecchi, shounen, shoujo, yuri, and yaoi. Sometimes terms are used incorrectly or their meaning has been twisted but those have become the norm for English-speakers, some examples include hentai and otaku. All of these terms have been around for a long time, but when I look at them, I notice that something which was found in almost every anime discussion has practically died. What I am referring to is the term “kawaii”.

Puchiko from Di Gi Charat

OK, maybe it isn’t actually dead, but it certainly isn’t anywhere near as popular as it used to be, at least from my experience.

Some of you may remember the golden age (or dark times, however you see it) of kawaii. Whenever a group of anime fans got together, their conversations would usually be about kawaii this or kawaii that or “kya~ that’s so kawaii!” or include a long and drawn out “kawaii~~~”. It was almost like a competition, whoever could use kawaii the most in their speech/writing was the more obsessed (and better) anime fan.

If the term was so prevalent in the past, what happened to it? Did people finally realize that there’s a shorter word in the English language that means the exact same thing (ie: cute)? Did pressure from the anti-kawaii brigade finally pay off and kawaii users simply yielded to abuse? Maybe the term was just replaced with a more ambiguous one? I think all of these had a role to play in the declining use of kawaii.

Lets consider the meaning of the word kawaii. Whenever someone new to anime would ask what kawaii meant, a senior fan would usually respond that it was the Japanese word for “cute” and rhymes with Hawaii. As for why you would use kawaii rather than cute when speaking or writing in English, it was a way of identifying yourself as an anime fan. When you think about it though, there are plenty of other ways to show that you like anime. Also considering that cute is shorter than kawaii and has the same meaning, there’s really no reason to use kawaii in the first place.

the Hawaiian islands with Ayu's face

I think the anti-kawaii brigade/squad/group or whatever you want to call them had some influence too. If you were constantly flamed for using the term kawaii or for watching kawaii anime, wouldn’t you eventually stop? Kawaii was significantly over-used though so I don’t blame the anti-kawaii people for being so mean, and if you’ve ever seen Kokoro Library, you’d understand why they were against kawaii anime too. Kokoro Library was like a precursor to today’s slice-of-life anime, but it had absolutely no comedy, no drama, and no light music club. Kokoro Library was just 100% pure kawaii.

So will kawaii ever come back? Probably not. You just have to look around the internet and you’ll see why. The term moe (pronounced mo-eh) has taken over kawaii’s position as the dominant description of anything cute and/or attractive in anime fandom. To understand why, we will need to take a look at the word itself and the meaning behind it.

Moe Syzlak

No, I don't mean this Moe.

Moe is about the same length as cute so that eliminates the question of why use a longer word to describe the same thing. There’s also that “for anime fans” feel about it because of the way it’s written and pronounced. Most people don’t include the accent above the e so it just looks like the name Moe. Only those familiar with anime would be able to tell that it’s pronounced mo-eh.

The term moe also has a broader and more ambiguous meaning than kawaii ever did. Wikipedia lists some different interpretations of the term coming from people who you’d think would know what it meant. Truth be told, even though I’m a member of the Moe Coalition, I still have absolutely no clue what moe is. To make it easy on myself, I consider any character I’d hug to be moe. Since no one can pin a definition to moe, it makes it hard for anti-moe people to make an argument against it, unlike the anti-kawaii people.

You just have to look at events like the Saimoe Tournament or the International Saimoe League to get why anti-moe people have a hard time. Practically every female anime character is present in the preliminary/nomination rounds and that means that they are all considered at least somewhat moe. Unless you hate female anime characters in general, you can’t really be completely anti-moe. This argument gives moe lovers a shield that the kawaii lovers never had and is probably where the old kawaii lovers moved to.

Of course, everything I’ve stated so far has just been from my personal observations over the years. Perhaps there’s a group of kawaii anime lovers still in existence in some corner of the internet that I don’t know about, or maybe it was just a coincidence that I was bombarded with so much kawaii in the past that I took it to be some big fad. What do you guys think? Is kawaii dead? Was it even a popular term when you started watching anime? Is moe the successor to kawaii? Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts.


This post is part of the Guide to Anime project. For more guides on various topics related to anime, check out the project page.

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27 Comments to “The Death of “Kawaii””

  1. Such a nice article!

    When I think about it, my anime history started in the boom of the moe. I used to watch a video blogger and I think he had the best description for Moe. “Moe only works when two important elements are present : A cute girl with a cute voice.” He present to us two version of Kanon 2006, one with the english dub and one with the original actors. He was actually right, the englisgh dub hardly felt Moe.
    Will recently posted..K-ON! Anime Review

  2. Kawaii is definitely dead as far as anyone that is serious about anime is concerned. You will still find a few random-types that will go “omg thats KAWAIIIIII~” on the net. To be honest, I don’t think Moe will turn out like Kawaii. It seems that the aftermath of Kawaii turned Moe into a more elitist term. Take for example, the difference between cute and moe. At least in my experience, most otaku will argue that moe is much more advanced and highly esteemed, “not just cute!”

    Though that really differs from person to person.

    Anyway- I agree. Kawaii is dead. xD
    Piecake recently posted..What makes ANIME popular

  3. Moe is definitely the lesser of the two evils, since it actually carries a unique (yet vague) meaning and is not interchangeable with “cute” 100% of the time. Because of this, even when the term is thrown around for no good reason, it’ll still be here to stay, at least until the English language comes up with a succinct blanket term for a host of character qualities that makes the viewer “fired up” (JEEZE that is long-winded).

    As for Kawaii, the only time I see it is when people are making fun of the way fangirls/fanboys talk and act. I’m not sure if this is true for all communities, but I hope it is. Such a superfluous occupant in our collective lexicon will not be missed.
    Chag recently posted..Figure Highlights- Still A-Ragin’

  4. This is from personal experience, but the usage of “kawaii” in my group of otaku friends has pretty much died out because it’s… to put it bluntly, considered “weeaboo behavior” to use in daily speech.

    I agree with you on the point of “anti-kawaii” people stamping it out, because really; it wasn’t CONSIDERED a weeaboo word back then until people REALLY started hating on anime fans who used it.

    I still cringe when looking at past posts where I had used it though–but I think that’s just my old shame. xD;

  5. thats quite an anime otaku related topic :D I don’t really care about the terms people are using on the internet, but personally I only use the word kawaii when I want to sound like a freak XD It’s ok when japanese people use the word to describe cute animals or sth like that, but when someone from europe or another country says kawaii in daily life it sounds crazy. In my blog I mainly use the word cute for describing cuteness :)
    Fabienne recently posted..Magical Record Lyrical Nanoha Force

  6. Peeeeeer-HAPS people have finally realized that the word kawaii has a broader meaning in Japanese than just “childish cute” and “covered in pink”. Any takers on that theory? No? Well, damn!
    nitro2k01 recently posted..Simon Lundströms manga-dom och jakten på de friade bilderna

  7. Quoting from Akagi Sena’s line in Oreimo:

    “Otaku aren’t avoided because of their hobbies themselves, they’re avoided when they do something socially unacceptable”

    I guess the more Otaku tried to influence the world irl, the more they have been subject to rejection, being thought of as freaks or weirdos just because they spout terms that people do not comprehend or terms that people link to typecast Otaku which they link to typical basis of discrimination under the lines of freaks, perverts, weirdos, undedicated, loners.

    Well, imo, the reason why these terminologies die is because Otaku have been conscious of themselves and their impact in society. We have been simply branded as hobbyists and critics by society and any more than that that we show them such as our ‘passion’, or spouting GAR lines are immediately considered as nonsense and we’ll see ourselves immediately discriminated.
    baka~ recently posted..To Kaminomi- with my utmost respect to Tamaki Wakaki

  8. To be honest growing up loving anime I was a alone in terms of someone to talk to about my hobbies. So I never really noticed any talking using “kawaii”, I have no past vs. present data on that. I’m really bad at discussions of this nature because honestly I just don’t think about this type of thing. Although it amuses me how many lengthy debates two anime fans can have over the definition of moe, otaku, tsundre, etc…

    I think the only Japanese word I use in daily life is baka. It’s my response when my boyfriend does something stupid that I don’t have any other words for.
    lovelyduckie recently posted..On Order- Witches- Weddings- and Wings

  9. When I entered the anime scene, I came in more around the moe scene. I have a hard time recalling much “kawaii!!” interactions, except for a few on some forums where the users were immediately ridiculed by the rest of the community. I hardly ever use the word myself unless I’m actually talking to a Japanese person…in Japanese.

    I have mixed feelings about moe since I participate in and am staff for the ISML. It’s a lot of fun and I like trying to bring about more recognition to the characters/anime I like that I feel are perhaps under-appreciated. But I also acknowledge that zealous moe often turns the characters into objects, instead of in-depth characters–which in turn creates a sort of objectifying of females and their stereotypes in general. Well-known lesson for both: nothing is good in extreme.
    Marina recently posted..Tenshi Food Banner

  10. @Will:
    It’s really amazing what a good voice will do for a character. I haven’t actually watched the dubbed version of Kanon, but I can imagine how un-moe it would be based on previous experience.

    People do argue that moe is more than cute, but I still have a hard time following their explanations. Someone once related moe to the feeling of spring (the season), and I was totally lost.

    I agree with you, moe isn’t going to go away any time soon. One of the problems with kawaii is that it had an equivalent English term that worked perfectly well, moe on the other hand has no English equivalent.

    I actually haven’t seen people making fun of fans for using kawaii in a long time. Almost as long as I haven’t seen anyone using kawaii in their speech.

    I also remember the times before people really started hating the term. It wasn’t too bad when it was used every once in a while to describe a character like Chibiusa (from Sailor Moon), but once it started coming up in every conversation, it had gone too far. I admit though that I used the term quite a bit too.

    When people start using it when they’re not speaking Japanese it does sound like they’re a bit crazy (not saying they are). I also use cute now to describe cuteness, it just doesn’t make sense to randomly stick in a word from another language.

    That’s what I always thought it meant :)

    That line is so true. When I tell non-anime fans that I like anime, I get one of two responses. The first is a look of “oh, so you’re one of those crazy/creepy people” and the second is more of a “what’s that?” followed by a slight interest. I have a feeling that the former has met the types that go way overboard in terms of how they act.

    Don’t worry, I don’t think you’re missing much with regards to kawaii.

    I think it’s ok if you just use baka for your boyfriend, if you started using that in public towards other people, well then…

    Ah, the moe boom, I’m actually surprised it’s lasting as long as it is.

    Helping to run the ISML must be fun, some of the “battles” between fans of different characters can get pretty intense though. The sad thing is that it does lead to some objectification of females, but I think most fans are mature enough to not treat women with disrespect.

  11. Here’s a question rather than a comment in response: would “kawaii” still be used to describe cute animals (like Chi the kitten from Chi’s Sweet Home) and cute little boys (and I’m not talking about bishounen here)? I’ve noticed that “moe” is exclusively used to describe pretty female characters, but that term wouldn’t work if on a cat or a little boy, would it?

  12. Actually I always thought moe was a reference to “moeru” or burning, since it is often used as a verb accompanied by burning sounds…The worst thing about the moe revolution to me though is the pigeonholing of characters into moe roles such as “tsundere moe” “meganekko” etc, rather than coming up with new and more exciting character types.

  13. Hmm..this is an interesting post.

    I never thought “kawaii” is any less popular than before. That’s probably cuz my non-anime-watching friends are still constantly throwing the word everytime they see anything cute. However, if I’m to carefully observe today’s anime fans, the word “kawaii” is really seldom used.

    Now, I don’t know how much connection anime/manga has on the possible gradual demise of the word “kawaii” but if I’m to separate my friends who are familiar with Japanese subculture and who are not – that’s the result.
    Hoshiko recently posted..Kimi ni Todoke 11 &amp 12- Strawberry Time

  14. I thought the meaning of “moe” is just the feeling that you want to nurture something. “Aw… look at that poor little thing… I just want to love it and take care of it.”

    At that point it’s more than just hugging. It’s more than an “anime style”. It’s literally a feeling. So in that sense, a lot of different varieties of anime characters can fall into this category, including previous champion Taiga.

    Azunyan? Definitely. Especially when she displays a sense of helplessness. When she put on those nekomimi ears, the scene is almost pornographic! The girls’ reactions were definitely moe.
    radiant recently posted..A Personal Message for Everyone

  15. @focalizer:
    I’ve actually seen it used to describe boys, but mostly the girly ones. I see your point though, in that case moe can’t replace kawaii.

    I’ve heard of the burning definition too, but I don’t know if it’s right or not because there are so many of them out there. It is disappointing that characters are put into specific classifications now rather than have a completely new and original personality.

    As far as I know, kawaii is still mainly used to describe cute things in general like Hello Kitty and a bunch of girly stuff, not so much anime now. It sounds to me like that’s what your friends are doing.

    That sounds like a good definition, but what about the characters that are independent but still considered moe? I have to admit that a lot of the moe characters out there do seem like they need some nurturing.

  16. Now that you mention it, “kawaii” seems to have kind of disappeared. I remember it was such common usage back then; it was even in Gwen Stefani’s music video.

    Good point on moe supplanting kawaii. I think that’s true. Moe is a harder to define term that can fit the user’s needs with much more flexibility than kawaii can. It’s broad appeal might have made it the preferred term now.
    Yi recently posted..Eye Racism in Gosick Times We Overthink

  17. Well, all trends come and die–the only question is what supplants that trend instead? But certainly a lot of factors, pointed out by yourself and in the comments section, is why kawaii seemingly hasn’t registered for a while now.

  18. abscissa says:

    I didn’t really notice that kawaii is diminishing. I have friends who are still attach to the Japanese culture, mostly girls, use the term on a daily basis. As for moe, I don’t really know what it means. I always think that it’s like an obsession–to the point that it’s already becoming a fetish. Maybe that’s too extreme, but I noticed people usually use that if they have strong attraction into something.

  19. @Yi:
    I didn’t know Gwen Stefani had anything with kawaii in it, gotta look this up.

    True, true, everything must go sooner or later. Most of the time it’s good, but sometimes you just look back and miss the old days.

    Quite a few people still use the term, but it’s just not as prevalent within anime fandom anymore. Perhaps moe really does mean an attraction to something, that could explain why so many characters are considered moe.

  20. I think you’re right, I don’t see a lot of kawaii anymore. Moe, sure, especially during the first season of K-on! I guess the flexibility or perhaps the even the ambiguity of moe makes it easier to use when describing something not necessarily just cute.
    Xine recently posted..Featured Artist and Toy Collector- RadiantDreamer

  21. @Xine:
    I think the “moe moe kyun” scene in K-ON really brought the concept of moe to center stage. Once everyone discovered the term, it just stuck like glue.

  22. I remember hearing “Kawaii” employed almost exclusively as an exclamatory term (“Kawaii!”), so it was probably inevitable that it would eventually wear itself out, as most slang tends to do. But I don’t hear people using “moe” in the same way. Heck, have I even heard anyone actually speak it? Maybe in some anime podcast, I can’t remember. But there’s a seriousness about its use (at least on the Internet) that was nowhere to be found with “kawaii,” as if people are afraid to be caught abusing or overusing it. It’s easy to remember (or imagine) annoying fans squealing “kawaii!” at a convention. It’s more difficult to conjure up the same scene with “moe!”. Maybe people are more self-conscious now and determined not to let history repeat itself.

    • Dorotheia says:

      It seems that way to me. I don’t think it’s like people are afraid of the word moe, it’s just that they’re more thoughtful about using it.

      I agree with Radiant that the word is more of a feeling than a description—not always about the character themselves, but what that character inspires in the viewer/reader: intense interest in the character, to the point that they feverishly want to nurture them (see them grow up) or protect them (stay a kid forever!). So, the expression “made (maid?*) of moe” really means that the character was made with the intent to entice the viewer in this way.
      For me, kawaii is more easily applied to things that are cute and characters’ actions (not the character themselves).

      But my opinion probably comes from way off the other side of the galaxy… Also, I am not from generation kawaii.

      *bad pun, sorry, it just occurred to me. This connection comes up too often.

  23. @Joe:
    I guess moe really is used in a more refined manner compared to kawaii, but I’ve still seen people use it in the same way. Only time will tell if it will stick around or die off like kawaii did.

  24. OHEMGEE says:

    my use of kawaii today is like,
    “let’s kawaii desu this shit up”
    it makes me gangster, yo. (:

  25. @OHEMGEE:
    lol, I don’t think “gangster” is the right impression ;)


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