Japanese culture of kawaii: Even the signs are “cute” in Tokyo

Before my family ventured to Tokyo this past spring, I read up on kawaii – a word used to describe the quality of "cuteness" in almost all aspects of Japanese culture. As noted in a Associated Press story, Nobuyani Kurita, a sociology professor at Musashi Unversity in Tokyo, has said that the word “cute” is a "magic term" that encompasses everything that's acceptable and desirable. And, according to Wikipedia, "cuteness" has become a part of Japanese culture and identity.

Seizing on the "cuteness" ideal, many Japanese products exhibit kawaii qualities on their packaging and promotional displays.

All Nippon Airways recently shared a photo on Twitter of one of its planes painted as a panda to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its China routes. The airline also has featured Pokémon characters on the side of its jets, which are referred to as Pokémon Jets.

Many Japanese tourism groups also use "cute" characters to help entice people to visit their region. I saw it in action when my family was at the Tokyo Tower this past spring and, I have to admit, the three anime-like characters they had on display won me over.

During our stay in Tokyo, we saw that kawaii-influenced images were indeed everywhere. As we walked down the streets, our sons would call our attention to signs, foods, toys and other items that exhibited the kawaii qualities of “cute.” For us, that meant constantly looking all around us – even on the city sidewalks, playground fences and train platforms. Because, even the safety or cautionary signs are “cute” in Tokyo.

Interestingly, the safety or cautionary signs also display other kawaii qualities like “innocent” and “non-threatening.” In doing so, the signs conveyed important safety information in a fun, playful style, helping to soften the blow of the warning and allowing it to fit more within Japanese cultural norms.

To me, these signs show the prevalence of kawaii within the Japanese culture and its existence in, and impact on, everyday life in Tokyo and other cities across the country.

Here is a look at some of the kawaii safety and cautionary signs my family saw during our recent trip to Tokyo:

Have you been to Japan? Did you see similar signs in Tokyo or another city in Japan? Which one of these signs is your favorite one? What other elements of kawaii did you notice there? Please share your thoughts and favorites in the comments below.

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