Feb 25, 2013 - Language, Society    No Comments



There is a post that keeps going around the social networks right now which makes an effort of dissecting and investigating the current young pop phenomenon AKB48 and its’s relation to paedophilia in Japan.

There is not doubt that the author makes a valiant stab at why there is such infatuation with young teenage pop-groups but the conclusions drawn are not only short sighted and shallow, but also populistic and with lack of not only social but also historical context.

So in an attempt to demystify and somewhat justify the craze which is AKB48 I decided to write this article focusing on that the most Japanese of all expressions, “Kawaii”. I would also like to point out that understanding and acceptance are two very different beasts which might not always thrive from being put in the same cage.


It is always tricky to know where to start but in this case  let’s start with the word itself.


The first character “可” means “possible” as in: There is a possibility of rain

The second character “愛” means “love” as in: I love you

So taken together the two characters literally mean “Possible to love”

In Japanese society today the literal meaning of the word has been lost and it is freely used to described things that are cute and cool or fashionable. It is also probably the word most likely to be used when describing the attributes of members of said female pop-group since most of them are not beautiful in the Japanese sense of the word. I am not trying to say that these usages are wrong but I would like you to keep the original meaning in the back of your mind when we start putting this idea into its historical context.

The tale of Genji

Is, according to the records that we have, the oldest novel ever written. It was published in the 12th century by author, and most likely courtesan, Murasaki Shikibu. Numerous interpretations of this novel have been made by scholars much more proficient than me so I will not make any attempt at trying to find underlying themes or hidden messages. Genji was a courtier who fell in love with his father’s courtesan and was exiled from court. He then spends his days lamenting his fate while trying to find someone to make up for his lost love the lady Fujitsubo.

And he does. He finds it in the child of a healer living on the outskirts of Kyoto. Genji catches her playing in her garden and watches her through a fence mesmerized. In her he sees not the bud of today but the fully bloomed flower that will surely come as she transforms into a full grown woman.

Genji speaks with the healer and receives the promise that they shall wed once the girl has properly come of age. Until then Genji will act as her patron and ensure that she shall want for nothing.

So in other words Genji sees her for what the future shall bring. When the time is right she will be “possible to love”.

I would argue that this is the birth of Kawaii, as least as far as historical notations go.

Now that we have a historical context let’s take it one step further and examine the use of Kawaii in language and why the meaning is so much deeper than one might first expect.

I am going to make a bold statement and claim that Kawaii is only about things which carry a sense of innocence. Something that is Kawaii is not supposed to talk too much, be very clever, opinionated or in fact have any sort of distinguishing features. Instead it should be a blank canvas filled with possibilities for the future and able to be shaped by the creators hand.

Our society tells us that a woman is not ready to be a mother or partner until she has reached a certain age. This age might vary from society to society and I do not want to get into a discussion about which age is right and which is wrong. What I would like to point out though is that these are artificial. There are very mature young women just as there are very immature older ones.

Kawaii looks not at age but at development level and says; “Here is something that we a guiding hand can be turned into a master piece”

So when middle aged men look at young women dancing to the trashiest of pops ever produced they are not doing so with an erotic mind set but with that of someone who is pruning a bonsai tree. They see not what is now but what will be in years to come.

So the infatuation is not with age but with innocence. …

Obviously there are many who take this to the extreme which is Lolita style manga and anime but this is just an extreme of this phenomenon. There is a movement to restrict access to this type of material which I fully support and which shall surely escalate over the following years.

As a final point it should also be pointed out that the Japanese entertainment industry is notorious for lying about peoples ages. If a girl says she is 19 chances are she is probably more like to be around 23. The average age of the top 10 AKB48 girls is 21 and if you take in the whole group the average age is 19. Fooled where you?

Making sweeping statements is dangerous as words carry powerful meaning and should not be used lightly. Keep these concepts in mind next time you hear or use the word Kawaii and you might find that it means so much more than what you thought before.

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