Kawaii is the Japanese word for cute. In english it is usually reserved for anime girls. It has 4 syllables: ka wa i i.

If you pronounce it with english pronunciation, it sounds similar to the word "Kowai", which means scary/afraid. That is because in english, you don't fully pronounce nonstressed vowels, so kawai becomes kuh why. But in Japanese, you must pronounce all the vowels, so there is a difference.

In otaku usage, it's come to mean cuter than cute, really... Literally, though, it means loveable, being composed of the Chinese characters "ke" (possible) and "ai" (love). What's kawaii? Cabbits, Pikachu, Skuld, Belldandy, Mokona, SD anything, the Rayearth girls... I suspect kawaii is known to kill in large doses, but it's very hard to resist.

Nothing is more kawaii than mahou shoujo anime. Watching mahou shoujo is much like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick. The natural impulse is to recoil backwards in disgust and horror by the totally overwhelming cuteness of it, so fans are rare. But if you have a natural resistance to cuteness, it's great.

Extremely kawaii mahou shoujo include:

But those are probably far too cute for the anime newbie. You should harden yourself up with lighter fare:

The following etymology is from an article by Kanako Shiokawa1, who in turn cites Sôichi Masubuchi2.

The origin of the modern word kawaii is the heian era word kawai (sic). It refered to a sentiment of pity or empathy, or by extension to the objects or persons who inspire such feelings, and is also the origin of the modern word kawaisou 'poor, pitiful'.* However, writes Shiokawa, the meaning soon shifted and "the compassion for the helpless state of infants and children began to include an undercurrent of charm being exerted by their very helplessness."

During shogunate times, the role of women in Japanese society became more subordinated, and as a consequence girls and women also became included in this usage. This in turn affected the meaning of the word, which began to include "feminine" qualities like delicacy, sensitivity, fragility, and prettiness.

This sense of the word remained until the 1960s. "The expression was limited to describing animals and persons of a lesser standing with an emphasis on their helpless state". In the late 60s the meaning of the word expanded to the present vaguely positive expression that can be applied to anything from cars to toys to fashionable clothes. During the 70s and early 80s the word reached its present level of popularity.

Shiokawa and Masubuchi argue that the word still shows traces of its earlier meanings, in that kawaii things are rounded and non-threatening - and "girly". To be sure, kawaii is a standard adjective for describing attractive women but would not be unambiguously positive when applied to a man.

*The (different) kanjis used to write these words are ateji.

  1. Cute but Deadly: Women and Violence in Japanese Comics. Kanako SHIOKAWA. In: Themes and Issues in Asian Cartooning. Edited by John A. Lent. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999.
  2. Kawaii Shôkôgun (kawaii syndrome). MASUBUCHI Sôichi. Tôkyô: Nihon Hôsô Shuppan Kyôkai, 1994.

With the startling frequency that this word is used as pseudo-English, especially by (Western) otaku, I thought it might be interesting to look at the modern Japanese definition and usage. (That and I am addicted to Koujien.)

Contains Japanese characters in Unicode, with transliteration in romaji.

かわいい kawaii

keiyoushi (adjective)

kawayui no ten. kawaii wa ateji.
Originated from "kawayui". "kawaii" (written in kanji "possible" "love") is a phonetic substitute, or ateji.

1. いたわしい。ふびんだ。かわいそうだ。
iwatashii. fubin da. kawaisou da.
santaishishuu: "banmin no kokotsu to naritaru wa kawaii koto de wa orinai ka."
Pitiful, poor (little), unfortunate.
"Are the skeletons of these thousands not a pitiable sight?" (Santai Shishuu)

2. 愛すべきである。深い愛情を感じる。
aisubeki dearu. fukai aijou wo kanjiru.
"kawaii waga ko" "kawaii koe de utau"
Something that one should love. Something that evokes a feeling of deep affection or fondness.
"our lovely child" "sing in a sweet voice"

3. 小さくて美しい。「かわいいスズランの花」
chiisakute utsukushii. "kawaii suzuran no hana"
Small and beautiful. "The pretty lily-of-the-valley blossoms"

Source: Koujien 5th ed. Impromptu translation by me. This is a CST Approved use of copyrighted material.

In my experience, actual usage includes meanings such as "my dear ..." or "my precious ...". Sadly, I haven't access to Yubiwa Monogatari, the Japanese version of The Lord of the Rings, to confirm my suspicions.

gn0sis pointed out that the ateji likely comes from the (Mandarin) Chinese keai. Propz!

There is an oft overlooked grammar particularity that the average gaijin ought to know about this ubiquitous near-expletive word of the Japanese language lest some serious faux pas be made.

Among the first things one learn in Japanese grammar is the possibility to give straight adjectives a layer of "perception" by appending the suffix sou (pronounced "so" with a long "o" which the standardized romaji spelling writes "ou"). I think this is technically called a "hearsay adjunct" in serious books (maybe "likeliness/appearance adjunct" would be more appropiate - thanks JudyT).

For example:
korewa oishii ("This is delicious")
Would give:
korewa oishisou ("This looks delicious")

korewa muzukashii ("This is difficult")
Would give:
korewa muzukashisou ("This looks/sounds difficult")

It is however important to know that, although this construct works for nearly every adjective, it should not be used (unless you know exactly what you are doing) with kawaii...

Let me illustrate:

Picture a beautiful and mysterious burgeoning love in the land of the rising sun and the falling sakura leaves... made more than a little awkward by the shared inability of these two lovebirds to comprehend much of each other's language.

Now, picture this young stupid and innocent gaijin striving hard to compliment his girlfriend on her look and particularly on some freshly bought uselessly cute piece of body ornamental crap that Japanese gross consumerism seems to thrive on.

Knowing the aforementioned facts about Japanese grammar, you might be tempted to risk a "this looks cute on you" (kawaisou !), right?

Well, this young lad was... And did...

And he had to spend quite a bit of time afterward trying to convince her that he never meant to say that she looked pitiable/pathetic, as, you guessed it, this is what kawaisou (可哀想) actually means in modern Japanese, due to some obscure remnant of the previous definition of the word (see write-up above).

Of course, such kind of cultural faux pas have been made by about anybody who ever set foot in a foreign country. But I just thought you might want to avoid this particular one, shall the occasion ever arise.

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