Cute at an older age: A case study of Otona-Kawaii



How to Cite

Lieber-Milo, S. “Cute at an Older Age: A Case Study of Otona-Kawaii”. Mutual Images Journal, no. 10, Dec. 2021, pp. 93-108, doi:10.32926/2021.10.lie.otona.


The word kawaii, meaning ‘cute and sweet’ in English, has been part of the Japanese culture for centuries. While the word and trend were historically associated with young women and children, there has recently been an attempt to expand the definition of kawaii outside of its traditional borders to other age and gender groups by creating uniquely synthesised words and trends. The newly coined term otona-kawaii [‘adult-cute’] refers to mature women who passed their teen years and continue to dress cute and behave innocent and adorable. In this paper, a focus will be taken upon the new concept of otona-kawaii, and how it is defined and evaluated by the Japanese people.

Results of a recent survey conducted among male and female respondents between the ages of 18 to 29, showed that many of them were in favour of the idea of behaving cute at an older age. It was also found that women were more familiar with the term otona-kawaii and had a more positive approach towards it than men. The results of the study suggest that kawaii can be extended beyond infants and may apply to other age populations, such as mature women.

The aim of this study is to bridge the gap between kawaii and maturity by providing some empirical evidence and information, bringing to a deeper understanding of the concept of kawaii, contributing to the scholarship of the kawaii culture in Japan.


ANAN, NOBUKO (2016), Contemporary Japanese women's theatre and visual arts: Performing girls' aesthetics. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

AOYAGI, HIROSHI (2005), Islands of eight million smiles: Idol, performance and symbolic production in contemporary Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center.

ASANO-CAVANAGH, YUKO (2013), Understanding Japanese culture through a semantic analysis of kawaii 'cute', itai 'pitiful' and ita-kawaii 'pitifully trying to be cute'. In: John, Henderson - Marie-Eve Ritz - Celeste Rodrı́guez Louro (eds), Proceedings of the 2012 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society, pp. 1-21.

ASANO-CAVANAGH, YUKO (2017), Kawaii discourse: The semantics of a Japanese culture keyword and its social elaboration. In: Carsten, Levisen - Sophia Waters (eds), Culture keywords in discourse. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, pp. 211-234.

BORGI, MARTA - IRENE, COGLIATI-DEZZA - VICTORIA, BRELSFORD, et al. (2014), Baby schema in human and animal faces induces cuteness perception and gaze allocation in children. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 411.

BOTZ-BORNSTEIN, THORSTEN (2016), Kawaii, kenosis, Verwindung: A reading of kawaii through Vattimo's philosophy of 'weak thought'. East Asian Journal of Popular Culture, 2(1), pp. 111-123.

IHARA NAMIHA - NITTONO, HIROSHI (2011), Osana-sa no teido ni yoru kawaī no katagori bunrui [Categorization of Kawaii by the Level of Infantility], Human Science Research, Journal of Graduate School of Integrated Arts and Sciences, Hiroshima University, 6, pp. 13-17.

ISERI, MAKIKO (2015), Flexible femininities? Queering kawaii in Japanese girls' culture. In: Claire, Nally - Angela Smith (eds), Twenty-first century feminism: Forming and performing femininity. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 140-163.

ITAKURA, MIKIKO (2012, May 16), Kawaii-itai no kyōkaisen o hantei [Determining the boundary line of cutepainful]. An-An Magazine, 1806, pp. 49-56.

KINSELLA, SHARON (1995), Cuties in Japan. In: Lise, Skov - Brian Moeran (eds), Women, media and consumption in Japan. Honolulu, Richmond: University of Hawaii Press, pp. 220-254.

KRINGELBACH, MORTEN L. - STARK, ELOISE A. - ALEXANDER, CATHERINE, et al. (2016), On cuteness: Unlocking the parental brain and beyond. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20(7), pp. 545-558.

LIEBER-MILO, SHIRI (2017), The Macro and Micro Aspects and Effects of Kawaii. PhD. Osaka University. Supervised by: Iwai Shigeki.

LIEBER-MILO, SHIRI (2021), Pink purchasing: Interrogating the soft power of Japan's kawaii consumption. Journal of Consumer Culture, 0(0), pp. 1-15.

NGUYEN, AN (2012), Maiden's fashion as eternal becomings: Victorian maidens and sugar sweet cuties donning Japanese street fashion in Japan and North America. The University of Western Ontario, Canada. Supervised by Darnell Regna.

NGUYEN, AN (2016), Eternal maidens: Kawaii aesthetics and otome sensibility in Lolita fashion. East Asian Journal of Popular Culture, 2(1), pp. 15-31.

MAY, SIMON (2019), The power of cute. Princeton University Press.

MONDEN, MASAFUMI (2015), Japanese fashion cultures: Dress and gender in contemporary Japan. London, New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

NITTONO, HIROSHI (2009), A behavioral science approach to 'kawaii' (In Japanese with English abstract). Paper presented at the Graduate School of Integrated Arts and Sciences, Hiroshima University, Hiroshima, 4, pp. 19-35.

NITTONO, HIROSHI (2016, April), The two-layer model of Kawaii: A behavioral science framework for understanding kawaii and cuteness. East Asian Journal of Popular Culture Special Issue "Cute Studies", 2(1), pp. 79-95.

NITTONO, HIROSHI (2019), Kawaii no chikara- Jikken de saguru sono shinri [The power of kawaii: A view from experimental psychology]. Kagaku Dojin.

NITTONO, HIROSHI - LIEBER-MILO, SHIRI - DALE JOSHUA P. (2021), Cross-Cultural comparisons of the cute and related concepts in Japan, the United States, and Israel. SAGE Open, 11(1), pp. 1- 16.

SHERMAN, GARY D. - HAIDT, JONATHAN (2011), Cuteness and disgust: The humanizing and dehumanizing effects of emotion. Emotion Review, 3, pp. 1-7.

SHERMAN, GARY D. - HAIDT JONATHAN - IYER RAVI, et al. (2012), Individual differences in the physical embodiment of care: Prosaically oriented women respond to cuteness by becoming more physically careful. Emotion, 13(1), pp. 151-158.

WINNICOTT, DONALD W. (1965), Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In: Donald W. Winnicott (ed.), The maturational process and the facilitating environment: Studies in the theory of emotional development. New York, NY: International Universities Press, Inc, pp. 140-152.

YANO, CHRISTINE R. (2013), Pink globalization: Hello Kitty's trek across the Pacific. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

YOMOTA, INUHIKO (2006), Kawaii ron [Theory of kawaii]. Tokyo: Chikuma Shinsho.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Copyright (c) 2022 Shiri Lieber-Milo