Kawaii ka Kowai? (Cute or Scary?)

After “konnichiwa,” my first Japanese word was “kawaii,” meaning cute. It refers to adorable puppies or playful children, adults dressed in anime costumes, and anything else that is quirky or fun. As I quickly learned, it’s an essential word here in Japan.

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Our fluffy white dog, Hercules, receives this accolade on a daily basis, which might explain the swing in his step as he proudly leads us humans on his afternoon walk. Our neighbors coo over him, brightening my day. This easy interaction quickly introduced me to my Japanese neighbors, so in return I attempted to use it myself. I tried to compliment Japanese parents on their perfectly behaved children, casually invoking my new word with a small, sweet smile. “Kawaii.”

I was surprised, however, when they looked at me in utter confusion and then ushered their children away. The Japanese are not overly protective of kids, especially compared to American standards. Children – beginning at age 5 – walk themselves to school, frequently utilizing public transit to do so. They are independent at an early age, and the nation as a whole takes it upon themselves to keep an eye on the little ones. Therefore, speaking to a young child or complimenting them to their parents isn’t unusual or creepy.

But after a few failed attempts to make nice, I gave up; I stopped trying. Confused and disappointed, it wasn’t until the next month that I discovered my mistake. Speaking with my agent while at a job, I referred to something that was cute.“Kawaii,” I said.

She cocked her head to one side and seemed confused. “Really?” she questioned.

“…yes…” I responded tentatively. “Don’t you think it’s cute?”

Realization dawned, and her face broke into an enormous grin. “Oh, kawaii,” she exclaimed.

“That’s what I said, kawaii…” I looked at her suspiciously.

“No,” she insisted. “You said [ko-why].”

“Right. Kawaii.”

“No. [Ka-why-ee],” she emphasized. “Not [ko-why].”

“Huh?”

Sensing my need for clarification, she wrote them down for me.

– Kawaii, [ka-why-ee], means cute.

– Kowai, [ko-why] means scary.

This is when I grasped my huge mistake. For weeks I’d been telling parents their children were scary! They’d complimented my little fur ball, and I’d returned the favor with an insult. Assimilation fail!

I blushed and made her say it to me ten times, until I was confident that I now had the right word. Kawaii – emphasis on the “ee” at the end.

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Armed with this knowledge, I tried once more to win over my neighbors with kindness. Success! Once they realized I wasn’t categorizing their children as monsters, they seemed much more welcoming – and who can blame them?

Over time, I’ve learned other useful words and phrases, but this one has stuck with me. It taught me how quickly good intentions can turn bad, and the importance of diction! But it also brought to mind an interesting cultural trend here in Japan. Like the words “kawaii” and “kowai,” the cute and the scary are frequently hard to distinguish.

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A recent visit to the “Kawaii Monster Café” drove this connection home. A “family-friendly” restaurant, it’s located in the heart of Harajuku – home to the weird and wild fashions of Japan. A uniquely fantastical world, it defies description. Enormous, neon mushrooms, macaroons and cupcakes intermingle with electric animal heads drinking from giant-sized baby bottles. The room is eerily dark, while black lights illuminate the electric décor.

The waitresses dress in frilly pastel costumes with white aprons, while the “performers” wear crazy, sexualized outfits of skintight pants and short skirts, much of their flesh exposed. Additionally their “dance” brings to mind a strip tease, minus the strip, but very much including the less-than-ladylike poses.

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Bizarre. It’s the only word that seems appropriate. And the food fits the theme: bright red burgers with googly eyes, rainbow colored spaghetti accompanied by an array of neon sauces, and desserts called “cat food” that consist of ice cream atop sugary cereal.

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Kids clearly love it. Japanese and American children alike light up with excitement as they leave the real world behind and enter this fantasyland. They watch the highly inappropriate show with glee and clamor to make their way atop the rotating cake carousel. (Yes, it’s a carousel made of cake topped with melted bunnies and other monstrosities).

But while Japanese parents seem unfazed by this themed restaurant, foreign adults are less enthused. It’s cool, no doubt. But it’s also creepy. And while the name might be a give away – Kawaii Monster Café – the word “cute” prior to monster brings to mind a Disney or Pixar take, like in Monsters, Inc. or Shrek. I certainly didn’t expect transvestites dancing atop a morbidly sweet cake wearing black leather and holding a whip. But that’s what I found!

All this to say, perhaps my initial confusion between “kawaii” and “kowai” wasn’t as grave as first imagined. Maybe I was onto something…

Examples are endless:

– The obsession with Pikachu and other Pokemon (“pocket monster”) characters, which are adored and labeled “kawaii,” but in actuality are horned and fanged critters that could inflict serious harm.

– Hostess cafes where women dress as French maids and entertain male clientele with childish giggles and faux-flattery.

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– Hello Kitty, while strictly for children in America, is meant for all ages in Japan. No woman is too old to wear cat ears on her head or attach a tail for an after-work party.

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– The Robot Restaurant (another themed experience), that consists of barely-dressed Amazonian women attempting to take down over-sexed robotic invaders with gyrating dances and Star Trek-inspired weaponry.

The list goes on and on and on…

So where does the cute stop and the creepy begin?

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I don’t have an answer. Every day I encounter a new oxymoron that makes no sense to my American mentality. I struggle with the appeal of anime, which sexualizes the female characters as pre-pubescent girls that have tubular boobs and impossibly small waists (not to mention the youthful schoolgirl outfits). And I simply do not understand why it’s considered cute to wear jewelry in the shape of over-easy eggs. But the Japanese do. And that’s fine by me!

While I will never fit in with the “kawaii” culture, I absolutely enjoy the show! People-watching here is fantastic; I am never without entertainment or wonder. And honestly, that makes life so much more fun!

“Kawaii!” 😉

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