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Dark “Kawaii”: Incorporating Harsh Societal Ills into Japanese Cute Culture



Source: Refinery29

In Japan, there is a phrase known as “kawaii,” meaning “cute” or “adorable,” often associated with a youthful, feminine look. In Japan, the word kawaii represents a prevalent cultural mindset that is fixated on clothing styles and human aesthetics embodying a “cute” appearance (much like the Western world’s fixation with “sexy”).

Harujuku, a district in Shibuya, Tokyo, considered to be one of Japan’s hottest commercial fashion centers, is often considered a hotspot for kawaii culture. It’s filled with people wearing bright, pastel colors and Lolita fashion (meaning “sweet” or “lovely”), and Victorian-period inspired clothing, often featuring bows, lace, and petticoats.

The term “kawaii” often brings to mind youthful innocence and gaiety, but lately, there seems to be an emergence of darker elements incorporated into this culture of “cute.”

Menhera Aesthetic

Kawaii styles, though frequently “cute” in nature, are becoming darker in look and meaning. “Menhera,” a Japanese term referring to those suffering from mental illness, is often incorporated into kawaii trends to represent the internal struggle of many adolescents.

Despite the dark nature of the meaning, though, this fashion style mixes aspects of sickness with childlike play and imagination. For example, bruises on a girl with a frilly pink dress.

The Menhera aesthetic can be found in dark kawaii designs ranging from Yume Kawaii (“dream kawaii,” which mixes in fantasy) to Kowakawaii (“scary kawaii,” which mixes in bloody and grotesque displays). Either way, the contrast between the cuteness of kawaii and the pain of the Menhera aesthetic is clear to the viewer — and that is precisely the point.

While the western world shies away from discussion about mental stability, Japan’s Menhera aesthetic presents it for all to see. However, whether that public display of pain sparks a conversation about mental health or encourages self-harm is debated.

Yami Kawaii

Emerging from Harajuku subculture is the more recent trend known as Yami Kawaii, translating to “cute-sick.” The incongruous term refers to elements of mental illness, such as depression and suicide, subjects that are considered taboo to speak about within Japanese culture.

Clothing styled in this fashion features many of the same features of Lolita fashion, bearing a child-like adorability while incorporating medical items, such as syringes or bloody characters that are often taken as disturbing. A prominent example of Yami Kawaii is the cartoon character, Menhera-chan.

Menhera-chan, a character created by illustrator, Ezaki Bisuko, is a young girl bearing charming pink ponytails and bandages on her wrist, indicating self-harm through cutting.

Source: Tumblr

In regards to this movement, there are some mixed reactions. Some may find Yami-Kawaii off-putting, seeing the trend as trivializing mental illness under a fashionable trend, while others find it healing.

In a culture that has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and problematic attitude toward mental health, the references to mental illness within Yami-Kawaii allow exposure within a conservative society.

Guro Lolita

Taking this “cute-sick” persona further comes the substyle of Guro Lolita fashion, translating to “grotesque Lolita.” This aesthetic still tries to present a small aspect of cuteness, but with an even greater aspect of horror.

So, black-and-white dresses with blood stains and arms with long bandages are common. Or a white nurse outfit splattered with blood can be seen as well. Additional accessories like bloody knives or broken toys are also reoccurring.

Due to its unsightly nature, Guro Lolita is not intended to be worn in public. Rather, the dresser reserves it for conventions, photo shoots, and horror-themed gatherings.

Guro Lolita is fixated on the idea of a broken doll, representing the wearer as cute from the beginning. Or rather, a faultless child whose internal battle eventually breaks her adorableness.

In that regard, this style of Kawaii is more of an allusion to mental illness as it takes the innocence of its prisoner. It is about a flawless young woman whose strength and beauty have succumbed to struggle and pain.

To many, Guro Lolita hints at two themes: First, that the fight with mental health overcomes even the most perfect possessor of it. Second, and more hopeful, that the individual is not destroyed by the wrestle — rather, the beauty once there will always remain.


Recently, in April 2018, Netflix premiered the original net animation series, Aggretsuko. The show centers on Retsuko, an anthropomorphic red panda, working as a female office worker in a modern day Japanese trading firm.

The protagonist bears a striking resemblance to a popular figure from Japanese cartoon figure, Hello Kitty, although with a major difference in personality.

Retsuko usually displays a calm and amiable persona to her friends and fellow employees, but when pushed to her emotional limits, she transforms into a more aggressive version of herself (hence the title Aggretsuko), screaming her woes out in pure death metal.

Source: Netflix

The show, though appearing innocent at first glance with its cute animal characters, relates to the bleaker nature of everyday life. It showcases Retsuko dealing with a misogynistic pig for a boss (literally), as well as common frustrations. These include obnoxious workmates, dating challenges, and dissatisfaction with her job.

Themes of power abuse and sexual harassment in the workplace are prevalent throughout the show, resonating with the viewers about their own “real-life” struggles within this fictional world.

Shows like Aggretsuko and trends like Yami-kawaii showcase the darker elements of human society under the guise of cuteness, allowing hard issues to become more palatable for wider audiences.

For those suffering from harassment or mental illness, dark “kawaii” culture might allow people to connect to others who suffer the same hardships they do, acknowledging their murkier emotions, and creating a community within mainstream society that does not acknowledge its societal failings.

By: Michele Kirichanskaya

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