Beyond Cuteness: An Emerging Field of the Psychology of “Kawaii”

“Kawaii” is often translated as “cute” in English, but the nuances and connotations of the two words seem to be different. In this presentation, Professor Hiroshi Nittono of Osaka University discusses which aspects of kawaii are unique to Japanese culture and which aspects seem to be universal to all humans.

“Kawaii” is one of the most popular words in contemporary Japan. It is often translated as “cute” in English, but the nuances and connotations of the two words seem to be different. The psychology of cuteness has its roots in Konrad Lorenz’s (1943) concept of Kindchenschema (baby schema), which assumes that specific physical features – such as a round head and big eyes – serve as key stimuli that instinctively trigger perceptions of cuteness and protective behaviour in humans. However, after over 70 years of research, we are beginning to see that the perception and feeling of cuteness are not directly related to nurturance. It goes beyond a response to infantile stimuli and is better conceptualized as a more general, positive emotion related to sociality and approach motivation. In this talk, I will introduce the current status of kawaii/cuteness research in the cognitive and behavioural sciences and discuss the importance of this emotion in a mature society of symbiosis. In particular, I would like to discuss which aspects of kawaii are unique to Japanese culture and which aspects seem to be universal to all humans.

Professor Hiroshi Nittono gave this Keynote Presentation at The 7th Asian Conference on Psychology & the Behavioral Sciences (ACP2017) in Kobe, Japan.


Hiroshi Nittono

Professor Hiroshi Nittono received his PhD in Human Sciences (Experimental Psychology) from Osaka University in 1998. From 2005 to 2016 he was an Associate Professor and Director of the Cognitive Psychophysiology Laboratory at Hiroshima University. In April 2016 he moved to the Graduate School of Human Sciences, Osaka University, as Full Professor of Experimental Psychology. His research interests include psychophysiology and engineering psychology. It was only by chance that he started research in the area of kawaii. In 2007, an undergraduate student happened to ask him whether it was possible to do some psychological research on kawaii as part of her graduation thesis, simply because she was keen on kawaii things. At that point, there were few serious studies on kawaii in the field of psychology. Since then he and his students have conducted both theoretical and empirical studies on this topic. A journal article published in 2012 entitled ‘The Power of Kawaii: Viewing Cute Images Promotes a Careful Behavior and Narrows Attentional Focus’ was covered by more than 70 newspapers and journals around the world. Currently he also serves as General Advisor of the Kawaii-Mono Kenkyukai (Research Society for Kawaii Things) sponsored by a government agency, Chugoku Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry. The society aims to create high-quality products that combine Japanese traditional craftsmanship and feelings of kawaii or cuteness.

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