Editor’s Note – Joshua Paul Dale is a professor at Gakugei University in Tokyo. He is co-editor of “The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness”, and editor of “Cute Studies”, a special issue of the East Asian Journal of Popular Culture.
(CNN) – The menu at Pom Pom Purin Café in Tokyo is the epitome of “kawaii”.
On sale are molded rice omelets in the shape of the coffee Golden Retriever cartoon character’s namesake and a puppy face made from rice floating on a curry plate.
This cafe is not alone. The adorable “kawaii” food is unique to Japan.
At restaurants across the country, diners feast on dishes designed to resemble Snoopy, Moomin, and Peter Rabbit. Bakeries carve sweet and savory treats into the shapes of other beloved cartoon characters.
Elaborate kawaii bento boxes are commonplace in Japan.
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And the “wagashi” – traditional candies made from crushed rice and sweet bean paste – are made into little wrapped bears.
At home, mothers often cut the ends of hot dogs from the splayed legs of an octopus, adding eyes from tiny pieces of dried seaweed.
But why has kawaii cooking taken off in Japan – and why are adults embracing the trend as much as children?
The answer, it seems, lies in the heritage of a cuisine that has been enjoyed for centuries as much with the eyes as with the mouth.
Cute vs kawaii
A word originating from the lower classes rather than the social elite, “kawaii” came into common usage in the 19th century, around the same time the word “cute” came into English.
Joshua Paul Dale
A derivation of treble (meaning showing shrewd insight), the English word retains the connotation of intelligence with a bit of cunning.
But this is not the case in Japanese.
Kawaii literally means “able to be loved” and has no negative connotations.
The word communicates the shameless joy found in the undemanding presence of innocent, harmless and adorable things.
Too cute to eat?
Kawaii images have long appeared in Japanese food-related literature.
Over 1,000 years ago, author and royal court clerk Sei Shonagon wrote about kindness in “The Pillow Book,” citing examples including a child’s face drawn on a melon.
At least 600 years ago, elite samurai feasted on “honzen ryori”. During these highly ritualized banquets each artfully arranged dish contained a literary reference – food was eaten with the eyes and the mind, as much as the tongue.
A century later, elaborate multi-course “kaiseki” meals have brought seasonal changes to the plate – for example, a maple leaf can be added to a dish in the fall or an edible flower in the spring.
In the middle of the Edo period (1603-1867), food was associated with good performance.
The makers of “Amezaiku” taffy, for example, have lured customers to the streets by pulling, bending, and folding handfuls of starchy sugar syrup into exquisite animal shapes, and blowing it like glass to form fish or birds. a few minutes before the boiled sticky mass solidifies. .
After WWII, kawaii culture took off in the form of manga comics and consumer products such as the fictional character Hello Kitty.
It wasn’t long before kawaii made its way into food culture as well.
Eat with your eyes
Today, kawaii has integrated well with the traditional aesthetic codes that guide the presentation of all Japanese cuisine: small separate portions, contrasting colors and shapes, and seasonal reminders.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the contemporary phenomenon of “charaben” – bento character.
These elaborate boxes feature beloved popular culture characters such as Mickey Mouse, painstakingly portrayed using sculpted rice and carefully cut pieces of seaweed, processed ham, cheese and vegetables – all held together with grilled spaghetti or mayonnaise peaks.
Such creations can take hours and many mothers make them daily for their children.
Love in a lunch box
A bento box is more than just a lunch.
In Japanese culture, emotions are often not expressed openly, and while it is possible to say “I love you”, to many it just seems awkward.
Joshua Paul Dale
One way for mothers to express their love for their children is to use the Daily Bento Box.
It is believed that a child who opens an intricately prepared lunch box feels the love and affection of his mother “coming out of the box”.
And from a nutritional standpoint, the theory is that giving a child food in a recognizable and loved form encourages them to eat the whole meal, even vegetables.
Bento boxes and kawaii food in general have increasingly become a social media staple in Japan.
After all, these designs prove a mother’s dedication to her child, not to mention her creative prowess.
Considered the queen of charaben in Japan, Tomomi Maruo has been perfecting her profession for 13 years.
A bread “illustration” by Charlie Brown from the Japanese company Konel Bread.
Tom Booth / CNN
Ran bakes illustration breads, inspired by “kazari zushi “sushi art.
Each slice reveals a colorful illustration, featuring everything from Pokémon to bears, hearts, reindeer, Snoopy and even his son’s drawings.
The social media savvy mom has amassed over 122,000 Instagram followers and published her own cookbook.
Kawaii, it seems, is greasing the rails of a new form of communication – it’s instantly digestible and, due to the sheer nature of kawaii cuteness, almost never misunderstood.
Kindness makes you smile, and finding new ways to share that hot flash is key to the highly advanced kawaii culture in Japan.
Joshua Paul Dale is a professor at Tokyo Gakugei University. He is co-editor of “The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness”, and editor of “Cute Studies”, a special issue of the East Asian Journal of Popular Culture.