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English and Spanish Adjectives that Describe the Japanese Concept of Kawaii

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posted on 2021-11-01, 20:38 authored by Hiroshi NittonoHiroshi Nittono, Hatsune Saito, Namiha Ihara, Dante Fenocchio, Jorge Mario Andreau
The word “kawaii” is ubiquitous in contemporary Japan and has spread to the rest of the world with the dissemination of Japanese pop culture. Although the word is conventionally translated in English as “cute,” its meaning is more nuanced than “cute,” and it is used for a wider variety of objects. The primary aim of this study was to determine if Spanish has an equivalent to the word “kawaii”; additionally, the similarities and differences across Japanese, English, and Spanish were explored. An internet survey was conducted in which respondents from Japan (n = 486), the United States (n = 365), and Argentina (n = 303) were presented with various photographic images that were often described as “kawaii” in Japanese and asked to write three adjectives to describe the images. They were also instructed to rate their affective states when looking at each image in the valence and arousal dimensions. The results showed that babyish objects (e.g., human, animal, and toy) were most frequently defined as “kawaii” in Japanese, “cute” in English, and “tierno” in Spanish. The average frequency at which these words were used as primary adjectives was higher for “kawaii” (57.5%) than for “cute” (26.8%) or “tierno” (22.4%). Other images for which “kawaii” was used, such as whimsical things and pastel-colored sweets, were less likely to be described as “cute” or “tierno,” although all of these images were associated with positive and moderately-aroused affective states similarly across all three countries. The present study demonstrates that the adjectives “kawaii,” “cute,” and “tierno” can be used almost equivalently for describing babies and pets, but that the Japanese adjective “kawaii” encompasses wider categories than the other two words.


JSPS KAKENHI Grant Numbers JP17H02651 and JP21H04897 to Hiroshi Nittono


Declaration of conflicts of interest

There is no conflict of interest.

Corresponding author email

Lead author country

  • Japan

Lead author job role

  • Higher Education Faculty 4-yr College

Lead author institution

Osaka University, Japan

Human Participants

  • Yes

Ethics statement

The research protocol was approved by the Behavioral Research Ethics Committee of the Osaka University School of Human Sciences (HB020-054). The respondents were informed that those who had completed the questionnaire were deemed to give consent.

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