Kawaii denotes a form of adult-accepted cuteness that emerged in Japanese culture but soon spread globally.
The term kawaii in its modern form emerged in the 1970s, according to a paper written by professor Sharon Kinsella of the University of Manchester. She says that it sprung out from a trend in “cute handwriting,” but that soon child-like cuteness became the dominant pop culture and fashion aesthetic of the period. It was during this decade that Sanrio came to prominence, introducing the mega-popular Hello Kitty in 1974 and soon becoming a billion-dollars-a-year company. Kawaii culture only grew bigger as time went on, showing up in household appliances, food, and sex toys.
The rise of Kawaii may be tied to an Aesthetic of Powerlessness — the cute indicates a restricted agency that does not in fact exist.
Kawaii was succeeded in part by Kimo-Kawaii culture, which blended cuteness with the disturbing, adult, or surreal.