Japanese Kawaii Culture at Disney’s Epcot Center

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Disney’s Epcot Center is an interesting place. Opened in 1982, the park was created to celebrate humanity’s technology, ingenuity, and cultural innovations. And while it seems that Epcot has strayed from its mission over the years, it’s still a pretty fun park to visit, especially if you’re a fan of 80s synth pop.

In Future World, multiple pavilions dedicated to science and technology host different “edutainment” shows and attractions. Rides like Test Track and Mission Space are definite crowd favorites.

Over at the World Showcase, a blend of delicious dining options and the experience of “traveling around the world” will certainly keep you entertained. And within the Japan pavilion, you’ll find one of Epcot’s hidden gems.

At the back of the pavilion rises a castle inspired by Himeji-jō, a Japanese fortress. Before Epcot opened, the castle was supposed to house a rotating theater show, similar to Meet the World at Tokyo Disneyland. But the plans fell through, and in 1984, part of the building was converted to the Bijutsu-kan Gallery, a small space that displays rotating exhibits on Japanese cultural artifacts.

Previous Exhibits
1984-1985 Art of the Japanese Theater
1985-1987 Feathers on the Wind
2003-2010 Tin Toy Stories
2010-2015 Spirited Beasts
2015-present Kawaii: Japan’s Cute Culture

During our latest Disney trip last December, my boyfriend and I checked out the gallery’s current exhibit, Kawaii: Japan’s Cute Culture, a small peek into how all thingcute have become a way of life in modern Japan. Let’s take a look!

What is Kawaii?

From the moment you walk into the Bijutsu-kan gallery, you’re surrounded by kawaii. The sheer amount of cuteness on display is overwhelming, amplified by upbeat J-pop tunes floating in the air. Jam-packed memorabilia displays fill most of the space. A mannequin donning a candy-colored dress poses in the corner. To the left, plush mascots gaze sweetly at you with beady eyes.

kawaii かわいい
adjective: cute; adorable; charming; lovely; pretty

In basic terms, kawaii means “cute.” It can also be defined as “childlike,” “innocent,” and “loveable.” But kawaii is more than just a simple adjective. As Chris Kincaid at Japan Powered puts it, kawaii is anything that stirs feelings of love, care, and protectiveness.

The kawaii aesthetic we know stems from 20th-century art and design. After World War II, rising manga and anime artists drew inspiration from Western media that flooded the country. Rounded features and exaggerated proportions—staples of Western cartoons at the time—quickly became common traits within children’s media. Some artists even directly adapted Western work, as was the case of Osamu Tezuka’s Bambi, of which a reproduction copy is displayed alongside Candy Candy by Yumiko Igarashi.

Kawaii design didn’t really take off commercially until the 1970s, when many Japanese schoolgirls adopted a quirky style of handwriting called burriko-ji, or “fake-child writing.” Instead of writing vertically, the standard at the time, students began writing horizontally, giving their penmanship a childlike quality. Some even added little doodles like stars and hearts within their writing.

Naturally, schools hated this trend, with some outright banning the writing style. But companies quickly picked up on the fad, and by the 1980s, kawaii design was everywhere, from packaging and advertising to magazines and comics. 

Today, kawaii culture is found throughout Japanese society, from consumer goods and entertainment all the way to government institutions.

Kawaii Everywhere

The bulk of the exhibit highlighted the amazing variety of products, trinkets, and novelties available for fans of kawaii culture. Looking through each display case was like going on a neverending pastel-colored treasure hunt. You could literally spend hours looking through each case and still find new things to see. Of course, there was a dose of Disney products sprinkled in for good measure.

Some of the kawaii-ified items on display included:

  • Phone cases
  • Toilet paper
  • Ear cleaners
  • Phone chargers
  • Pens and pencils
  • Retractable knives
  • Pint glasses
  • Dryer balls
  • Coin banks
  • Pet bowls
  • Contact lens cases
  • Temporary guard rails
  • Press-on nails
  • Lunch boxes
  • Kitchen timers
  • Tea strainers
  • Toothbrushes
  • Battery-powered fans
  • Umbrellas
  • Tissue box covers
  • Shower curtains
  • Toilet brushes
  • Tea kettles
  • Alarm clocks

(I have to admit, this exhibit probably influenced my spending $50+ on pens and stationary at Mitsukoshi. Did I really need to burn money like that? Probably not. Do I regret it? Not in the least.)

While the panels in this part of the gallery didn’t offer much in terms of history or fun facts, they were pretty entertaining to read. You can view a few of them in the images above.

The Mascots

By far, my favorite part of the gallery was the wall of kawaii mascots. From beloved characters like Pikachu and Doraemon to world-famous city mascots like Kumamon and Funassyi, some of Japan’s most notable kawaii “celebrities” were present in plush form.

What made this section really enjoyable were all the fun facts posted next to the characters. For instance, did you know that Funassyi’s favorite album is Machine Head by Deep Purple? Or that Gunma Prefecture mascot Gunma-chan is eternally seven years old?

Some more notable trivia:

  • Fukka-chan’s hobbies include Twitter and blogging.
  • Kumamon’s official job title is Director and Sales Manager.
  • Pikachu was named a Time Person of the Year in 1999.
  • Kitty White, aka Hello Kitty, has a twin sister.
  • Domo-kun has a genetic revulsion to apples.
  • Rilakkuma lives in the apartment of a Tokyo office lady.
  • Bary-san loves sake and yakitori. (Is that cannibalism?)
  • Doraemon was named the first global “anime ambassador” by the Japanese government in 2002.

Melty-Go-Round

In the center of the room stood the gallery’s crown jewel: a whimsical sculpture designed exclusively for this exhibit by iconic artist Sebastian Masuda.

Considered a pioneer of modern kawaii culture, Masuda is best known for sparking the kawaii fashion movement within Harajuku, Tokyo’s epicenter of youth culture. In 1995, he opened a concept shop called 6%DOKIDOKI in the heart of Harajuku. To this day, the shop remains a popular destination for shockingly cute goods.

In this sculpture, Masuda aimed to capture the eclectic spirit of Harajuku. Called “Melty-Go-Round,” the translucent girl is filled with toys, jewelry, and other objects Masuda collected during his trips around the world. The blend of objects reflects the mixture of cultural influences that drives Harajuku’s culture forward. As Masuda believes, “kawaii” is truly a borderless movement.

The meaning of kawaii is that personal cosmos filled with the collection of things one madly loves. "Kawaii" is not something fashionable—dressing up for others or trying to be someone else—but rather collecting things because you simply love them. Fashion is just a statement to show what you love.
Sebastian Masuda

If You Go...

Bijutsu-kan Gallery at Disney’s Epcot Center
Epcot World Showcase
200 Epcot Center Drive
Lake Buena Vista, Florida 32821

Hours vary by season.

Age Interest: All Ages
Accessibility: Wheelchair/ECV-friendly

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