Train Stories #5: The Girls Who Screamed “Kawaii!”

Kawaii culture in Tokyo

Train Stories #5 – On most days,  with wild, unkept hair and pants that don’t always fit me properly, I generally think I look like a hot mess  – or a life-sized fuzzball walking down the street.  But because I am white, slender and have greenish eyes, a lot of teenage Japanese girls seem to think I look somewhat exotic.

I am always flattered when I walk past someone in Japan, and I hear them quietly whisper, “Oh, kawaii…”

Kawaii (かわいい) is the Japanese word for cute, and it is used almost as much as teenage girls in America say OMG!

See that Winnie the Pooh pouch? Kawaiiiiiiii!

See that three-foot cellphone charm? Double kawaiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!

On Saturday night, I took the train to Takaoka for a nabe (Japanese soup) party.  I was dressed pretty casually — in jeans, Converse shoes, a winter coat and red cap.

The journey to Takaoka takes about 45 minutes by train, so once I found a seat on the train, I put on some music and took out my book (Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running).

Midway through the train ride, at Toyama Station, a bunch of high school students suddenly stepped on the train.  What was once a peaceful journey turned into a mini-high school drama akin to a scene in Hana Yori Dango.

High school girls in short blue skirts, knee-high socks and matching jackets were giggling and looking at their ketai (cellphones).  The boys around them, in disheveled white dress shirts and slacks, tried to look cool and oblivious, so they played games on their cellphones or looked out at the windows.

Even on Saturday evenings, most Japanese high school students wear their uniforms for club activities or tests, so I wasn’t surprised to see so many students still in uniform. Just as the train started to move again, two high schools girls sat across me.  I looked up briefly and suddenly heard one of the girls say, “kawaii.”

I smiled at them and went back to reading my book, but before I could finish the next word, her friend, who seemed shocked by my smile, instantly repeated “Oh, kawaii.”

This made me laugh and take off my earphones.

“Oh, kawaii….” they said once again, this time looking straight at me and giving me the Manhattan Once Over.

“Are you high school students?,” I asked.


“High school?,” I said again.



Both girls looked at each other.

“Kawaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!,” they said again.

Since kawaii seemed to be the only word they liked saying in front of me, I smiled one last time and went back to reading my book.

The girls went back to talking to each other and texting on their phones.

As soon as we arrived at Takaoka Station, I said bye.

Their last words to me?

“Bye bye. Kawaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii.”

Later the next week, I took the same train to Takaoka for a birthday party.  This time, I dressed-up more in a purple dress, black boots and make-up.

I left my red cap, however, in my bag.

I sat next to a young woman who looked about the same age. She never made eye contact with me and clutched her leopard-print bag the entire way.

As the train stopped at Toyama Station, once again a large group of high school students got on the train. This time, however, everyone ignored me.

It must be the red cap that is extra kawaii.


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