The Ultimate Act Of Love? The Truth Behind Japan's Charaben Culture

CNN/ Newswire | 3/15/2017, 12:45 p.m.
On sale are rice omelets molded in the shape of the cafe's Golden Retriever cartoon character namesake and a puppy ...

(CNN) -- The menu at the Pom Pom Purin Café in Tokyo is the epitome of "kawaii".

On sale are rice omelets molded in the shape of the cafe's Golden Retriever cartoon character namesake and a puppy face made of rice floating in a plate of curry.

This café isn't alone. Adorable "kawaii" food is uniquely ascendant in Japan.

In eateries across the country, diners feast on dishes made to resemble Snoopy, Moomin, and Peter Rabbit. Bakeries sculpt sweet and savory treats into the shapes of other beloved cartoon characters.

And "wagashi" -- traditional sweets made from pounded rice and sweet bean paste -- are formed into small beribboned bears.

At home, mothers often slice the ends of hot dogs into the splayed legs of an octopus, adding eyes from tiny pieces of dried seaweed.

But why has kawaii cuisine taken off in Japan -- and why do adults embrace the trend as much as children?

The answer, it seems, lies in the heritage of a cuisine that has for centuries been eaten with the eyes as much as the mouth.

Cute vs kawaii

A word that originated with the lower classes, rather than the social elite, "kawaii" entered into common usage in the 19th century, around the same time the word "cute" arrived in English.

A derivation of acute (meaning to show shrewd insight), the English word retains the connotation of cleverness with a bit of guile.

But this is not the case in Japanese.

Kawaii literally means "able to be loved" and has no negative connotations.

The word communicates the unabashed joy found in the undemanding presence of innocent, harmless, adorable things.

Too cute to eat?

Kawaii images have been showing up in Japanese literature in relation to food for a long time.

Over 1,000 years ago, author and royal court attendant Sei Shonagon wrote about cuteness 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". At these highly ritualized banquets each artfully arranged dish contained a literary reference -- food was consumed with the eyes and mind, as much as the tongue.

A century later, elaborate multi-course "kaiseki" meals enacted seasonal changes on the plate -- for example, a maple leaf might be added to a dish in the fall, or an edible flower in the spring.

By the mid-Edo period (1603-1867), food was being combined with cute performances.

"Amezaiku" taffy makers, for example, attracted customers on the street by pulling, bending and folding handfuls of starchy sugar syrup into exquisite animal shapes, and blowing it like glass to form fish or birds in the few minutes before the boiled sticky mass solidified.

After World War II, kawaii culture took off in the form of manga comics and consumer commodities such as fictional character Hello Kitty.

It wasn't long before kawaii made its way into food culture, too.

Eat with your eyes

Today, kawaii has been well integrated with the traditional aesthetic codes that guide the presentation of all Japanese cuisine -- small separated portions, contrasts of color and shape, and reminders of the season.