A Pragmatic and Cultural Semiotic Approach to Japanese Advertising Discourse

Oana-Maria BIRLEA
Babes-Bolyai University


My research project is concerned with the pragmatics and cultural semiotics of Japanese advertising discourse constructed around the concept kawaii. Understanding cultural keywords grants permission to cultural insights of society and moreover, the results of discourse analysis with a focus on affect words provide the necessity to discover existing patterns in discourse construction and thus, to achieve a more comprehensive approach to language and cultural differences. In the case of Japan, kawaii, an adjective standing for “cute”, “adorable”, “vulnerable”, “innocent” has rapidly extended its reach by becoming overwhelmingly present in various shapes and forms in everyday life. The evolution of kawaii as a social and cultural artefact has contributed greatly to the changes in discourse construction, therefore a thorough analysis of this concept is of significant importance especially in the context of globalization. I have chosen this concept because I believe it has a significant place in Japanese culture and world view and by analyzing its manifestations in advertisements cultural specifics can be easily understood. If advertisements can be perceived as cultural artefacts through which norms and values reflect, an analysis of Japanese advertisements will reveal the fundamental structures of the society.

My first goal is to define and to analyze the particularities of this concept and its impact on Japanese culture and society from a diachronic perspective in order to reveal its evolution and implications. I have started by going through all relevant sources at hand – Kinsella (1995), Avella (2004), Koma (2013), Yano (2013), Marcus et.al (2017) and I am in continuous search for new bibliography because my aim is to present a detailed report on kawaii from various perspectives. I think the study of advertising is an interdisciplinary one, thus it implies an approach from different angles. Advertising discourse has the capacity to enhance stereotypes by being a vehicle for transmitting ideologies, thus in the case of Japanese advertising discourse construction, we believe that kawaii works as an indispensable tool for delivering powerful messages by appealing to emotions, especially in the globalized world, highly alienated. The quality of being “cute”, “adorable”, “lovable” is culturally determined and strongly related to human primary emotions, therefore advertising discourse construction operates with symbols that have the capacity to trigger emotions with minimum effort.

After exploring some historical and sociocultural aspects, I analyzed this concept from a
pragmatic and semiotic perspective using a corpus of commercial and non-commercial Japanese
advertisements. My first case study is related to Shiseidō beauty product print advertisements
and the second to public service print advertisements. Even though the target audience differs
considerably, considering that the main purpose of an advertisement is to persuade the receiver
(Cook, 1992, 2001) these two types can be analyzed by comparing the functions and role of
kawaii in discourse construction. My research is based on a corpus of contemporary
advertisements collected on-line and it follows the analysis model proposed by Cook (1992,
2001) based on Peirce’s (1931-58) triadic model of signs. The need for better explaining and
exemplifying the general cultural specific tendencies in a society led me to Hofstede’s (1980,
2003, 2010) national culture dimensions. Because of their practical use the six dimensions:
power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity vs. femininity, long-term orientation vs. short-term orientation, indulgence vs. restraint are veryimportant considering the interdisciplinary nature of my research which focuses not only on discourse analysis (including context) but on the cultural background too.

In other words, applying Hofstede’s theory along with Peirce’s semiotics to Japanese advertisements helps in conducting a more complex and detailed analysis of the phenomenon. Wilson and Sperber’s Relevance Theory (1986, 1995) is useful in revealing how language works
in persuading the receiver. My analysis is focused on Japanese advertising discourse construction by focusing on the factors that contribute to the creation of global meaning and also that; explain the mechanism through which specific symbols trigger certain ideas in concordance with context, timeframe and culture.

I believe that these three main perspectives provide the necessary to conduct a thorough analysis of Japanese advertising discourse construction considering culture, context and persuasion, the primary goal of any advertisement. The results obtained until now show the major influence of kawaii in both commercial and non-commercial print advertisements starting from word use and aesthetics to creating a global message based on overwhelming cuteness which perpetuates the stereotype of contemporary Japanese culture labeled as kawaii. Also, the use of kawaii signs in both types of advertisements appears to be an indispensable persuasion tool in the construction of Japanese advertising discourse.

I would be very grateful if this report would be regarded as an opportunity of getting in touch with researchers who share the same interest or similar ones, therefore please feel free to contact me for a fruitful collaboration.


AVELLA, N., 2004. Graphic Japan: From Woodblock and Zen to Manga and Kawaii, Hove,
East Sussex, England: Rotovision.

COOK, G., 2001. The Discourse of Advertising, 2nd edition. London: Routledge.
HOFSTEDE, G., 2001. Culture's Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and
Organizations Across Nations, 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

HOFSTEDE, G. et al., 2010. Cultures and Organizations. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.

KINSELLA, S., 1995. Cuties in Japan. In: SKOV, L., MOERAN, B., ed. Women, Media and
Consumption in Japan. London: Curzon Press, pp.220–254.

KOMA, K., 2013. Kawaii as Represented in Scientific Research: The Possibilities of Kawaii
Cultural Studies. Hemispheres 28, pp.5–17.

MARCUS, A., KUROSU, M., Ma, X., HASHIZUME, A., 2017. Cuteness Engineering
Designing Adorable Products and Services. Cham: Springer International Publishing AG.

PEIRCE, C. S., 1931-58. Collected papers (vol. 1-6). In: HARTSHORNE, C. & WEISS, P., eds.
(vol. 7-8), Burks, A.W., ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

YANO, C.R., 2013. Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific. Duke University
Press, London.

WILSON, D., SPERBER, D., 2012. Meaning and Relevance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.