The Japanese love these little characters for their innocent, friendly faces, but is the love a symptom of a growing problem?
As is well known, Hello Kitty, Pikachu and Mario are very popular around the world and originated in Japan. Regardless of whether or not they are famous, thousands more Kawaii (meaning cute or pretty) characters can be found throughout Japan. Most surprisingly, all of 47 prefectures in the country, its industries, including banks, restaurants, energy, media and transport, and even Japanese police have their own characters! Imagine that a cute character welcomes you at the entrance of a police station; it would diffuse some of the stress, making the ordeal more relaxing and peaceful even if you are facing a serious situation.
What these characters have in common is that it is easy even for a child to draw them. Basically their faces are round and they have big circular eyes like a baby. More importantly, interesting stories always come along with them. They are not just a mark or a symbol that represents Japanese cities and industries, they are like living creatures in stories that have friends, family and partners. They also have feelings and personalities, such as food preference and unique fashion sense. Theses are the fundamental elements that aim to evoke sympathy with the characters in actual people.
One of the most recognisable fictional characters popular with children all around the world is probably Mickey Mouse, originally from America. Although such Disney characters are, of course, popular with Japanese children as well, the situation is a bit different in Japan. Examining the age demographic of Tokyo Disneyland, around 80 per cent of visitors in the last seven years have been older than seventeen. A lot of grown-up people, even those who do not have children, still visit Disneyland and enjoy it by themselves. This is not something exceptional of Disneyland itself, but rather a common characteristic of Japanese culture. No matter how old one is, the Japanese people love Kawaii characters as if they are addicted to them.
Recent studies have revealed that the origin of Kawaii culture has roots in the history of Japanese religion. It is said that historically the Japanese believed in Buddhism where idol worshipping had been a common feature, imported into Japan from China. In fact, most of the shrines in Japan have Buddha statues which are sometimes sold as miniatures. The Japanese people also traditionally believed in a ‘general God’ such as the God of Nature and God of Animals who they believed would protect them from natural disasters and troubles. Dolls, charms and amulets relating to these Gods are now also sold at shrines, being popular souvenirs for foreign travellers.
Makoto Miyashita, a famous Japanese author who writes books on Buddhism, deduces that the idol worshipping is the origin of Kawaii characters and their culture. According to him, having these small statues, dolls and charms at all times and in all places has made the Japanese people relaxed and calm. Today, while the majority of Japanese do not believe in God, (though this doesn’t necessarily make them anti-theists) their hearts are instead supported by the Kawaii characters. Miyashita’s research actually found that 68 per cent of Japanese admitted to needing Kawaii characters for relaxation and a peaceful state of mind.
Although historically and traditionally the Japanese have managed to keep a steady balance between religion and Kawaii culture, today’s modern society has been changing that little by little. It’s not only the Japanese ‘geeks’ but overstressed employees who are increasingly reliant on and into Kawaii characters to an extreme extent — something which is beginning to prevent them from communicating with actual people. Failure to develop real relationships will cause serious problems in Japanese society in the near future; and who can imagine that Kawaii characters are to blame?