Why is Rilakkuma so popular in Japan?
No doubt Hello Kitty is the prominent kawaii symbol and well represented in Japan. But other than that, if a character comes closer to the popularity of Hello Kitty, it’s Rilakkuma. Since modern Japanese consists of some English words, therefore Japanese pronounce “relax” as “Rilaksu”. The word “Kuma” in Japanese means “bear”. Rilakkuma is the combination of words that literally means “Relaxing Bear”.
The creation of Rilakkuma.
This character was created by San-X who is a competitor of Hello Kitty producer. The employee of San-X Aki Kondo came up with this character because of her growing obsession for dogs after watching many dog characters on TV and in comics. Her approach was a bit different. She decided to create a character that also portrayed her desire to relax in the workaholic Society of Japan. Rilakkuma was designed with a slightly sloppy pose because Kondo found it amusing because she believed it should fit in with the "cute" concept but also is unique in the "out of place" way. Kondo had also designed Rilakkuma with a zipper on the back as a character quirk. San-X initially found it too lanky and preferred characters with small hands. But its popularity rose to the utmost level.
How did the story of Rilakkuma and other characters start?
San-X launched Rilakkuma in 2003, initially as a four-panel comic series called Rilakkuma Seikatsu. The story started with an office working lady, named Kaoru who was just drawn as a silhouette, finding Rilakkuma one day in her apartment. The story went on with Rilakuma spending his time being useless to Kaoru and being a nuisance because he did nothing all day ... His main worries were meals and snacks. He seemed to hate the summer heat. He lounged around doing activities that included watching TV, listening to music, taking long baths, and throwing paper balls in the trash. In picture books, he can often be seen in different costumes, such as a kappa costume. In addition, it was suggested that his entire lower body, even in its usual appearance, was a disguise that he often replaces as he ages or gets dirty. However, it was unclear whether his head is also part of his costume. His favorite food was Dango, Pancakes, omurice, and flan.
His companions were Korilakkuma ( "Little Rilakkuma") and Kiiroitori ("Yellow Bird"). Korilakkuma was a smaller, paler version of Rilakkuma and just like Rilakuma, she showed up in Kaoru's apartment for no reason. The artist described her as a person who likes to joke and is comparatively more energetic than Rilakkuma; its main activity was to imitate Rilakkuma and find someone to play with. She also had a red button on her chest so implying that she was not a real bear either. However, unlike Rilakkuma, she didn’t have a back zip. Her favorite foods were strawberries, apples, and cherries. She loved to play with her remote-controlled duck. Like Rilakkuma, she liked to listen to music, especially at high volumes on her music player.
Kiiroitori was a small yellow bird that resembled a chick and appeared to be the only one of the three characters who had a "right" to live at Kaoru’s place. Kiiroitori was a pet bird that lived in a cage before these two bears appeared, but after Rilakkuma and Korilakkuma settled in their small apartment, Kiiroitori was released from its cage and flew into the faces of the sloth Rilakkuma and the mischievous Korilakkuma. Kiiroitori liked order and often cleaned up after the two bears. He also scolded them a lot and he was quite quick-tempered.
The reason behind the Japanese community loving Rilakkuma so much.
Rilakkuma surely fits the cute aesthetic that the Japanese are obsessed with. It also portrays a more relaxed lifestyle that many Japanese crave. Sitting around and lounging are not the traits one will find in Japanese society. Even if someone is like that, he/she will be shamed for it. Therefore, Rilakkuma is a character that speaks to the inner souls of the tired and overworked Japan.
For the Japanese, the cuteness and unique lifestyle of Rilakuma is immensely relaxing. Since they work long hours and are under enormous social pressure. The cuteness and relaxing style of Rilakuma is the complete opposite of the harsh reality of Japan. For them, cuteness is a burst of joy and relaxation and allows them to escape the reality of their life. If you think about it, Japan is a society that has a quite youthful mindset as well and they defy the usual mindset of getting a mature taste as they age. It is usually because as adults, the Japanese are expected to adhere to strict social norms and expectations. Therefore, in the harsh realities of adulthood, many Japanese indulge in the world of cuteness of flawed characters that are living a life far from reality.
Cuteness instrumentally creates a distance from the negative aspects of society, be it the demonstration of etiquette in public or the portrayal of an underemployed or unemployed person while watching TV at home as in Rilakkuma. Rilakkuma is cute and attractive. Which makes it a perfect merchandising item as well. There is plenty of Rilakkuma merchandise that one can buy. The Rilakkuma shaped and printed items like stationery, cutlery, bags, bottles, and household items are all quite popular. Interested buyers can also buy Rilakkuma products at the website Rennoyakawaii which is a great place to purchase Rilakkuma products. Check out this Rilakkuma Journal with bonus stickers.
All in all, the harshness, strict etiquettes, and regulations of Japan have made ordinary life so bizarre that these cute yet flawed characters make them think of a place where their flaws can be accepted too. We hope that in the future, the Japanese can uncoil a bit so that they don’t have to just imagine a life that Rilakkuma lives and experience it, in reality, themselves without the thought of being shamed and judged. Until then, Rilakkuma is here to console them and provide them an escape route from the true nature of the world.