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Why does Japan love fictional characters so much?

33 Comments
By Casey Baseel

A lot of surprising things about Japan actually have pretty simple explanations. People eat fish raw because it’s delicious that way. Public intoxication isn’t frowned upon because the publicly intoxicated are generally well-behaved, even when they are incoherent. And late-night TV features plenty of young female skin, because young males make up the vast majority of viewers in that time slot.

But what about Japan’s love affair with cute, fictional characters? How is it that lingerie based on Sailor Moon sells out in a day? Or that a salaryman can pull out his cell phone with a strap featuring a chubby regional mascot and nobody bats an eye?

Scholars and commentators point to two of the strongest forces in shaping society: religion and business.

Animism, the idea that all things in nature possess a soul, is a major belief in Shintoism, Japan’s indigenous religion. In animism, even rocks, mountains, and natural phenomena are considered to have a soul, and as such intrinsic value and importance. Some speculate that this concept is linked to Japan’s affinity for the cute character-based merchandise known as “character goods” in Japan.

One theory holds that this belief has created a cultural framework in Japan which allows people to feel a strong personal connection to non-living things, and by extension, fictional characters.

Before you go shaking your head at the silliness of a personal connection to something that’s not alive, ask yourself if you’ve ever called your car “Baby.”

Some experts point to how this acceptance of, and fellowship with, cute characters has been compounded by modern marketing strategies. If you can get potential customers to associate a likeable persona with your product, you’ve got an edge over your competitors. Whether or not that persona actually has a logical connection to the product isn’t important, as long as a visually pleasing connection is made.

For example, our brain tells us any girl who drinks so heavily she brings glassware to the beach wouldn’t actually have that figure (see photo below). And yet, we still find ourselves craving a crisp, cold Asahi.

But while the half-naked female form is the obvious choice for attracting male consumers, if you’re going for a more universal appeal, cute is often a better choice than sexy, and it’s hard to find a real person as cute as a character from a good designer.

Companies are especially eager to team up with a soothing character if the product they’re selling is something that will only be used in unpleasant or dire circumstances, such as insurance. Irrational as it may be, people just feel better about signing a life insurance contract if you can first give them a warm fuzzy feeling, preferably from a warm, fuzzy character, like the mascot for Tokyo Marine Nichido Insurance.

With so many companies employing adorable fictional pitchmen and pitchanimals for products aimed at adults, eventually the concept of full-grown men and women liking cartoon characters starts to feel increasingly normal. Some observers point out that this, in turn, affects the design of characters themselves, with the most sought-after Japanese designers paying extra attention to fine details in their drawings and crafting back stories for their creations. While these extra efforts may go right over the heads of children, they’re often appreciated by adults.

Finally, there’s a third commonly referenced reason for Japan’s love of fictional characters: the crushing reality of working in many Japanese companies.

White-collar workers in Japan have to deal with the same copious amounts of unpaid overtime and rigid hierarchies their parents did, while enjoying far less job security than was afforded to previous generations. When Monday to Friday is such a thankless grind for so many, it becomes a little harder to fault someone craving some escapist entertainment and spending the weekend shopping for Hello Kitty merchandise, watching anime DVDs, or snapping pictures with the costumed staff at an amusement park. After all, when the workday ends, everyone needs their own personal happiest place on earth.

Source: Naver Matome

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33 Comments
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The author thinks these characters are fictional? Even Hello Kitty?

6 ( +6 / -0 )

How is this a Japan phenomenon? Marketing itself is fiction. Is there any difference if it is a cute character, a cute girl, a movie star or some beautiful model who is selling the fiction that some thing or service will bring us happiness or calm our fears?

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Why does Japan love cartoon characters so much?

Fixed.

BTW, warispeace is pretty correct. There's a very thick and grey line between "truth" and "reality."

Fictional characters are the main reason Hollywood has been CRUSHING it for decades, and people spend hours a day in front of the TV.

A better question might be, "Why do humans like fictional STORIES so much?"

Answering that would be much more insightful than another "unique Japan" fluff piece.

7 ( +9 / -2 )

My initial assessment of this phenomena is that I thought Japanese are in a constant state of dilema and contradiction so much so that they need to root for or fixate on something nice. Japan is a democratic country and people in a well developed democratic country tend to be more knowledgable, sophisticated and individualistic. But in Japan, they are not allowed to be too individualistic because it run counter to their traditional conformist culture. So they are often in some sort of limbo, they are not sure if they should follow what their logic tells them or do what is required by culture. When people can't solve an impossible puzzle in life, they may resort to escaping to or fixate their mind on something else, in this case, nice fictional characters. The issue is, in doing so, some people may become whimsy and develop the habit of constantly imagining nice things to amuse themselves. It is often said that Japanese spend a great deal of time at work but despite of this they are not the most productive people in the world. The reason could be the whimsy nature of some workers actually distract them and cause them to spend a great deal of time doing non work related activities.

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

I can imagine a cultural shinto-influenced thing as a part of it,

but the truth is it wasn't always like that.

Ian Buruma makes a case for the cute-obssessions in Japan to be an infantilization of self in an ostrich-like impulse to hide from what happened in WWII

Ya, I know kids buying hello kitty have barely heard of wwii, but it is the culture engendered by that and defeat. I won't bother explaining the whole thing, if interested, pick up

Ian Buruma's The Wages of Guilt

which compares Japan and Germany post wwii

5 ( +7 / -2 )

Umm who is not in love with fictional/cartoon characters? Such characters portray traits that we as humans would like to aspire and in many cases are the embodiment of what we would like to be. Of course because such characters live in a universe of fictions, it is something we can never be.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Cute things, always relax people. Even when they live. Why do people buy rabbits or cute cats? There is a tendency for animals to like soft, fluffy things. Try this: You had a looooong, hard day at work, boss shouted at you and all that...you go home and cuddle your tv with you. Do you feel better? Nope. But, You had a looooong, hard day at work, boss shouted at you and all that...you go home and cuddle/hug a plush or a pet with you. Do you feel better? Yes!! :)

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Simple because far too many prefer a Never Never Land like Peter Pan to real life

8 ( +9 / -1 )

GW

Simple because far too many prefer a Never Never Land like Peter Pan to real life

Absolutely agree.

Japanese live in a fantasy world anyway most of the time, so these characters actually add some credence to the Disney like fantasy world they live in inside their heads.

This way they do not even know they are mostly viewed as childish and often away with the fairies when it comes to reality.

Sometimes the whole place is away with the fairies in fantasy land.

Never got why they always need to have some silly mascot to go with an event or organisation it's always some stupid looking childish thing created by what I imagine to be some one who lost touch with reality as a child.

I often feel like they all need to grow up a little bit and as we would say "get real" but then if they did that Japan wouldn't be Japan.

1 ( +7 / -6 )

Storm,

Yep! Just look at CMs on tv well over 90% feature kids or childish stuff no matter what the product or service, or as you said Get Real.

I wonder what age McCarther would use now to describe Japan...................

2 ( +4 / -2 )

The Japanese love characters like this because it is based on their historical cultural norm--especially the Shinto animist beliefs where everything is a kami, or living spirit (kami is often wrongly interpreted as gods in the West). That's why Westerners sometimes don't understand why they're so popular in Japan.

That explains why every company, tourism bureaus and most governmental agencies in Japan have mascots. Besides the well-known Kumamon (whose popularity is so big even Westerners know about it!), other ones that have become popular lately include Shimane-ko (a light-yellow furred cat wearing a hat that looks like the roof of Izumo Taisha, one of Japan's oldest Shinto shrines), Gunma-chan (a dark yellow furred cat wearing a blue vest, red bow and green cap), among many others.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

You ever think tgat maybe Japanese people just like cute mascot characters? Here in the UK we are going down that route, with companies creating mascot characters to get us interested in their products... From Russian Meerkats to fridge-dwelling polar bears, from toilet roll loving koalas to sinister pandas selling biscuits. Even monkey sock puppets selling tea bags. Globally sporting events create mascots, like for the Olympics or the World Cup.I think it's pretty low to constantly bleat on about the Japanese living in a famtasy world, or bring childish. Just dhows how cynical we in the west really are... and how joyless.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Storm,

Yep! Just look at CMs on tv well over 90% feature kids or childish stuff no matter what the product or service, or as you said Get Real.

I wonder what age McCarther would use now to describe Japan...................

MacArthur was an out of touch with reality egomaniac who the Japanese manipulated easily because they could see how susceptible the buffoon was to flattery. His remedial anthropological observations are of no substance or worth.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

I don't know!

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Thank you Walt Disney.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Take it from this retired ad agency owner, without animated or stuffed mascots, sexy images (both sexes are equally guilty), logos, etc., sales and marketing would be as exciting as a plain bowl of rice - no uniqueness of identity. We'd all still be driving black Model T's.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

So, Casey thinks this is a thing relatively unique to Japan but then asks you, if you think it's outrageous, if you call your car 'baby'? Wouldn't that mean it's more of a universal trend to make personal connections to inanimate objects and not just 'kizuna' or some link to Shintoism?

The religion thing is a crock, the business thing has more relevance. As for sexy girls selling beer, how does that even fit in with fictional characters? Sex sells, and always has -- long before Shintoism existed.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Why does Japan love fictional characters so much? Why do Japanese think they should be represented as having humongous eyes and no nose in anime? Why do almost a million Japanese never leave their rooms? And why do Japanese prefer fantasizing about fictional girls or pre-pubescent teen "idols" on the mass media to actually going out on a date with a real person?

I think these things are all interconnected.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

Ian Buruma makes a case for the cute-obssessions in Japan to be an infantilization of self in an ostrich-like impulse to hide from what happened in WWII

Also connected to that theme was the creation of Godzilla, which was conceived as a metaphor for Nuclear weapons.

Simple because far too many prefer a Never Never Land like Peter Pan to real life

I see it more like a being "plugged into the matrix" they much prefer the blue pill - accepting blissful ignorance of illusion, not many take the red pill.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

BNlightened: For someone to claim to "be enlightened" that is a sorry attempt to clump various untruths into some semblance of coherence. Anime is stylized. Look at animation in the rest of the world - look how stylized it is, not a "Japan only" phenomenom. Hikkomori, even in its best estimates linger just over a million, hardly the "millions" you ignorantly claim. fictional girls and pre-pubescent teens- again, this the most exposed, but not necessarily the most prevalent view. Everyone I know goes on dates, so what is your point? Methinks you are grasping for straws here.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I prefer to look at from the opposite angle: Why is everyone else so afraid of cartoon characters? Its much like men who are afraid to wear pink clothing. He thinks it would harm his macho image. But of men who are not afraid to wear pink there are two types; those who really are macho enough to not be so weak to other's image of him, and those who are just plain girly men.

Its fascinating that Japanese men also get accused of being girly men. I think there are plenty who just don't care what you think.

Frankly, I look at people trying so hard to "appear" mature by rejecting cute cartoon characters and I don't see mature people at all. I see a pack of frauds. Sure, most societies do reject cuteness, but that is just because its a type of facade that seems to have some real effect on society to make it stronger, ie less indulgent. Its a way of pushing children to grow up, and I guess its better to have adults half grown up than not grown up at all. Japan is toying with one of the more obvious points of the image of people appearing grown up, but I think Japan can afford it as long as the reality of being grown up continues to be presented to young people.

That so many westerners make such a fuss about things like this, or even grown women wearing pony tails, well, it just indicates to me that most of you are only half grown up.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Its not just a Japanese fixation I am sure everyone who post on here at one time or another thought they were batman, superman or some other action figure. Some people grow out of it some don't.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I don't think this is a purely Japanese phenomenon. It might be different in Japan, with a focus more on anime characters, but fictional characters in general seem to be loved globally. Like Harry Potter. Just about every kid could tell you Harry Potter's entire life story, and they probably have a wardrobe full of Harry Potter merchandise (I usually see kids in the Hogwarts uniform at Halloween, so I know it happens). And then there are more adult people (but not necessarily more mature) who seem to love super heroes, Halo Spartans, or the Fast & Furious crew. It's an entertaining sight to see Master Chief moonwalking down the street, being photographed by Superman. Unfortunately, that sort of thing tends to end up with some idiot thinking he's got more skills than Dominic Torretto colliding with said Master Chief in his 'souped up' Ford Fiesta that sounds like it's about to explode.

But I think the reason they love these fictional characters is, as mentioned, escapism. Reality is really depressing, so we turn to fiction to cheer ourselves up.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Agree why focus on Japan.

How about Disney, Marvel, DC Comics, etc. Those characters seem to sell well globally.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

the keyword here should be CUTE, " Why does Japan love CUTE fictional characters so much? " no other country in the world is infatuated with cuteness more than Japan. when have you seen a Japanese mascot that doesnt have a cuteness to it?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

This article is kinda ridiculous trying to connect the love of anime to the shinto religion, marketing, or some underlying emotional issues. The real reason is simple; people just like it. And it's not just about cute girls, there is more than 1 genre. The characters have very strong and expressive personalities, the stories are deep, and the battles are often bloodrushingly more intense than anything that could be filmed with a real actor. At least, I've never once seen a movie with real actors where the protagonist punches a guy so hard he disintegrates all the bones in his arm, launches a 10 story building across an entire city with a single arm, or grinds their opponent's face along a concrete wall at high-speed. I wouldn't want to either. I have a really weak stomach and couldn't handle something like that, but anime pulls it off.

Pretty much Japan is a kingpin of the entertainment industry and anime is very popular.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I think we all like fictional characters, don't we? It's a kind of escapism from the hum-drum. Kids like Harry Potter. Big kids like James Bond. It's all the same thing!

3 ( +4 / -1 )

It was noted decades ago the whole "Japan is unique" thing is largely the doing of foreigners writing about the country and it still holds true.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

I think EVERY country loves fictional things. China has about as rich of a mythology as Japan, America loves it's movies, TV shows, and books, everyone loves entertainment and fictional characters, don't see how this is exclusive to Japan

3 ( +4 / -1 )

It is not only Japan that are in love with them for most of those on network television have been shown in other countries as well.

The first one I ever saw was 'InuYasha' and immediately fell in love with them and 'Ghost in a Shell' being the best of the best.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Agree with Fukuppy.

I think the difference is that In Japan they "milk the cow" to the extreme and not only for one character but many, lots and lots of merchandise and of every kind, so when a character is liked, like Kamen Rider, the industry exploit everything about it, the toys, the music, the movies, the actors, talk shows, all media (Radio, TV, Novels, etc), whereas in other countries they exploit the character but not in every angle, take, for example, "The Sandman" by Neil Gaiman, the character of Dream is beloved by his fans, but it is exploited in a niche, an exception is Harry Potter, because we have the novels, graphic novels, character guides, the movies, stationery, and even theme parks, the merchandise from teh movies (wands, badges, etc)

0 ( +1 / -1 )

It not only Japan, anime and manga are popular all over the world, today. "Kawaii" sells. Marvel and DC Comics have started to adopt some of the manga style. Thank you, Osamu Tezuka. If you look at the character design which mainly involve large eyes, small nose and mouth. Humans see this as cut basically the same reason why babies are seen as cute. There are other requirements as symmetry for example but anime and manga characters tap into this. What may be some what scary is that some girls have started to look like anime characters. There are examples on youtube, even on makeup techniques. The author needs to do more research.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Merry White's book "The Material Child: Coming of Age in Japan and America" explains this pretty well. What a lot of Westerners don't realize is that Japanese companies have never primarily targeted a male demographic. They have a whole feedback loop going back decades to the time that all this cute character merchandise started appearing that polls the opinions of teenage girls. This is because teenage girls, especially in the 60s/70s were the ones who were given disposable income and the most time for leisure activities. Married women were supposed to be taking care of their families, men were supposed to be working and sons were supposed to spend all their time studying. Of course, things have changed to some extent since then, but since the economic boom in Japan, unmarried women were the primary demographic looked at by advertisers for most goods and services (like travel for instance).

Honestly, it's not any less ridiculous than marketing trends anywhere else, but if you didn't grow up taking it as a given that everything would be advertised as adorably as possible, then it seems really bizarre. We tend not to see the "man behind the curtain" when it comes to our own culture. So in Japan, it seems normal, because that's the way it seems to have always been. (It wasn't always like that. This is a postwar phenomenon that ties in with the rapid economic development.) Also, people tend to focus obsessively on ideas about Japan's uniqueness or strangeness because it's the only really different culture that a lot of people in Western Europe and North America have any awareness of. If people knew more about a lot of different places, then Japan would just appear as one among many unique cultures, rather than the only outlier. But part of the reason Japan is so well known, not just in the West, but also in Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern countries, is because of how successful Japanese brands have been at marketing globally thanks to their cute characters! So I don't think we can say this is really unique to Japan in terms of its appeal. It's just that the conditions in the post-war period created a situation where girls were deferred to in terms of taste and opinion when it came to marketing over men. (It's probably worth noting that typically, women are the ones who control the family finances in Japan, even if the man is the primary income earner.)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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