Friday 24 August 2018

Rilakkuma the Relaxed Bear and other Lazy Characters: Healing and Escapism for the Over-worked Japanese

There are many mysteries when writing a blog and one is the popularity of certain posts. Here, the 2nd all-time most popular post is about Crayon Shin-chan, the disgusting cartoon kindergartner. Recently, I spotted another immensely popular character "wrapped" (as they say in Japanese) around a train in much the same way as Tokyo subway trains were decorated with Shin-chan images last year. This time, the character is more conventionally cute (kawaii) and is known as Rilakkuma (リラックマ) a combination of the words relax (リラックス) and bear (クマ). Images of Rilakkuma and friends also adorn the inside of the train carriages, carrying safety messages (below) as well as promoting the upcoming Netflix series.
Although a relatively new character - Rilakkuma first appeared in 2003 - he is immensely popular in Japan and is used to sell all sorts of merchandise from phone cases, stationery (pictured), and note-book computers to soft toys and keyrings. When I visited the Rilakkuma store at Tokyo Station (there is also one in Solamachi mall under the Skytree) it was crowded with male and female customers of every age and nationality. The site of customers hugging the soft toys under the slogan "happy life with Rilakkuma" made me wonder precisely what needs are satisfied by this laid-back bear.
So what is the appeal of Rilakkuma and what insights does it provide on Japanese society? When asked exactly why this character is so popular, Japanese typically say that the bear's relaxed, easy-going, stress-free life are "healing" (iyasareru=癒される). In fact, since the turn of the century there has been something of a "healing boom" (iyashi būmu =癒しブーム) in Japan with a large number of "healing" products and services promoted to ease the physical and psychological stress of the workplace and daily life in general. One manifestation of this boom has been the emergence of yuru-kawa(ii) or "loose/laid-back-cute" characters such as Rilakkuma (not to be confused with yuru-kyara or regional mascots, like Kumamon and Funasshi, though many of these also have a degree of yuru-kawa). According to artist and lecturer Aya Kakeda the yuru-kawa category grew popular "because of the stressful life in modern society. People are always searching for something to make them calm and relaxed. In the US, perhaps people search for spa or meditation classes. In Japan, there are Yuru[-kawa] characters who make you calm and relaxed just by looking at them.” A perfect recent example of the popularity of this genre is Gudetama (debuting in 2013), an indifferent, weary, lazy, low-effort, no-energy egg yolk who in contrast to the positivity of Rilakkuma is more about the unbearableness of life itself. In Japanese guda-guda is onomatopoeia for doing nothing or being lazy (guden-guden is drunk) while tama comes from tamago (egg).
Gudetama goods on sale at Tokyo Character Street, Tokyo Station
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All this would suggest that such characters have become popular because they are the ideal escape for the over-worked over-stressed salaried worker whose free time consists of nothing more than eating and sleeping. Sleep statistics seem to bear this out: one recent survey found Japanese sleep only an average of six hours and 35 minutes each night with 40% sleeping six hours or less; in a 2009 survey Japan ranked 28th out of 29 countries (sleeping one minute more than South Koreans). Another survey found nearly half of Japanese to be suffering from insomnia! The problem, as the above article suggests, seems to be that there are no time regulations for those in managerial positions; the new work reform law (hatarakikata kaikaku hō =働き方改革法) passed in June and billed as the first major reform in 70 years (triggered by the shocking 2015 case of a young women working herself to death at ad giant Dentsu), still exempts highly skilled "specialist" white-collar professionals from work-time regulations. The lifestyle of Rilakkuma, Gudetama, and other yuru-kawa characters (Tottoro also springs to mind) represents an impossible dream for "company warriors" in a system that has little regard for their health and well-being.