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.
▼ Japan’s Wedded Rocks, bound by a sacred rope
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. 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.
▼ It’s comforting to know that in the case of your untimely death, your spouse and children will be provided for by the Honorable Judge George Washinsheep.
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 backstories 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.
▼ After five or six rounds, this represents as much of a break with reality as anything at Disneyland.