Cute But Relaxed: Ten Years of Rilakkuma in Precarious Japan




Japan, cute culture, character goods

How to Cite

Stevens, C. S. (2014). Cute But Relaxed: Ten Years of Rilakkuma in Precarious Japan. M/C Journal, 17(2).
Vol. 17 No. 2 (2014): cute
Published 2014-03-03


Japan has long been cited as a major source of cute (kawaii) culture as it has spread around the world, as encapsulated in Christine R. Yano’s phrase ‘Pink Globalization’. This essay charts recent developments in Japanese society through the cute character Rilakkuma, a character produced by San-X (a competitor to Sanrio, which produces the famed Hello Kitty). His name means ‘relaxed bear’, and Rilakkuma and friends are featured in comics, games and other products, called kyarakutā shōhin (also kyarakutā guzzu, which both mean ‘character goods’). Rilakkuma is pictured relaxing, sleeping, eating sweets, and listening to music; he is not only lazy, but he is also unproductive in socio-economic terms. Yet, he is never censured for this lifestyle. He provides visual pleasure to those who buy these goods, but more importantly, Rilakkuma’s story charitably portrays a lifestyle that is fully consumptive with very little, if any, productivity. Rilakkuma’s reified consumption is certainly in line with many earlier analyses of shōjo (young girl) culture in Japan, where consumerism is considered ‘detached from the productive economy of heterosexual reproduction’ (Treat, 281) and valued as an end in itself. Young girl culture in Japan has been both critiqued and celebrated in in opposition to the economic productivity as well as the emotional emptiness and weakening social prestige of the salaried man (Roberson and Suzuki, 9-10). In recent years, ideal masculinity has been further critiqued with the rise of the sōshokukei danshi (‘grass-eating men’) image: today’s Japanese male youth appear to have no appetite for the ‘meat’ associated with heteronormative, competitively capitalistic male roles (Steger 2013). That is not to say all gender roles have vanished; instead, social and economic precarity has created a space for young people to subvert them.  Whether by design or by accident, Rilakkuma has come to represent a Japanese consumer maintaining some standard of emotional equilibrium in the face of the instability that followed the Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in early 2011.

A Relaxed Bear in a Precarious Japan

Certainly much has been written about the ‘lost decade(s)’ in Japan, or the unraveling of the Japanese postwar miracle since the early 1990s in a variety of unsettling ways. The burst of the ‘bubble economy’ in 1991 led to a period of low or no economic growth, uncertain employment conditions and deflation. Because of Japan’s relative wealth and mature economic system, this was seen a gradual process that Mark Driscoll calls a shift from the ‘so-called Japan Inc. of the 1980s’ to ‘“Japan Shrink” of the 2010s and 2020s’ (165). The Japanese economy was further troubled by the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, and then the Tōhoku disasters. These events have contributed to Japan’s state of ambivalence, as viewed by both its citizens and by external observers. Despite its relative wealth, the nation continues to struggle with deflation (and its corresponding stagnation of wages), a deepening chasm between the two-tier employment system of permanent and casual work, and a deepening public mistrust of corporate and governing authorities.

Some of this story is not ‘new’; dual employment practices have existed throughout Japan’s postwar history. What has changed, however, is the attitudes of casual workers; it is now thought to be much more difficult, if not impossible, to shift from low paid, insecure casual labour to permanent, secure positions. The overall unemployment rate remains low precisely because the number of temporary and part time workers has increased, as much as one third of all workers in 2012 (The Japan Times). The Japanese government now concedes that ‘the balance of working conditions between regular and non-regular workers have therefore become important issues’ (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare); many see this is not only a distinction between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, but also of a generational shift of those who achieved secure positions before the ‘lost decade’, and those who came after. Economic, political, environmental and social insecurity have given rise to a certain level public malaise, not conducive to a robust consumer culture. Enter Rilakkuma: he, like many other cute characters in Japan, entices the consumer to feel good about spending – or perhaps, to feel okay about spending? – in this precarious time of underemployment and uncertainty about the future.

‘Cute’ Characters:  Attracting as Well as Attractive

Cute (‘kawaii’) culture in Japan is not just aesthetic; it includes ‘a turn to emotion and even sentimentality, in some of the least likely places’ (Yano, 7). Cute kyarakutā are not just sentimentally attractive; they are more precisely attracting images which are used to sell these character goods:  toys, household objects, clothing and stationery. Occhi writes that many kyarakutā are the result of an ‘anthropomorphization’ of objects or creatures which ‘guide the user towards specific [consumer] behaviors’ (78). While kyarakutā would be created first to sell a product, in the end, the character’s popularity at times can eclipse the product’s value, and the character thus becomes ‘pure product’, as in the case of Hello Kitty (Yano, 10). Most characters, however, merely function as ‘specific representatives of a product or service rendered mentally “sticky” through narratives, wordplay and other specialized aspects of their design’ (Occhi, 86). Miller refers to this phenomenon as ‘Japan’s zoomorphic urge’, and argues that etiquette guides and public service posters, which frequently use cute and cuddly animals in the place of humans, is done to ‘render […] potentially dangerous or sensitive topics as safe and acceptable’ (69).  Cuteness instrumentally turns away from negative aspects of society, whether it is the demonstration of etiquette rules in public, or the portrayal of an underemployed or unemployed person watching TV at home, as in Rilakkuma. Thus we see a revitalization of the cute zeitgeist in Japanese consumerism in products such as the Rilakkuma franchise, produced by San-X, a company that produces and distributes ‘stationary [sic], sundry goods, merchandises [sic], and paper products with original design.’ (San-X Net).

Who Is Rilakkuma?

According to the company’s ‘fan’ books, written in response to the popularity of Rilakkuma’s character goods (Nakazawa), the background story of Rilakkuma is as follows:  one day, a smallish bear found its way unexplained into the apartment of a Japanese OL (office lady) named Kaoru. He spends his time ‘being of no use to Kaoru, and is actually a pest by lying around all day doing nothing… his main concerns are meals and snacks. He seems to hate the summer [heat].’  Other activities include watching television, listening to music, taking long baths, and tossing balls of paper into the rubbish bin (Nakazawa, 4). His comrades are Korilakkuma (loosely translated as ‘Little Rilakkuma’) and Kiiroitori (simply, ‘Yellow Bird’).  Korilakkuma is a smaller and paler version of Rilakkuma; like her friend, she appears in Kaoru’s apartment for no reason. She is described as liking to pull pranks (itazuradaisuki) and is comparatively more energetic (genki) than Rilakkuma; her main activities are imitating Rilakkuma and looking for someone with whom to play (6). Lastly, Kiiroitori is a small yellow bird resembling a chick, and seems to be the only character of the three who has any ‘right’ to reside in Kaoru’s apartment. Kiiroitori was a pet bird residing in cage before the appearance of these two bears, but after Rilakkuma and Korilakkuma set themselves up in her small apartment, Kiiroitori was liberated from his cage and flies in the faces of lazy Rilakkuma and mischievous Korilakkuma (7). Kiiroitori likes tidiness, and is frequently cleaning up after the lazy bears, and he can be short tempered about this (ibid). Kiiroitori’s interests include the charming but rather thrifty ‘finding spare change while cleaning up’ and ‘bear climbing’, which is enjoyed primarily for its annoyance to the bears (ibid).

Fig. 1:  Korilakkuma, Rilakkuma and Kiiroitori, in 10-year anniversary attire (photo by author).

This narrative behind these character goods is yet another aspect of their commodification (in other words, their management, distribution and copyright protection). The information presented ­– the minute details of the characters’ existence, illustrated with cute drawings and calligraphy – enriches the consumer process by deepening the consumers’ interaction with the product.  How does the story become as attractive as the cute character? One of the striking characteristics of the ‘official’ Rilakkuma discourse is the sense of ‘ikinari yattekita’  (things happening ‘out of the blue’; Nakazawa 22), or ‘naru yō ni narimasu’ (‘whatever will be will be’; 23) reasoning behind the narrative.  Buyers want to know how and why these cute characters come into being, but there is no answer. To some extent, this vagueness reflects the reality of authorship:  the characters were first conceptualized by a designer at San-X named Kondō Aki, who left the company soon after Rilakkuma’s debut in 2003 (Akibako). But this ‘out of the blue’ quality of the characters strikes a chord in many consumers’ view of their own lives:  why are we here? what are we doing, and why do we do it? The existence of these characters and the reasons for their traits and preferences are inexplicable. There is no reason why or how Rilakkuma came to be – instead, readers are told that to just relax, ‘go with the flow’, and ‘what can be done today can always be done tomorrow’. Procrastination would normally be considered meiwaku, or bothersome to others who depend on you. In Productive Japan, this behavior is not valued. In Precarious Japan, however, underemployment and nonproductivity takes the pressure away from individuals to judge this behavior as negative.  Procrastination shifts from meiwaku to normality, and to be transformed into kawaii culture, accepted and even celebrated as such.

Rilakkuma is not the first Japanese pop cultural character to rub up against the hyper productive, gambaru (fight!) attitude associated with previous generations, with their associated tropes of the juken jikoku (exam preparation hell) for students, or the karōshi (death from overwork) salaried worker.  An early example of this would be Chibi Marukochan (‘Little Maruko’), a comic character created in 1986 but whose popularity peaked in the 1990s. Maruko is an endearing but flawed primary school student who is cute and amusing, but also annoying and short tempered (Sakura).  Flawed characters were frequently featured in Japanese popular culture, but Maruko was one of the first featured as heroine, not a jester-like sidekick.  As an early example of Japanese cute, subversive characters, Maruko was often annoying and lazy, but she at least aspired to traits such as doing well in school and being a good daughter in her extended family. Rilakkuma, perhaps, demonstrates the extension of this cute but subversive hero/ine: when the stakes are lower (or at their lowest), so is the need for stress and anxiety. Taking it easy is the best option.

Rilakkuma’s ‘charm point’ (chāmu pointo, which describes one’s personal appeal), is his transgressive cuteness, and this has paid off for San-X over the years in successful sales of his comic books as well as a variety of products (see fig. 2).

Fig. 2: An example of some of the goods for sale in early 2014: a fleecy blanket, a 3d puzzle, note pads and stickers, decorative toggles for a school bag or purse, comic and ‘fan’ books, and a toy car (photo by the author).

Over the decade between 2003 and 2013, San X has produced 51 volumes of Rilakkuma comics (Tonozuka, 37 – 42) and over 20 different series of stuffed animals (43 – 45); plus cushions, tote bags, tableware, stationery, and variety goods such as toilet paper holders, umbrellas and contact lens cases (46 – 52). While visiting the Rilakkuma themed shop in Tokyo Station in October 2013, a newly featured and popular product was the Rilakkuma ‘onesie’, a unisex and multipurpose outfit for adults. These products’ diversity are created to meet the consumer desires of Rilakkuma’s significant following in Japan; in a small-scale study of Japanese university students, researchers found that Rilakkuma was the number one nominated ‘favorite character’ (Nosu and Tanaka, 535). Furthermore, students claimed that the attractiveness of favorite characters were judged not just on their appearance, but also due to specific characteristics:  ‘characters that are always idle, relaxed, stress-free’ and those ‘that have unusual behavior or stray from the right path’ (ibid) were cited as especially attractive/attracting. Just like Rilakkuma, these researchers found that young Japanese people – the demographic perhaps most troubled by an insecure economic future – are attracted to ‘characters that have flaws in some ways and are not merely cute’ (536).

Where to, Rilakkuma?

Miller, in her discussion of Japanese animal characters in a variety of cute cultural settings writes

Non-human animals emerge as useful metaphors for humans, yet […] it is this aesthetic load rather than the lesson or the ideology behind the image that often becomes the center of our attention. […] However, I think it is useful to separate our analysis of zoomorphic images as vehicles for cuteness from their other possible uses and possible utility in many areas of culture (70).

Similarly, we need to look beyond cute, and see what Miller terms as ‘the lesson’ behind the ‘aesthetic load’: here, how cuteness disguises social malaise and eases the shift from ‘Japan Inc.’ to ‘Japan Shrink’. When particular goods are ‘tied’ to other products, the message behind the ‘aesthetic load’ are complicated and deepened. Rilakkuma’s recent commercial (in)activity has been characterized by a variety of ‘tai uppu’ (tie ups), or promotional links between the Rilakkuma image and other similarly aligned products. Traditionally, tie ups in Japan have been most successful when formed between products that were associated with similar audiences and similar aesthetic preferences. We have seen tie ups, for example, between Hello Kitty and McDonald’s (targeting youthful fast food customers) since 1999 (Yano, 129). In ‘Japan Shrink’s’ competitive consumer market, tie ups are becoming more strategic, and all the more interesting.

One of the troubled markets in Japan, as elsewhere, is the music industry. Shrinking expendable income coupled with a variety of downloading practices means the traditional popular music industry (primarily in the form of CDs) is in decline. In 2009, Rilakkuma began a co-badged campaign with Tower Records Japan – after all, listening to music is one of Rilakkuma’s listed favourite past times.  TRJ was then independent from its failed US counterpart, and a major figure in the music retail scene despite disappointing CD sales since the late 1990s (Stevens, 85). To stir up consumer interest, TRJ offered objects, such as small dolls, towels and shopping bags, festooned with Rilakkuma images and phrases such as ‘Rilakkuma loves Tower Records’ and ‘Relaxed Tour 2012’ (Tonozuka, 72 – 73). Rilakkuma, in a familiar pose lying back with his arms crossed behind his head, but surrounded by musical notes and the phrase ‘No Music, No Life’ (72), presents compact image of the consumer zeitgeist of the day:  one’s ikigai (reason for living) is clearly contingent on personal enjoyment, despite Japan’s music industry woes.

Rilakkuma also enjoys a close relationship with the ubiquitous convenience store Lawson, which has over 11,000 individual stores throughout Japan and hundreds more overseas (Lawson, Corporate Information).  Japanese konbini (the Japanese term for convenience stores), unlike their North American or Australian counterparts, enjoy a higher consumer image in terms of the quality and variety of their products, thus symbolize a certain relaxed lifestyle, as per Merry I. White’s description of the ‘no hands housewife’ breezing through the evening meal preparations thanks to ready made dishes purchased at konbini (72). Japanese convenience stores sell a variety of products, but sweets (Rilakkuma’s favourite) take up a large proportion of shelf space in many stores. The most current ‘Rilakkuma x Lawson campaign’ was undertaken between September and November 2013. During this period, customers earned points to receive a free teacup; certainly Rilakkuma’s cuteness motivated consumers to visit the store to get the prize. All was not well with this tie up, however; complaints about cracked teacups resulted in an external investigation.  Finding no causal relationship between construction and fault, Lawson still apologized and offered to exchange any of the approximately 1.73 million cups with an alternate prize for any consumers who so wished (Lawson, An Apology).  The alternate prize was still cute in its pink colouring and kawaii character pattern, but it was a larger and much sturdier commuter type mug. Here we see that while Rilakkuma is relaxed, he is still aware of corporate Japan’s increasing sense of corporate accountability and public health.

One last tie up demonstrates an unusual alliance between the Rilakkuma franchise and other cultural icons.  2013 marked the ten-year anniversary of Rilakkuma and friends, and this was marked by several prominent campaigns.  In Kyoto, we saw Rilakkuma and friends adorning o-mamori (religious amulets) at the famed Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), a major temple in Kyoto (see fig. 3a). The ‘languid dream’ of the lazy bear is a double-edged symbol, contrasting with the disciplined practice of Buddhism and complying with a Zen-like dream state of the beauty of the grounds. Another ten-year anniversary campaign was the tie up between Rilakkuma and the 50 year anniversary of JR’s Yamanote Line, the ‘city loop’ in Tokyo.


Fig. 3a:  Kiiroitori sits atop Rilakkuma with Korilakkuma by their side at the Golden Pavillion, Kyoto.  The top caption reads: ‘Relaxed bear, Languid at the Golden Pavilion; Languid Dream Travelogue’
Fig. 3b:  a key chain made to celebrate Rilakkuma’s appointment to the JR Line; still lazy, Rilakkuma lies on his side but wears a conductor’s cap.

This tie up was certainly a coup, for the Yamanote Line is a significant part of 13 million Tokyo residents’ lives, as well as a visible fixture in the cultural landscape since the early postwar period. The Yamanote, with its distinctive light green coloring (uguisuiro, which translates literally to ‘nightingale [bird] colour’) has its own aesthetic:  as one of the first modern train lines in the capital, it runs through all the major leisure districts and is featured in many popular songs and even has its own drinking game. This nostalgia for the past, coupled with the masculine, super-efficient former national railway’s system is thus juxtaposed with the lazy, feminized teddy bear (Rilakkuma is male, but his domain is feminine), linking a longing for the past with gendered images of production and consumption in the present. In figure 3b, we see Rilakkuma riding the Yamanote on his own terms (lying on his side, propped up by one elbow – a pose we would never see a JR employee take in public). This cheeky cuteness increases the iconic train’s appeal to its everyday consumers, for despite its efficiency, this line is severely overcrowded during peak hours and suffers from user malaise with respect to etiquette and safety issues. 

Life in contemporary Japan is no longer the bright, shiny ‘bubble’ of the 1980s. Japan is wrestling with internal and external demons:  the nuclear crisis, the lagging economy, deteriorating relations with China, and a generation of young people who have never experienced the optimism of their parents’ generation. Dreamlike, Japan’s denizens move through the contours of their daily lives much as they have in the past, for major social structures remain for the most part in tact; instead, it is the vision of the future that has altered. In this environment, we can argue that kawaii aesthetics are all the more important, for if we are uncomfortable thinking about negative or depressing topics such as industries in decline, questionable consumer safety standards, and overcrowded trains, a cute bear can make it much more ‘bear’-able.


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Author Biography

Carolyn Shannon Stevens, Monash University

Carolyn S. Stevens is Professor of Japanese Studies and Director of the Japanese Studies Centre at Monash University. Her major publications include Japanese Popular Music:  Culture, Authenticity and Power (Routledge 2008) and Disability in Japan (Routledge 2013).  She is currently editor in chief of the interdisplinary journal, Japanese Studies.