Ashley Yajko

As societies across the world are becoming increasingly techno-oriented, modernized, and fast-paced, rates of stress and depression continue to rise. Japan in particular is globally known for not only their sophisticated technology but also their cute, or kawaii, culture. Many kawaii characters originating from Japan, such as Rilakkuma (“bear in relaxed mood”), have brought emotional healing for countless overworked and stressed individuals in Japan and abroad. Importantly, kawaii commercial goods like Rilakkuma contribute to Japan’s rising “soft power” and the global recognition of “Japanese cute.”[1]

Figure 1. Various Rilakkuma items including a pencil case, notepad, keychain, and face masks.

Rilakkuma’s Backstory

Rilakkuma was created in 2003 by the company San-X, commonly referred to as a competitor of Hello Kitty’s creator company, Sanrio. Both San-X and Sanrio have produced universally recognizable kawaii characters. Like Hello Kitty, Rilakkuma can be found on various stationery and home items from pens and sticky notes to plushies and desk lamps (see Figures 1 and 2). However, despite its comparable fame, San-X is generally viewed as quirkier and more subversive in comparison to Sanrio. One aspect that makes San-X characters deviate from typical kawaii culture is their characters’ unrealistic and often mysterious backstories.[2] For example, Rilakkuma has an ambiguous backstory: one day, he mysteriously appeared in the apartment of a 25-year-old office worker named Kaoru.[3] Additionally, although he looks like a toy bear, Rilakkuma has an inexplicable zipper on his back, suggesting that he is not a real bear but a human in disguise.[4]

Rilakkuma constantly lounges around and enjoys snacking and spending time with friends. Some of his friends include Kaoru (whom he essentially lives off of), Korilakkuma, or “Little Rilakkuma,” and Kiiroitori, or “Yellow Bird.”[5] Among his friends, Rilakkuma is the laziest and most emotionless character. His charm partially lies in his utter lack of care and concern toward the world, especially one burdened with stressful daily demands. The thought of indulging in the lazy behaviors Rilakkuma embodies may provide respite for many overworked individuals. Furthermore, following the burst of Japan’s “bubble economy” in 1991, Japan was “led to a period of low or no economic growth, uncertain employment conditions and deflation.”[6] Given that many individuals encountered financial insecurity and employment instability, Rilakkuma’s “portrayal of an underemployed or unemployed person watching TV at home” has helped to normalize and comfort those facing unemployment. As Carolyn Stevens states, Rilakkuma’s success is associated with stress related to Japan’s economic recession and its 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster: “Whether by design or by accident, Rilakkuma has come to represent a Japanese consumer maintaining some standard of emotional equilibrium in the face of… instability.”

Rilakkuma’s Cute Appeal

While Rilakkuma’s nonchalant, lazy persona has contributed to his achieving global fame and admiration, his undeniably cute appearance also plays a major role in this success. Rilakkuma has a large head and eyes as well as soft, rounded features that give him an innocent, babyish appearance. Melanie L. Glocker et al. explain that the idea of “baby schema” includes a “set of infantile physical features such as the large head, round face and big eyes….”[7] Humans are often inclined to have and exhibit  favorable feelings toward, nurture, and protect cute objects exhibiting the above characteristics, as they are typically associated with infants. With his specific features, Rilakkuma himself would seem to fit “baby schema” well. Moreover, Rilakkuma is a bear frequently sold in the form of a soft, cuddly plush and shares similarities with the teddy bear prototype, which has a “rounded, soft and small bodily appearance” and “is associated with helplessness, harmlessness and perhaps even pity.”[8] A teddy bear’s soft features make it a perfect companion to cuddle with and satisfy the human need for touch, and its small, cute features elicit sympathy and affection in consumers.[9] Rilakkuma’s evident resemblance to the teddy bear figure elicits a familiar and comfortable feeling, while his cuteness makes him irresistible to costumers and evokes a desire for nurture in them, ultimately establishing him as an easily commodifiable product.

Figure 2. A small light up Rilakkuma lamp.

Cuteness and Mental Health

While Rilakkuma’s cute appearance and relatability primarily contribute to his massive appeal (just by looking at his kawaii features, people can find comfort), his printed image on pens, sticky notes, and backpacks can bring young people a sense of peace and happiness and increased motivation, particularly in stressful environments such as school or the workplace (see Figures 3 and 4). Over the last decade, researchers have begun to study how kawaii objects such as Rilakkuma impact mood and behavior. One recent study by Masako Nunokawa found that participants who looked at images with “a high impression of ‘kawaii’” were more likely to feel “comfortable, cheerful, excited and lively.”[10] Furthermore, Hiroshi Nittono et al.  previously discovered that viewing kawaii objects made participants happier and contributed to improved performance on tasks requiring attention and behavioral carefulness.[11] 

During the early 2000s, Japan entered the iyashi healing boom, a period in which many items and experiences were created to offer “emotional and physical” healing in response to the end of the Japanese economic bubble and the ensuing economic, emotional, and physical stress placed upon Japanese citizens.[12] During the iyashi boom, animal cafés emerged as a means of healing for the community, and the birth of Rilakkuma notably coincides with this period. For people who cannot visit animal cafés due to financial or physical barriers, Rilakkuma acts as a non-human companion to those in need. Although potentially unable to provide the same emotional support as a living animal, Rilakkuma can still be a fuzzy and cost-effective friend who remains by his owner's side through the ups and downs of life.

Figure 3. A life-size Rilakkuma wearing a U.S. Army T-shirt and cap.

Rilakkuma’s Cultural Implications

Rilakkuma provides happiness and relief to people across the globe, but his Japanese origin is largely overlooked in the U.S. (and other, often Western, countries). Such erasure raises the following question: Is Japan only “cool” if commercial objects appear “Americanized" and culturally odorless? Rilakkuma’s physical characteristics and behaviors lack a particular Japanese “cultural odor.”[13] In other words, his appearance does not contain any racial or ethnic characteristics that would make him identifiable as being from Japan or another specific region. This lack of “cultural odor” likely accounts for Rilakkuma’s significant economic success outside of Japan. Moreover, although global success from characters like Rilakkuma fuels foreign opinions of Japan as “cool,” it masks some cultural odor that may appear as “uncool” to outsiders. As Koichi Iwabuchi writes, “[T]he recent international success of Japanese popular culture still at once expresses the universal appeal of Japanese cultural products and the disappearance of any perceptible “Japaneseness.[14]

In addition, Christine R. Yano argues that the “soft power” Japan gains from its success in cute characters “comes with its own set of challenges… Japanese cute often prompts virulent internal and external debate. Asking ‘is Japan too cute?’[,] some critics in Japan and abroad have expressed concern over the country’s image, as it relies on the exportation of frilly youth culture.”[15] Rilakkuma is no exception his cuteness is his main appeal to consumers and allows him to be so profitable. However, despite Rilakkuma lacking a potential “cultural odor” in certain ways, he possesses features that make him identifiable as Japanese, making him a Japanese “representative” to foreigners. For instance, the name Rilakkuma itself has been romanized instead of transformed into an American name. Given his “foreign”-sounding name, consumers may be at least partially aware that Rilakkuma originates from Japan. Furthermore, many images of Rilakkuma eating traditional Japanese foods such as dango and ramen exist on and offline. The popular Netflix series Rilakkuma and Kaoru also takes place in modern-day Japan, with a focus on the lives of Rilakkuma, his friends, and Kaoru while depicting the immense pressure and demands placed upon many Japanese worker (Kaoru is often shown as stressed and unhappy with her job, as she is overworked and underpaid.)[16] Thus, in line with Yano’s concerns over how kawaii impacts the representation of Japan, non-Japanese consumers who otherwise lack knowledge about Japan can come to conceive Japan through Rilakkuma’s specific characteristics and behaviors. Based on his cute, lazy, and carefree character, people may falsely conclude that Japan is overly cute and lacking in seriousness.

Figure 4. Cookies made using Kiiroitori and Rilakkuma cookie cutters.

Even as debates surrounding the ways in which kawaii characters impact foreigners’ perceptions and behaviors toward Japan are ongoing, it is clear that Rilakkuma has gifted young individuals around the world feelings of happiness for the last twenty years. Whether due to his relatable lazy attitude or cute, round, and oversized features, Rilakkuma has become a global favorite companion that makes the precarious times that much more bearable.

Published: 6/30/2023


[1] Christine. R. Yano, “Wink on Pink: Interpreting Japanese Cute as It Grabs the Global Headlines,” The Journal of Asian Studies 68, no. 3 (August 2009): 684.

[2] “No Title,” San-X, accessed June 1, 2023,

[3] Carolyn Shannon Stevens, “Cute But Relaxed: Ten Years of Rilakkuma in Precarious Japan,” M/C Journal 17, no. 2 (2014),

[4] Adam, “Rilakkuma: Too Cute to Bear,” YumeTwins, September 2, 2022,

[5] Stevens, “Cute But Relaxed.”

[6] Stevens, “Cute But Relaxed.”

[7] Melanie L. Glocker et al., “Baby Schema in Infant Faces Induces Cuteness Perception and Motivation for Caretaking in Adults,” Ethology 115, no. 3 (March 2009): 1.

[8] Anu Valtonen, “Teddy bears,” Consumption Markets & Culture 19, no. 3 (2016).

[9] Valtonen, “Teddy bears.”

[10] Masako Nunokawa, “Impact on Short-Term Mood by Two Factors of Browsing Kawaii Objects and Linguistic Communications,” The International Academic Forum (2021): 13.

[11] Hiroshi Nittono et al., “The Power of Kawaii: Viewing Cute Images Promotes a Careful Behavior and Narrows Attentional Focus,” PLOS One 7, no. 9 (2012): 7.

[12] Amanda S. Robinson, “Finding healing through animal companionship in Japanese animal cafés,” Medical Humanities 45, no. 2 (June 2019): 191.

[13] Koichi Iwabuchi, “How ‘Japanese’ is Pokemon?”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 57.

[14] Koichi Iwabuchi, “How ‘Japanese’ Is Pokémon?”, 61.

[15] Christine R. Yano. “Wink on Pink,” 684.

[16] Ghia Vitale, “Anime Review: Watch Rilakkuma and Kaoru for Maximum Cute Power,” Quail Bell Magazine, May 5, 2019,