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It's not only Hello Kitty: Japan's character craze goes much further

TOKYO--Hello Kitty, whom many learned last week is a girl and not a cat, may be the queen of Japan's cute characters, but she's hardly the only one.

There are thousands, and they are ubiquitous: Long-time favorite Doraemon (who really is a cat) has a daily quiz in a national newspaper. Little monster Pikachu hosted a theme cafe in Tokyo this summer. Stress-relieving Rilakkuma (“relaxed bear”) dangles from teenage girls' school bags.

Characters are not just for kids in Japan, but a part of business and social life. Some see Japan's cute-craze, known as “kawaii,” as a sign of immaturity, but others say it's rooted in a harmony-centered way of life that goes back to ancient animist traditions.

Japanese used to worship many gods, and portrayed ghosts as comical characters. In what is seen as the origin of Japanese manga, or comics, a set of 12th-century scroll paintings humorously portray frogs, rabbits and other animals in human activities, from sumo wrestling to temple worshipping.

Hello Kitty and Doraemon now face hordes of newcomers, many launched by municipal governments to promote tourism and local products. Regular “character summits” choose a national favorite. The market reached 2.3 trillion yen (US$23 billion) last year, according to think tank Yano Research Institute Ltd.

Here are a few that have risen above the crowd:

The Cat That's Not

Created 40 years ago, Hello Kitty is made up of just a few simple strokes: two dots for eyes and a tiny circle for a nose, and no mouth. In contrast to expressive American characters such as Mickey Mouse and Garfield, Hello Kitty doesn't show emotions, and the simplicity has attracted fans from children to street fashion devotees. An article in the Los Angeles Times last week created an Internet firestorm when it explained that the character is not a cat; many insisted she must be. Despite her cat-like ears and whiskers, she is a “cheerful girl with a gentle heart,” says the official website of her theme park, Sanrio Puroland. Born Kitty White in the suburbs of London, she weighs the same as three apples, enjoys baking cookies and dreams about becoming a poet or pianist.

A Lovable Bear That's Free

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Kumamon, left, a popular black bear character from Japan, is hugged by Mariel Cerra, of Buenos Aires, Argentina, in front of a statue of John Harvard on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Nov. 12, 2013.

(AP

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