If there’s one Japanese word you probably already know, it’s kawaii (かわいい), often translated in English as “cute.”
Although “cute” is definitely part of its meaning, in the Japanese language, the word kawaii carries a range of additional connotations stemming from its origins in kawayushi—a word meaning pathetic, vulnerable, and shy. In particular, kawaii incorporates a feeling of love and care into its definition: something kawaii is not only adorable, but also elicits feelings of protectiveness and attachment in a viewer.
In Japanese culture, kawaii is a fixture of everyday life that permeates all levels of society. From cute police station mascots to decorative bento boxes and even luxury hotel rooms, kawaii isn’t just for children or entertainment, but a part of serious, adult life as well. Kawaii plushies are no exception, and all this demand translates into a thriving industry with incredible variety. From cute stuffed animals to bizarrely adorable mascots, Japan has a kawaii plush for every occasion, age, and walk of life!
Classic Kawaii Plushies
That being said, over the years, certain brands and characters have come to dominate the industry with some of the most popular cute, kawaii plushies in Japan today. Unsurprisingly, many of these come from merchandising giants San-X and Sanrio, most famous for Rilakkuma and Hello Kitty. Alongside these familiar figures, you’ll also find some of their slightly lesser-known characters on offer, such as the adorable Golden Retriever Pompompurin; Rilakkuma’s white bear-cub friend Korilakkuma; the highly-relatable, lazy Gudetama; and a whole cast of cute Sumikkogurashi misfits! Rest assured: they’re just as adorable as their more famous relatives.
Another company worth mentioning here is Amuse, a Japanese plush toy manufacturer best known for Alpacasso and Pote Usa Loppy. Alpacasso and Pote Usa Loppy are an adorable alpaca and bunny with super soft fur and a huge range of different colors and sizes. These plushies often wind up in Japanese claw machines, where the challenge is proportionate to the size or rarity. The harder the catch, the better the prize!
Another popular range of kawaii plushies uses the likeness of pre-existing characters to attract consumers, spinning popular movies and video games into huge merchandising empires. The most successful of these, without a doubt, are Pokémon and Studio Ghibli.
When it comes to Ghibli, the standout characters are adorable Totoro and the delightfully weird Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro, but characters like Jiji from Kiki’s Delivery Service and the creepy No-Face from Spirited Away also get a look in. These old cinematic friends come in a range of shapes and sizes, from giant huggable soft toys to miniature plush charms you can hang from a bag or a mobile phone. With so many plushies on offer, it’s easy to relive the magic of these animated movies in one simple squeeze!
Pokémon’s legendary plushie range, meanwhile, has been emptying out fans’ wallets since the late 1990s. On top of plushies for every generation of Pokémon, the official store also sells a range of Ditto impersonations, seasonally themed Pikachu, and jumbo-sized, Gigantamax versions of all your favorite creatures from Nintendo’s beloved games. With well over 1,000 plushies in their online store alone, the Pokémon Company caters to not only every taste but every budget—from (appropriately) pocket-sized plushies in the ten dollar range, to life-size Snorlaxes and Gengars going for hundreds of dollars.
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In Japan, soft toys aren’t just a childish indulgence but a comfort item that even the most jaded salaryman might look forward to coming home to after a long day! As such, many kawaii plushies in Japan come with a practical bent, making them useful everyday objects as well as display items and cuddly toys. It’s not uncommon, for example, to find cute stuffed animals with scented fur to aid with relaxation, or soft toys with patches of cooling material for cuddling up to during the hot summer months. On the flip side, warming plushies are a popular option in Japanese wintertime, heated with a simple microwavable inner pouch or even USB charge, as in the case of Nintendo’s recent Kirby plushie.
The Weird Side of Kawaii
Last but not least, you can also find kawaii plushies with a more unusual theme—after all, if anything sweet and vulnerable looking can be cute, why not an alien-like, deep-sea crustacean, a killer whale in the midst of consuming its prey, or even Japan’s infamous kawaii poo? Alongside cute animals, kawaii depictions of day-to-day objects and strange chimerical mascots are another big hit in the world of Japanese plushies!
Perhaps predictably, food is far and away the most popular item to be transformed. Popular kawaii-fied dishes include tofu, sushi rolls, onigiri, and a wide variety of Japanese breads, from smiling melonpans to weirdly adorable loaves of bread! Japanese retailer HAPiNS even sells a range of adorable, anthropomorphized tofu plushies called Hannari Tofu. These cuddly cubes come in a range of colors and styles depending on their culinary preparations, including a yellow “yaki” tofu with grill marks from frying, a slate-grey “goma” tofu with a sesame-seed blush on its cheeks, and a pink “ume” tofu inspired not by cherry blossoms, but Japan’s very similar sour plum tree. Even better, they also come in seasonal editions celebrating events such as Halloween and Christmas. They might be too cute to eat, but they’re perfect to cuddle!
Japan has the market cornered when it comes to many aspects of kawaii culture, and plushies are no exception. Whether you’re after a limited edition, specially themed Pikachu to put on display, or just a giant body-pillow of a smiling carrot to cuddle up to at night, Japan has the perfect plush for the occasion—and plenty more you didn’t even know you wanted!