Sanrio vs San-X: What's the difference between Japan's Most Kawaii Characters?

21 February 2021 by Jen

Sanrio is the company behind many of Japan's most famous cute characters like Hello Kitty and My Melody.

The concept of “kawaii” and the near-constant creation of cute characters is absolutely ingrained in modern Japanese culture.

Many Japanese kids grow up surrounded by iconic characters that come from many different sources. Manga and anime series (for example, many kids in Japan have fond memories of watching Doraemon or reading the Doraemon manga), anime movies like the ones from Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service are both full of cute characters), and video games (for this, a certain jumping Italian plumber immediately comes to mind) are all typical kawaii factories. 

However, when it comes to cute Japanese characters, the most compelling sources aren’t even a part of these mainstream forms of media. They’re the companies who are dedicated to creating these characters because, in Japan, the world of kawaii is big business.

The two biggest names in the industry of Japanese character goods are Sanrio and San-X. Over the years, they’ve introduced us to many of the cutest characters we know and love, and their creations are now an iconic part of many Japanese people’s lives. 

As with any situation where you have two competing forces, there’s bound to be some comparison. So to fully understand what each company has to offer, let’s take a look at a side-by-side Sanrio vs San-X comparison match to see how their characters fare and to see who truly holds the kawaii crown.

Sanrio

Hello Kitty from Sanrio is perhpas the most famous cute Japanese character across the world!

Hello Kitty from Sanrio is perhaps the most famous cute Japanese character across the world!

It might be a bit surprising to know that Sanrio was established as a different company entirely before they became known for their plush toys and cute Japanese cartoon characters. Established in 1960 by Shintaro Tsuji, they were first known as the Yamanashi Silk Company. The company soon after expanded from silk products to producing rubber products such as rubber sandals. 

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The founder then noticed that they sold more of their sandals when they added cute Japanese cartoon characters to their designs, so he started hiring cartoonists to create more of these fictional characters to appeal to a wider range of people. In 1973, the company officially changed its name to Sanrio and started focusing its efforts on producing character goods that could be used as gifts. And thus, the Sanrio that we all know and love today was born.

In 1974, Sanrio created the character Hello Kitty, an adorable red-bowed white cat. She was the first Sanrio creation that gained a breakthrough success, becoming popular even in many countries outside of Japan. Over the years since then, there have been other Sanrio characters that have found mainstream popularity, examples of which include Keroppi, Cinnamoroll, and the Little Twin Stars.

Sanrio has become so popular that they even have their own theme park in Tokyo, called Sanrio Puroland. In fact, their influence can even be seen in things like public transportation; back in 2018, the shinkansen (or bullet train) of Japan was decorated all in pink and white and images of Hello Kitty.

Sanrio characters are so popular they often decorate Japanese trains and shinkansen.

While Hello Kitty is considered to be Sanrio’s most recognizable character, over the years, she’s been overtaken by other Sanrio characters. In 2020, Sanrio held an online poll where fans from all over the world can cast a vote for their favorite character. The final results had Cinnamoroll placing in first place with around 1,300,000 votes, Pompompurin in second place with over 1,200,000 votes, and Pochacco in third place with just a little over one million votes. In this poll, Hello Kitty placed in fifth place, behind My Melody.

San-X

San-x characters are often mistaken as Sanrio, but they are infact two seperate companies.

San-X is the character goods company whose name you might not have heard of before but whose kawaii characters you have almost definitely heard of. Compared to Sanrio, not much is known about the company’s history. We do know, however, that the company was founded in April 1932 under the name “Chida Handler”. 

In May of 1973, they changed their name to San-X. This was inspired by how their previous logo looked like a row of three X marks, and since the word “san” means “three” in Japanese, their name now literally means, “three X’s”. 

Up until the mid-1990s, they mostly created stationery products that were designed with scenic illustrations. In 1995, Japanese artist Hikaru Suemasa created the droopy, lazy panda Tarepanda (pictured below) for use in San-X’s products and it became an instant hit. Three years later, the company decided to completely focus its efforts on products with other cute Japanese characters. 

Tarepanda is the originally San-x character.

Some of the other popular characters in San-X’s lineup are Kutsushita Nyanko, a playful black cat whose name derives from the fact that he is wearing white socks (“kutsushita” being the word for “socks” in Japanese), Sentimental Circus, whose storyline is that they are abandoned stuffed animals who sneak away at night to form a secret circus, Afro Ken, a dog who wears a bright and colorful afro on his head, and Monokuro Boo, a pair of black and white pigs who are always seen together.

Perhaps the two most popular San-X characters are Rilakkuma, a brown bear who seems to be enjoying life, the rag-tag group known collectively as Sumikko Gurashi: a set of adorable fictional characters that include a polar bear that dislikes the cold, a penguin who is facing an identity crisis, a piece of pork cutlet, a timid cat, and a dinosaur pretending to be a lizard.

Rilakuma and Sumiko gurashi are a few unique San-x characters that set them apart from Sanrio

After taking a look at the histories of both companies and covered some of their character lineup, who do you think wins this Sanrio vs San-X match?

In our opinion, it’s safe to say that in terms of brand recognizability, Sanrio wins since it’s the name that more people around the world have heard of and since they even have their own theme park that includes the company’s name. But in terms of character versatility and creativity, San-X wins because we can see that they put such careful thought into coming up with all these unique character backstories.

But after all is said and done, we’re just happy that both companies can add some joy and cuteness into many people’s lives.


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