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Saturday, March 8, 2003

JAPAN LITE

Amazing character goods made of pulp


With the current state of Japan's economy, many of us are wondering: Is this the end of heated toilet seats in public restrooms? Will we be expected to live our futures without free household cleaning sponges from the bank and individual trash bags on the buses and trains? Maybe.

But one thing is sure: Japan will never give up "charakuta goodzu." People will always buy the multitudes of cartoon creatures that grace the goods in Japan's department stores, bookstores and convenience stores. Here is an introduction to some of the characters that drive Japan's economy, as well as a few who don't.

Although Hello Kitty is Japan's undisputed icon, in second place comes Dick Bruna's Miffy, an apparently hairless and whiskerless white rabbit with long ears. Miffy's facial features are indeed sparse. The Bruna Family also includes a brown rabbit named Melanie, an elephant, a lion and a yellow bear. Don't ask me what Miffy's parents were doing to produce such an array of creatures. Surely the yellow bear was not planned. And the idea of a rabbit giving birth to an elephant is just not healthy. Especially when the parents are going to turn around and sell the baby elephant as a plush toy for 2,800 yen.

But the nonetheless adorable Miffy is a permanent fixture in Japanese life, and she appears on a wide array of character goods from wineglasses to bathtub thermometer boats. Boyfriends are sometimes so smitten with a girl, they buy her a whole Miffy bathroom ensemble including a toilet seat cover, bathroom slippers and towels, all with Miffy prominently displayed on them.

Tare Panda is another character that has curiously gained popularity over the past several years. This panda is so lazy, he is laid out flat, pathetically melting into the floor. Tare Panda is said to appeal to people's lazy side. Tare Panda graces notebook covers, bento boxes and other school goods. Not much of an inspiration for studying, eh?

Afro Ken is a dog with an Afro hairdo. Afro Ken usually sports a rainbow-colored Afro or a white Afro with red stars in it. He hangs out with other dogs, including one with a psychedelic mohawk.

For the new year, Afro Ken appeared with a lime-green Afro and and an entire New Year's decoration set, complete with bamboo stalks, on top of his head.

There are various other minor characters put out by shameless companies that have merely created characters to get in on a part of the economic pie. What other excuse could there be for cartoon characters made from pulp and yeast? Meet Tissue-san, an animated box of tissue! I suppose it was just a matter of time, since the Japanese have long coddled tissue boxes, dressing them in lacy covers as if they were dolls. Among Tissue-san's animated friends are a mini-tissue pack and a roll of toilet paper.

If you think animating tissue paper is strange, how about animating bread -- burned bread? Koge Pan is a burned bread roll. And his (her?) friends are all burned too. You can buy stickers that show the burned bread taking part in everyday Japanese activities such as sitting under the "kotatsu" or making "mochi." They drink milk. They even wear kimonos. Koge Pan are always pictured with a little smoke coming out of their heads. After all, they're burning . . .

Koge Pan and his (her?) partner appear to have a child, who is a smaller roll whose yeast is still active. In a few more hours, however, I expect it will be an adult. Little does this little roll know that her future is scorched. Like the Japanese economy, her future will be, at the very best, crunchy.

Check out Amy Chavez's new column, "Parents Do the Strangest Things," at www.amychavez.com.


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