Pokémon are only a sample taste of the creative, adorable, emotionally unique and fully developed characters that Japan can produce. I’m not sure why more haven’t travelled around the world because all are enchantingly cute and come with the most imaginative and thought provoking back stories.
Cartoon characters are a predominant aspect of the culture. Everything in Japan comes complete with its own character, each prefecture and each ward, some supermarkets, train stations, some streets, many popular tourist spots, roadworks, current political/economical situations, the list is truly endless and always a fun attribute to any wonder around Japan. My current ward character is an eggplant with brown shoes. Little stickers of the little dude tend to come printed on many of the important documents the ward office sends me, in my last ward it was a happy little flower head.
You’ll find it difficult to find a child who knows the Simpsons or many of the favourite cartoon network regulars but you’ll notice an array of new and adorable faces decorating their clothes, candies and toy shops and much like the Pokémon characters, they each have their own unique origin. Here are some of the most popular that you’ll only see in Japan:
Anpanman is everything to kids aged from newborn to four or five. I can say with a 99% certainty that if you visit Japan you will encounter some form of Anpanman merchandise even if you’re only visiting for a few hours. He is everywhere.
He is a superhero character from the hit children’s TV show. ‘Anpanman, let’s go’. Anpan is actually a red bean filled pastry that is popular in Japan and that’s exactly what his head is. This is lucky for Anpanman because often, as he fights the evil germ ‘Baikiman’ he loses his head but he can easily be baked again.
As ‘pan’ is the Japanese word for bread, most characters in the show are some form of bread which I personally find very entertaining. There’s Melonpanman who’s made from a popular melon bread. Shokupanman is made from your average white sliced bread or as the Japanese claim it, “eating bread”. The show also hosts many other fantastic food based characters such as Currypanman, Cream Panda or RollPanna, all of whom are baked by the loveable chef ‘Uncle Jam’. It was originally aired in the 1970s and has yet to decrease in popularity which boggles the mind as to why it hasn’t travelled overseas.
2. Sumikko Gurashi
These guys are the cutest things I have ever discovered and the more I learn about them the cuter they become. When I first moved to Japan and noticed these adorable little creatures on my students stationery, I assumed it was just a popular design but the back stories are almost tear enforcing with the adorability factor.
They are mere characters designed to sell merchandise but the details of each character and the overall concept that they are “corner creatures” who despise being anywhere away from a corner and will immediately run back if they’re forced out of one, kinda makes it worth the money.
Basically there’s 5 main characters each with a unique story.
- There’s the shy Shirokuma ‘white bear’ who migrated south to get away from the cold and is happiest when drinking hot tea in the corner.
- Tonkatsu (a popular fried meat dish) is made mostly of fat and a little bit of meat. He was left behind for being too oily.
- The Penguin? Yes the question mark is part of his name, he’s in a constant existential crisis and is not confident in who or what he is.
- Neko ‘cat’ is shy and timid with body confidence issues.
- Tokage is the last dinosaur, he is hiding in the corner while pretending to be a lizard so he does not get caught and become extinct.
Tell me your face didn’t scrunch up while reading that! They also all have little pets which include a tiny mountain, a ghost, a basic sparrow, a dream weed, tapioca and even a luggage bag who all also have adorable little back stories and personalities.
For these little guys, even in Japan, I’m surprised that they’re simply a design for children’s products because I promise I’d be first in line to watch the movie.
3. Oshiri Tantei detective buttface
I’ve spent a lot of my life working with children. I’ve babysat the Irish, I’ve taught the Japanese and the Chinese and I’ve met many children from different countries on my travels and if there is one thing that is universal among children and to be honest, a lot of adults, it’s that toilet humour is hilarious. You can not go wrong if you make a poo, bum, fart or toilet related joke so how is it that a TV show with the premise of a detective whose face is actually a Bum is only enjoyed in Japan?
‘Oshiri Tantei’ which literally translates to ‘Butt Detective’ is a show that follows an overly cheeky detective, who inherited his plump head from his father and his suspiciously poop coloured brown dog sidekick as they solve crime and mysteries as often Oshiri will notice that “something stinks around here”. Luckily he has a special power in that his stinky farts can be used as a weapon or torture device to stop bad guys and yes, farts do come out when he talks.
This character blew my mind when I first got to Japan and my obsession has never ceased. He’s an egg. He’s a lazy egg. He can be all the different forms of egg, a pancake, an omelette, boiled or fried. Each episode of the Gudetama show just features Gudetama existing as an egg in different egg-like situations while a voice over talks to him and he replies simply by saying ‘lazy’ or ‘tired’ while he lies around or struggles to find the most comfortable position underneath his bacon blanket.
Gudetama actually belongs to the Hello Kitty franchise and considering her world renowned fame, I can not fathom why this loveable and incredibly relatable little egg has not managed to take the stage.
Doraemon is a popular Japanese manga series that was first aired in 1969. It’s a popular animation that I first heard about on my first day of teaching Japanese children as many of my students were talking about him. The series follows a time travelling, earless babysitting robotic cat and if that description alone hasn’t sold you, I don’t know what will.
Doraemon’s main purpose is to travel back in time from the 22nd century in order to aid Nobita Nobi, who is a young boy with bad grades, bullies and a lot of emotional issues. Luckily Doraemon has many gadgets and gizmos at his disposal that can help Nobi as he grows including a door that can magically transport them to anywhere. Pretty cool, right?
I’m not as sold on this character as the others I’ve mentioned but he seems to be as popular as the Simpsons here. All ages seem to enjoy talking about him and sporting his face on their clothes or accessories.
5 Underrated Cartoon Characters in Japan – Conclusion
Again, there are thousands of random yet thought provoking characters hanging around Japan and these 5 are merely a glimpse of what I think the rest of the world could enjoy. Honestly character spotting is a good enough reason to visit alone because being surrounded by the unusual and lovable colorful pals, kind of creates a unique, out of world experience that I truly believe can only be found in Japan.
Also, sidenote, it’s also really interesting to notice how many cartoons have survived time here. My students still absolutely love ‘Tom and Jerry’, ‘Snoopy’, ‘The Moomins’ and all the sesame characters, so there’s also a hint of nostalgia rooted in the out of world experience.