When it comes to the kawaii characters that appear on everything from stationary to kitchen utensils, few are as popular in Japan right now as a little bear called Rilakkuma. The adorable animal, whose name is a portmanteau containing “relax” and the Japanese word for “bear,” has, despite success in Japan, managed to fly under the radar in the United States. But, if recent Rilakkuma events hosted by JapanLA and Umami Burger are any indication, this won't be the case for long.
Rilakkuma is the product of San-X, a Japanese brand whose cast of cute, anthropomorphic characters have enjoyed cult status in the States. If you comb enough import stores, you might have picked up a Tarepanda diary, Kogepan pen or Afro Ken sticker set at some point, but they aren't quite the household names that Hello Kitty or Domo are here.
Rilakkuma first appeared about seven years ago and is considered a top-ranking character in the Japanese stationary world. With that in mind, San-X is making a concerted effort to increase the profile of their little bear in the U.S. In the process, it appears that they are targeting cool adults with a penchant for all things kawaii rather than the children's market. Using L.A. as a launchpad, San-X is in the midst of a two-week promotional campaign with Umami Burger, where the local burger chain features Rilakkuma napkins, to-go bags and even a few goodies. Last weekend, JapanLA opened up a Melrose Ave. pop-up shop adjacent to the main store to display a large selection of Rilakkuma and other San-X characters, including the bear's buddies Korilakkuma and Kiiroitori in stock and a collection of seals called Mamegoma.
Jamie Rivadeneira, owner of JapanLA, said that because her shop caters to adults, she curated the collection to include “useful” items, like tea cups with lids and plush cupcakes that double as cel phone holders. Prior to the launch, Rivadeneria would get Rilakkuma items “here and there,” but she's now working with San-X to bring more in stock.
The parties surrounding Rilakkuma's official L.A. debut were organized by Bubble Punch, the duo that has injected a fandom-meets-nightclub vibe into events ranging from Hello Kitty's Three Apples exhibit to Munky King's Comic-Con bash. They started off the weekend Thursday night with an invite-only soiree at the Los Feliz Umami Burger location filled with local artists and fashion mavens. At Saturday night's JapanLA event, a DJ played David Bowie and Passion Pit as club kids mingled with fashionistas recognizable from Natalia Fabia paintings. The event staff dressed in Rilakkuma t-shirs and onesies mixed with hip street wear. Party-goers sipped Sapporo and nibbled on takoyaki and cakeballs as they browsed through the shop and posed for photos with the star of the evening. Sunday, fans headed back to the pop-up shop for themed manicures.
The grown-up nature of the event made sense. Masakazu Kuroda of San-X told LA Weekly through an interpreter that he surmises that Rilakkuma's current popularity in Japan is because the character's backstory appeals to adults. As the story goes, an “office lady,” or OL, named Kaoru came home from work to find a bear dressed in a costume. The bear essentially moved in with her, where he enjoys relaxing and hanging out with Korilakkuma and Kiiroitori. Kuroda said that he thinks businesspeople are drawn to the “mysteriousness” and “charm” of the bear and can maybe relate to Kaoru. Whether or not Rilakkuma will have the same impact in the U.S. remains to be seen.