I love Sumikko Gurashi. These adorable little characters are just one set among San-X’s many popular icons. Chubby and round, these simply drawn cartoon animals scream, “I am cute, buy me!” In the already kawaii saturated Japan, they’re nothing special. Yet the characters of Sumikko Gurashi are a lot more complex than just a couple of cute faces. Underneath their button eyes and hopeful smiles is a surprisingly introspective commentary on the Japanese and their culture.
If everything in Japan has a mascot then the characters of Sumikko Gurashi are the icons of Japanese introversion. The name literally translates to “corner living,” referencing the characters’ love of being in the corner where it is calming. The characters of Sumikko Gurashi are the dictionary definition of kawaisou (pitiful). They’re shy, they’re self-conscious, and sometimes they pretend to be something they’re not because they’re not sure who they really are. But even though they represent character flaws, each one in its own way is so optimistic and so darling that you can’t help but love them. There’s something charming about a person (and by extension a culture) that can be open about the negatives as well as the positives. It makes them more endearing and trustworthy.
The reason for this could be similar to why we finding blushing individuals cute. Some scientists believe that blushing may be a non-verbal social communication to indicate our regret for messing up. The theory goes that when we make a social misstep, our involuntary blushing signals to observers that we understand we made a mistake and are sorry for it. People who blush are seen in a more positive light by their peers after the fact, giving some weight to this theory that blushing is a physical means to show genuine remorse.
If we think better of people who blush to show their contrition for a social mistake, perhaps we are also endeared to those who can admit they are flawed. That openness and honesty creates a trust bond through which further connections can be made. That San-X created Sumikko Gurashi as a commentary on some of the more negative traits in Japanese cultural personalities makes us, the observers (and consumers) look at them and sigh, “Aww, you’re not so bad, Japan,” followed by a lightening of the wallet. At least in my case.
Who are these blushing characters, wearing their hearts on their sleeves? There are many characters in the series but these are the ones I could find information on:
Neko (cat) is very shy. Actually, I’ve found this to be pretty typical of every cat I’ve come across in Japan, from the felines at the Cat Café to my own friends’ pets. I’ve yet to meet a single cat in Japan who wanted to interact with people. Sumikko Gurashi’s Neko loves to face inward into the corner, and shuns contact with other people.
The green penguin, Pengin? doesn’t know what he is, exactly, and honestly, neither did I when I first saw him. I thought he was a kappa (water goblin), and apparently so did he. He used to wear a plate on his head to make himself look more like a kappa, and I always see him pictured with cucumbers, a kappa’s favorite food. Pengin? is aware of his uncertain identity, and so punctuates his name with a question mark.
Tonkatsu is probably my favorite of the Sumikko Gurashi characters. Japanese tonkatsu is a breaded and deep fried pork cutlet, served as the main meat portion of a meal. The character Tonkatsu is a crumb, left over and forgotten after the whole tonkatsu meal has finished. Only his nose is actually meat, forever unwanted and uneaten. I told you the characters were pitiful. At least he has a friend—a little fried shrimp tail, also uneaten. (Who eats the tail of fried shrimp?)
Shirokuma the polar bear is very out of place among his kin. He likes warm things, and so ran away from the North Pole to warmer climates. He packed his things in Furoshiki (travel bag) another sentient character in the Sumikko Gurashi world. Shirokuma however, is still rather cold-hearted, and is afraid of strangers. You can find him sipping warm tea in the corner, alone.
Other minor characters include the tiny grey dust bunny who is just overjoyed to have other people in the corner with him, the left over tapioca balls at the bottom of the bubble tea cup, Nisetsumuri who is a slug wearing a snail shell for appearances, and Zassou, a weed who dreams of being in a beautiful bouquet. And the cast continues to grow: a lizard and a sparrow were also recently added.
Like most people approaching thirty who have a desperate desire to reconnect with childhood, I spend a lot of time in the toy store and there is no shortage of Sumikko Gurashi goods for me to buy. I now have a whole Sumikko Gurashi stationery set, ready to take with me to university when the time comes. (Don’t judge. If you could be in fifth grade again you would.)
In the end, we are all flawed beings. No one is perfect, and having a cute and cuddly character around to remind one of that fact is very comforting. If a shy cat, a socially anxious polar bear, a penguin in the grips of an identity crisis and a tonkatsu crumb can be adorable and sought after, then surely a thirty year-old with a perhaps unhealthy attachment to cute things can be as well.
Now that I’ve admitted one of my strange personality quirks, why not share yours?