In industrious Japan, a lazy hero ambles to the top

Suddenly, Mickey Mouse's ears seem a bit too symmetrical, his smile too broad, his wacky adventures too narrowly ambitious. At least that's the growing sentiment in Japan.

Instead, in a sign that a new generation of laid-back Christopher Robins may be emerging here, sluggish and portly Winnie-the-Pooh has ambled past Mickey and longtime domestic favorite, Hello Kitty, in Japan's $13 billion character-goods market, according to a recent "hit chart" marketing report.

In Mickey's own house – Tokyo's Disney Resort – adults and kids alike queue for more than two hours for Honey Hunt, a ride based on the Pooh characters. Stores have created "Just Pooh" corners devoted to Winnie, Piglet, and Eeyore. There are even plans for a Pooh museum.

Pooh-san, as he is known here, might seem an unlikely hero in a country known for overachievers. But the bursting of the economic bubble here a decade ago caused a reconsideration of values. Since then, a "take it easy, get natural" vibe has taken root, leading to teens and 20-somethings who want to pamper themselves rather than follow their parents onto the corporate treadmill.

"Pooh seems to fit Japan right now – he makes people feel at ease in troubled times," says Kazuo Rikukawa, director of Character Databank, which produces the hit chart. "With society so uncertain, people are looking to characters for comfort rather than inspiration. Pooh is perfect in that role."

In one of the world's most competitive character-goods market, Pooh's rise to the top is impressive.

As well as the usual international rivals – such as Snoopy and Thomas the Tank Engine – domestic comic-book and animated-cartoon producers spin out hundreds of new titles and characters a year. Some, like Pokémon, Ultraman, and Doraemon, become Asian or global hits.

Overtaking Hello Kitty is even more remarkable as the mouthless cat has long been a symbol of that most essential of qualities for a modern Japanese woman: cuteness. In a country that puts a premium on childlike innocence, the goal of millions of fashion-conscious women is to be called "kawaii" or cute, even into into their 20s and 30s.

This has generated an enormous industry. Hello Kitty is ubiquitous not just on children's pencil cases, but also on handbags, cars, and bank accounts. Altogether she purrs contentedly at the heart of a 5,000-item empire worth about $3 billion.

But the latest sales figures suggests that Winnie the Pooh is now more in touch with the feelings of young Japanese.

Winnie, named after a real-life bear cub that had lost its mother, was created by A.A. Milne in 1926. The real bear, named Winnipeg, was donated to the London Zoo in 1919 by a lieutenant in the Canadian Army who had bought the cub for $20 from the hunter who had killed its mother.

Mr. Milne's son, Christopher Robin Milne, fell in love with the bear and named his own teddy bear Winnie, short for Winnipeg. The other Pooh characters – Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, and others – were either based on stuffed animals belonging to Christopher, or on animals that lived around Milne's country home.

Pooh books have been translated into 25 languages, and over 20 million copies of the series have been sold around the world. Walt Disney first brought Pooh to the silver screen in 1966.

Pooh's climb has been steady over several years, boosted in large part by a national boom in iyashi – healing and relaxing goods. Given the ferocious competition in the cuddly-character market, it is anyone's guess how long he will remain on top, but his ability to hit a new Japanese soft spot suggests he is likely to be a contender for some time.

"Mickey is still our main character, but in terms of sales, Pooh has taken over," said Rieko Tsukakoshi of Disney Stores Japan. "Everyone wants to cuddle him. He has a kind of soothing quality that people like."

Sharp marketing by Disney is part of the reason. The Japan Beekeeping Association reported the best turnover in a decade last year thanks to a dramatic rise in demand for Winnie-the-Pooh honey popcorn and honey-lemon drinks.

But consumer-trends analysts say Pooh is not just cute but also more in touch with the mood of the times, especially among young women.

Until 10 years ago, iyashi was known by few Japanese outside the psychiatric profession, where it was used to denote a form of healing and relaxation for those who were overworked and overstressed.

Now, however, it is the buzzword on everyone's lips as the country adjusts from a period of rapid expansion to one where people want to enjoy the fruits of their labors. This is particularly true among young women.

"The interest in iyashi reflects the change in values since the bubble economy burst," says Hidehiko Sekizawa, executive director of the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living. "It is strongest among young women, who know they have to toil harder at work because of the tough economic conditions. But they are also more aware than ever of the need to pamper themselves, to relax sometimes, to accept that nothing is perfect."

The result is an increase in demand for aromatherapy, herbs, pets, hot springs, and holidays at the beach (rather than sightseeing).

The tubby little bear has been a master of sweet imperfection for decades, napping whenever he gets the chance, easily distracted by the temptation of honey, but always thinking of his friends.

"He's just so gentle you have to love him," coos Mina Omura, a 19-year-old student who has just bought a Winnie-the-Pooh mobile phone strap to add to her Pooh pillow case, Pooh keyring and Pooh cuddly toy. "Until a year ago, I liked Mickey best, but Pooh seems cuter these days."

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