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WHAT'S COOL IN JAPAN
Although this bean-faced panda looks as if it's just lying down absent-mindedly, it's actually doing a lot more than that: It's drawing the attention of Japanese girls and women across Japan, all the way from elementary-school kids to people in their thirties. The character has been named Tarepanda, because the Japanese word for drooping--which is what it's always doing--is tareru. Fans love the animal because, they say, the sight of it warms their hearts and helps them to relax.
According to the manufacturer of Tarepanda products, the character can measure anywhere from 5 centimeters (2 inches) to 3 meters (10 feet) in length, and it moves from place to place by rolling at the speed of 2.75 meters (9 feet) per hour. When the stationery company printed an earlier version of the character on stickers in 1995, they did not sell very well. But then the design was slightly altered, and when the new Tarepanda reappeared in February 1998 on erasers, letter sets, and other stationery, it gradually captured the hearts of girls across Japan and exploded in popularity around summer 1998.
Now there are about 600 products featuring the animal: not only stationery, but also towels, clocks, stuffed dolls, snacks, and so on. One department store in Tokyo says that all of the Tarepanda products sold there are popular, especially the daki-makura, or "hug pillow." In Tokyo and three other major cities, there are now even shops that specialize in Tarepanda products.
Though it may come as a surprise, the character is popular even among grown-up Japanese men. Some say that this is because the depressed state of Japan's economy has exhausted these businessmen both physically and mentally, and so they take comfort in the sight of the slumped-over panda.
In June 1999 a picture book featuring original Tarepanda illustrations drawn by the character's creator, Hikaru Suemasa, was published, and became a bestseller. This was followed soon after, in September, by a second book. If the popularity of Tarepanda continues in this way, it may become a long-lived character like Hello Kitty.
Photo: Just a few of the hundreds of Tarepanda goods that can be bought.