In pictures: The cuddly characters that are taking Japan by storm

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Hello Kitty – who many people were baffled to learn recently is not a cat but a little girl – may be the queen of Japan’s cute characters, but she’s hardly the only one.

There are thousands of others and they are ubiquitous. The long-time favourite Doraemon (who really is a cat) has a daily quiz in a national newspaper. The little Pokemon monster Pikachu hosted a theme cafe in Tokyo this summer, while the stress-relieving Rilakkuma (“relaxed bear”) dangles from the schoolbags of teenage girls.

Such characters are not only for children in Japan, but are an important part of business and social lives.

Some see Japan’s cute-craze, known as “kawaii,” as a sign of immaturity, but others say it’s rooted in a harmony-centred way of life that goes back to ancient animist traditions.

The Japanese used to worship many gods, and portrayed ghosts as comical characters. In what is seen as the origin of Japanese manga, a style of comic books, a set of 12th-century scroll paintings humorously portray frogs, rabbits and other animals performing human activities – from sumo wrestling to worshipping.

Hello Kitty and Doraemon now face hordes of newcomers, many launched by municipal governments to promote tourism and local products. Regular “character summits” choose a national favourite. The market was worth 2.3 trillion yen (Dh84.48 billion)) last year, according to the think tank Yano Research Institute.

Here are a few that have risen above the crowd: