Digital ibuprofen: Japan’s ‘Chiikawa’ memes capture Chinese youth
Published: Jun 12, 2024 10:05 PM
File photo

File photo

Since the beginning of 2024, the Chinese internet has been taken over by the adorable characters from the Japanese animated series Chiikawa, which has also quickly become a sensation among young people across the globe. From group chats to social media and even physical stores with merchandise collaborations, these characters have become a cultural phenomenon.

Created by renowned Japanese manga artist Nagano, Chiikawa consists of a series of short stories that revolve around three main characters. The series was adapted into an animated series in 2022. Chiikawa in Japanese means "something small and cute" in English, encapsulating the charm of the characters. Chiikawa is a micro-anime, with each episode lasting only a minute, yet still managing to tell heartwarming and thought-provoking stories.

The series gained immense popularity on Japanese social media in 2023 and has since spread like wildfire across multiple countries and regions. While the cute and healing art style certainly adds to its appeal, it is the darker undertones of the animation's world setting and its view of "finding happiness in a world full of troubles" that have truly resonated with the youth.

These lovable creatures are joyful, yet they must work to earn a living and face the predicament of turning into monsters when overwhelmed by stress. This setting allows many to see a reflection of their own lives and find a sense of empathy.

In terms of narrative construction, Chiikawa adopts a "dystopian" design, where the characters' lives mirror the current state of existence of the young people. Chiikawa appears to be a fairy tale on the surface but hides a story of the adult world beneath it. 

The world depicted in the animation grapples with issues such as work distribution and wealth disparity. The characters must rely on part-time jobs, completing tasks to earn their livelihood, and they also face setbacks like task failures and exam disappointments. 

The small snippets of the animation often reveal a corner of real life, and each character and story arc seem like a replica of the lives of the young people today. People project their feelings onto the characters, and the barrage of comments like "heartbreaking" and "bittersweet" on the screen are nothing but commentary on their own life experiences. 

Chinese fans of the series in China and Japan told the Global Times that the characters in Chiikawa are always optimistic, open-minded and straightforward. They noted that this spirit of facing difficulties without fear and with a positive attitude is precisely why Chiikawa has become so popular among the young people. They also pointed out that they hope that some cute cartoon characters with backgrounds more related to ­Chinese culture can be produced as they might be able to better relate to them.

Social anxiety is one of the major emotional issues faced by today's youth. To face life with an optimistic attitude and to gain genuine emotional experiences is what most people long for. The characters in Chiikawa maintain joyful mood even in the face of occasional hardships and lead the audience to "find happiness in the real world" together. As a result, Chiikawa has been dubbed "digital ibuprofen" by many young viewers. 

People invest their emotions in the characters and use animation-derived memes to vent their emotions and express their frustrations with the real world. Perhaps the problems existing in the real world are difficult to solve, but just as the main characters continue their daily part-time work, once the emotions have settled, their souls can move forward.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.