“All my friends are characters” is a line from the Peanuts cartoon strip, but it seems that everyone in Japan, from friends to foes to family members — have turned into characters, or as people over here say, kyara.

Although the term was originally used to describe anime-character merchandise from the Hello Kitty stable and the like, it now refers to a personality trait, or even simply a person, and is used both generically and specifically for convenient typification. Many Japanese now introduce or explain themselves by tossing in the word kyara, as in: Watashi wa makkura kyara desukara (I’m the “pitch-black” gloomy type). The handiness of kyara is that it prevents this admission from being taken too seriously or the person from sounding needy or freakish.

Kyara works like a calorie-deleting sweetener: at this rate defense attorneys will probably start describing their clients wanted for murder as a koroshiya (assassin) kyara, perhaps to bring the point home that they’ll pull out a cute illustration of a guy in sunglasses and wielding a butcher knife. Just kidding.

Just as strong-willed personalities are usually avoided in Japan, so are tsuyome (strong, or vivid) kyara types and types whose kyara ga tatteiru (allow kyara to stand out).

In an office situation, you’re expected to hide your kyara (kyara wo kakasu) since personal traits are considered private — public display of strong kyara would seem, well, a little obscene.

Kyara ga usui (diluted, or weak kyara), on the other hand, is a double-edged sword; at various nomikai (drinking parties) or gokon (singles only drinking parties) people will assume you’re boring and keep away. Kyara no ondo chosetsu (adjusting kyara temperature) is advisory in such cases; the most popular kyara are people who know when to pull out which kyara, and to what degree.

A shinkyara (new kyara) is someone who has just arrived on the scene, or it could be a new semi-girlfriend/boyfriend: Mada shinkyara no dankai de, shinkare janaino (He’s not a new boyfriend as yet). But a new kyara is how a girl may refer to a new, would-be lover.

An iyashi (healing) kyara refers to someone who heals others with his/her presence or personality. A meiwaku (burdensome) kyara is someone who makes demands or leans on others. An H-kyara (H stands for sex, so this kyara is good for sexual liaisons) will possibly consent to give you a good time, but isn’t expected to offer anything else.

If a person has an atsui (hot) kyara, it means they’re passionate and dedicated, often laughably so. In contrast, a yuru (loose and/or fuzzy) kyara is non-demanding, low-temperature, relaxed and sleepy. Most in demand is the oru-raundo (all-round) kyara who is knowledgable without being snobbish, popular without being noisy, humble but not excessively so and completely socially acceptable.

These days, it’s not just people anymore, as kyara is applied to anything under the sun. Food is one of them, and at restaurants you’ll overhear snatches of conversation like this: Korette kyara tsuyosugite taberarenai (The kyara on this dish is too strong for me) or Kyara ga kawattaeruyone (The kyara on this dish is strange, isn’t it?).

The Japanese tend to inject inanimate objects with anime-like personalities. In the past, things were either kawaii (cute) or kawaikunai (not cute), but with the emergence of the kyara concept, that tendency has gained a whole new dimension. Sociologists have pointed out that the kyara phenomenon is typical of the Japanese mind-set, and that it’s just another way to try and dumb down or “cutify” the world in an effort to make it safe and accessible.

There’s a ring of truth in this when you consider that even the Keishicho (Metropolitan Police Department) has a kyara — a cute little squirrel-like icon called Pepo-kun — to represent their very formidable police organization. On leaflets they hand out to the families of violent-crime victims (describing how families can apply for government-funded consolation packages), there’s a cute, smiling kyara printed on the cover. No doubt this is an act of consideration on their part, but one wonders whether such acts are necessary or particularly considerate. In this case of course, you might describe the situation thus: yojo (excessive, superfluous) kyara.

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