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The Word “Kigurumi” Made Simple (Really, We Promise)

In Japan, the word “kigurumi” has become part of the pop culture mainstream. Walk around the hipster neighborhoods of Tokyo, for example, and you’ll see how effortlessly the iconic kigurumi has become part of street style and fashion culture. There’s even a Japanese J-pop duo that calls itself Kigurumi. In fact, the word is so widespread that most people don’t even think about what it means, or how it became part of the popular lexicon. But that’s not necessarily the case in Europe and North America, where the word still causes a few problems. 

First of all, kigurumi is pronounced a lot like it looks: kig-u-ru-mi. But a lot of Westerners end up pronouncing it something like “kirugumi” or “kigirimi.” They move around the vowels and the consonants somewhat randomly. We get it – the word does look a bit daunting when you first encounter it.  Maybe it would be helpful, then, just to use the typical slang terms to describe them – like “kigu” or “kig.” These shortened versions of the word make it a bit more manageable. “(In case you’re wondering, “kigu” is by far the preferable choice.)

It might also be helpful to know that “kigurumi” is what linguists call a portmanteau. That’s a fancy French term to describe what happens when you combine two popular words into a much smaller word that’s easier to pronounce. The classic portmanteau is something like the word “motel,” which is really just a mashup of “motor” and “hotel,” or “brunch,” which is a mashup of “breakfast” and “lunch.” In the case of “kigurumi,” the two words are “kiru” (which means “to wear” in Japanese) and “nuigurumi” (which means “stuffed toy”). Put it all together, and the word “kigurumi” literally means “a stuffed toy that you wear.” And it’s a lot easier to say than “kirunuigurumi”! 

The word “kigurumi” first became popular in Japan in the 1990’s to describe stage performers wearing masks and costumes to portray popular cartoon and videogame characters. From there, the word began to be used to describe general cosplay (itself a mashup of two words – “costume” and “play”), in which individuals dressed up as their favorite anime and manga characters. That pastime became so popular that Japanese hipsters began wearing kigurumi at all times of the day and night, further blurring the line between theater, the arts and pop culture. Now, the word is used primarily to refer to the costumes themselves, and not to the actors wearing them. 

While the word “kigurumi” might seem new to Western audiences, the concept is not. In fact, Wikipedia now lists Big Bird from “Sesame Street” and Barney from “Barney and Friends” as two examples of popular Western kigurumi. 

And now we’re starting to see these fun, cute costumes cross over even more to the pop culture mainstream in the West, just as happened in Japan. Turn on a late night talk show, for example, and you might see the host dressed up in an adorable dinosaur kigurumi. Head out to a big music festival, and you might see groups of young millennials swaying to the music in animal kigurumi. At some point, they are going to become so ubiquitous in everyday life that people will stop referring to them as “snuggie blankets” or “adult onesies” and call them by their real name: kigurumi.

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