The Kings of Kawaii: How Mascots Became Japan's Greatest Marketing Stunt
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Although advanced in many ways, what defines Japan as one of the most unique countries in the world is its cross polarity of practical meets unconventional; here the advanced shakes hands with the eccentric in this cluster of traditional principles and flamboyant energy, and it's at this cross-section of cultures where the real Japan is explored. Although the nation prides itself on its stern ideologies and practices, as a country that is often incredibly by the books, it’s only natural that it has its unorthodox side. This is where their Kawaii side comes out.
We have all seen it, enjoyed it, and are most likely fans of it. Japan is now world-famous for its cuteness, from anime girls plastered over billboards in Shinjuku to cuddly toys that are stocked in stores on every street across the country. This concept even trickles down into one of their most known and beloved subcultures: Mascots. These adorable, curvaceous creatures are a symbol of Japan and are now globally endorsed.
Also known as Yuru-chara, roughly translating to “loose characters”, this keyword is used for the thousands of mascots found in Japan. Ranging from dinky to gigantic, from fuzzy to ugly, but mostly, unquestionably cute, these mascots spread across the country and are used to promote a region, a governmental institution, companies, and events. Believe it or not, even some jails in Japan have mascots, too, just highlighting how vast these furry little friends can wander.
Yuru-chara consists of three rules. According to illustrator and cultural critic Jun Miura, they should “convey a strong message of love for one's hometown or local region, [have] movements or behavior [that] should be unique and unstable or awkward [and] the character should be unsophisticated or laid-back [yurui] and lovable.” Ranging from the whimsical and bizarre to the sometimes creepy and unsettling, these mascots are diverse, but all have a looming sense of friendliness regardless that we can’t help but love, and so can’t the rest of the world.
Design-wise, Yura-chara are undeniably Japanese for better or for worse. With manga-like aesthetics, the mascots, often inspired by real-life things or objects, undergo cute and trendy transformations. Some come in the form of animals, such as dogs or fish, others fruit, vegetables and other consumables. Yura-chara also take inspiration from yokai [Japanese folklore monsters], as well as some being a mesh of various muses. Each mascot has a distinct personality, likes and dislikes, and it's this personification that adds a certain element of magnetism to the creatures.
No, these mascots are not the same as what we may think of them, promoting a local sports team or being an iconic video-game hero. Their whole purpose is still to advertise; to make their cause stand out and attract positive attention, but, believe it or not, these mascots are there to promote cities and prefectures, political and non-political movements, and even government parties utilise the furry friends as weapons of mass tantalisation. If you think this bizarre method of marketing is just a gimmick, the most successful Yuru-charas can generate immense revenue, and, in 2012, this industry was worth around 16 billion USD. It’s clear that these things work, despite some being menacingly unsettling.
Where the real fun begins is when these mascots start to go off the rails slightly. Sure, a cute bunny is always bound to turn some heads and attract a few people, but it’s when the designs start to go more creepy is where Yura-chara culture truly starts to come into its own. Ranging from a horrifying walking psychedelic trip to a bloodthirsty-looking bear with a melon as a head, some of the Yura-chara are nightmare fuel but still nationwide beloved. There is even one, Tama-chan of the Hyogo prefecture, who is a crying onion. The reason he is crying? Because he is always cooking onions. This cannibalistic onion is just another reminder of how wild and wacky this culture goes, but how undoubtfully enticing some of the back stories behind these cute creatures can be.
Not only do official mascots exist, but also fan-made mascots can gain nationwide stardom too; for good or bad reasons. These mascots, often made to still represent a cause of movement, have less strict rules behind their actions due to them not being governed. This subsequently can breed some unlawful mascots, causing more mischief than their do-gooder counterparts. One most notable is Chiitan, a mascot of Susaki, who although having gained a mass following on YouTube, did so for all the wrong reasons. Having been described as violent, creepy and dangerous, Chiitan has been spotted doing rather questionable stunts branding him as a rogue mascot.
The mascot phenonium in Japan runs so rampant that sometimes mania can get a bit out of hand. In Osaka, they once had a mascot per 6 000 residents, which caused quite a concern within the local government. Additionally, every year, there is a Yuru-Chara Grand Prix, a festival for these mascots which gives them a chance to be “mascot of the year” through the votes of the attendees and, in 2015, over 1 700 Yuru-charas applied for an entry. The boom was so ferocious in fact, that the government would put a cap on the spending of these mascots resulting in the astonishing 92 mascots in Osaka losing 20 of their furry friends.
There are even mascot training schools where people learn to become professional mascots. Choko Group Mascot Actor’s School, the school founded by teacher Choko Ohira in 2005, is located in a small alleyway in the west of Tokyo. It is here that people come and learn the ins and outs of being a mascot, from dances to behavioural practice, and yes, costumes are provided.
But what is it about these mascots that make such waves through Japan, to the point of global recognition? Many signs point towards its success, both in and out of the country. Many people speculate that due to Japan as a nation not being very personal when it comes to the likes of handshakes and hugging, these mascots offer a physical touch that can only be found in a pet. Both children and adults alike can break their proverbial chains, stretch their arms and feel the warm embrace of a giant humanoid-like cartoon character without the chance of looking disrespectful or out of character. It’s the same feeling you get from cats or dogs, and that’s not to say the Japanese are constantly longing for a hug, it’s just the lack of that may indicate some reason why these mascots gained such popularity in respect to public appearances.
Another reason may be the Japanese close ties to animals and folklore. With great history linked to nature, its habitats, and wonderful tales that are included in many of these mascots’ backstories, the use of these bizarre but charming-looking characters is likely a form of all of the above put together. As they take great respect for their animals and folklore, much like Yokai parades, it’s only natural that their mascots are heavily inspired by them and therefore beloved in the same way.
It's unclear, much like any marketing ploy, as to why the Yuru-chara became one of Japan's most beloved marketing stunts, but it all started in 1998 when NHK, the Japan National Broadcasting Network, held a competition in 1998 to design a character in celebration of their 10th anniversary. The winner being Domo-kun, becoming their national mascot and gaining worldwide popularity in an instant. This formula was then rinsed and repeated to great effect, and from that point on others caught wind and started to do similar acts.
To understand this sensational and inarguably infectious culture, seeing truly is believing. That’s why, to wrap this up, we have brought together some of our favourite Yuru-chara. Exploring the cute, cuddly, and unnerving, let’s dive headfirst into the costumes that changed Japan's marketing forever.
Probably the most famous Yuru-chara, Kumamon is a bear representing Kumamoto. Created in 2010 for a campaign to draw tourists to the region, the following year Kumamon was voted as the top mascot in a nationwide survey garnering 280,000 votes, as well as 120 million USD in revenue from merchandise bought. The Bank of Japan estimates that the bear, in just two years, had generated estimates of US$1.2 billion in economic benefits for his region, including tourism and product sales proving the power of this cute marketing strategy.
Most may recognise this adorable, mousey mascot. As the symbol of the Tokyo police force, Pipo-kun is one of the most famous characters in Japan and speaks volumes about the unconventional nature of its culture. Although completely normal for the Japanese, having an adorable character representing the capital city's police force would be far from normal anywhere such as in the UK, US, or Europe, and we can’t help but love the charming nature behind it.
As the mascot of the Japanese public broadcasting company, NHK, and arguably the first mascot to gain worldwide stardom through its popularity, Domo-Kun is a true hall of famer amongst mascots and deserved to be listed as a favourite. A true icon in Japanese media, this rather scary-looking fellow is a very gentle being, showing up in many short interim animations in between shows broadcasted from NHK.
Marking the 400th anniversary of the founding of Hikone Castle, Hikonyan is a white cat with design nuances linking itself to Japanese legend. With a samurai helmet on its head, the same one that is on display in the castle, Hikonyan has become a nationwide treasure and iconic character. As another winner of the open vote competition for mascots, it’s no wonder why Hikonyan has seen such popularity.
Representing Nakanoshima in Nagaoka city, we’d love to say how we like Nakanon for what it stands for or the difference it has made, but we’d be lying if we didn’t say it was due to its downright intoxicating design. As a friendly lotus root mascot, we can’t help but wonder what Nakanon has been through with eyes like that.
The aforementioned Chiitan needs to be listed as an all-time favourite. Even as an unofficial mascot Chiitan has gained worldwide popularity due to its anti-hero-like attitude. Seen doing stunts described as violent and inappropriate, the small baby otter has over 1 million followers on Twitter and is both an anarchist and loveable rogue.
If you were wondering if Jimmy Hattori is a ninja wearing a condom on his head, you’d be absolutely right. As the symbol for safe sex in Japan, this rather strange but hilarious-looking mascot frequently appears at a variety of AIDS awareness and charity events across Japan. Just another example of Japan’s enigmatic dedication towards using costumed characters to promote even the most serious of subjects.
Remember us telling you how some of these mascots venture into the realms of downright scary? Enter Melon-Kuma. As a bear with a melon as a head, this is the mascot of Yubari City in Hokkaido, and is one of the most recognisable. We wonder why. He is known to frequently run around and brutally attack all the other hapless mascots at conventions.
Another all-time Hall of Famer mascot for its rather strange design, Dahayama Mintaro is a mascot made to promote a medicinal drink to stop busy people from sleeping. Looking like a psychedelic businessman who hasn’t slept in weeks, this is incredibly fitting. We can’t believe this nightmare fuel managed to pass as a family-friendly mascot, but we are glad it did.
Up next is an internet sensation for its drumming. Yes, drumming. Nyango Star is a part cat, part apple mascot of Kuroishi in Aomori prefecture, known for their apples. Nyango Star has become famous throughout Japan and further due to obvious reasons; this guy shreds. As the cuddly drummer moves round Japan performing, he gains mass exposure for his city and again reminds us of just how unconventional Japanese culture can be.
And finally, to round things off, Sanomaru is here to prove why the Yuru-chara are so powerful in the Japanese market. As the Mascot of Sano-City in Tochigi, here we have an adorable puppy wearing a ramen bowl as its hat, noodles for a fringe, and equipped with fried Potato Skewers in his belt. You tell us that you don’t want to look at this and buy whatever he is selling.
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