Anyone visiting Japan cannot help but notice the colourful characters used to promote or identify everything from businesses and products, to services and regions.
Yuru-kyara (ゆるキャラ) which literally translates into ‘laid back character’, are everywhere and have integrated themselves so much into Japanese culture that every year the Yuru-kyara Grand Prix takes place, where the most loveable and popular mascot is crowned, giving it a boost in popularity and national attention.
Their popularity could be attributed to Japan’s love of all things cute (and in some cases, kimo-kawaii / gross-cute). Unlike Western mascot costumes with a detachable head to the body, here they are both connected, with the outfit zipping at the back, which allows the actor inside to fully immerse themselves in the character.
Gotōchi-kyara (ご当地キャラ) or regional characters make up the large bulk of mascots. Not only does each prefecture have one, but also wards and cities within the prefectures have created their own. The designs usually have something to do with the native produce, landscape or history. For example, Ieyasu-kun who is the mascot for Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture (and who won the 2015 Yuru-kyara Grand Prix) has many design aspects that reflect Hamamatsu.
As well as providing a recognizable symbol of each location or service, yuru-kyara also can serve many other purposes.
Pipo-kun is the mascot for the Tokyo Police Force, and features in crime prevention videos, numerous posters as well as on stationery and clothing. Created on April 17th, 1987, and whose name is the first syllable of ‘people’ and ‘police’, adults and children alike can recognize where they can get help when they see him above Koban (Police Boxes).
As a nation, Japan loves mascots and they can be a great talking point. Natives of each prefecture swell with pride when discussing their own yuru-kyara, and mascot themed goods make for great souvenirs and presents.
Whilst Japan is inundated with mascots, several stand out.
Kumamon, the black bear mascot has become as synonymous with Kumamoto as any of the areas landmarks, and features all across Japan on food and product packaging, as well as a successful range of themed merchandise. The Bank of Japan announced that “Kumamon’s economic effect on the prefecture amounted to 124.4 billion yen over the past two years” and Kumamon himself has an advertising value of over 9 billion yen. He’s come quite far from his first appearance promoting the Kyushu Shinkansen (Bullet Train) back in 2010. He features on TV as an entertainer/comedian, despite not being able to speak, and has a large online following with his own Twitter page.
Funasshī (ふなっしー ) is a humanoid pear unofficially representing Funabashi, Chiba. Neither a boy nor girl, Funasshī is simply a pear (梨 nashi). A pear who is a household name with festival appearances, numerous TV programs, magazines and commercials, and even a single produced by Universal Music Japan under its belt. It has also released DVDs, starred in its own anime series and opened its own character goods store with 200 million yen revenue yearly. Whilst most mascot costumes inhibit movement and the people animating them inside do not speak, Funasshī breaks the mold; it’s costume is thinner and lighter, its character dynamic and rambunctious and it constantly yells out catchphrases and breaks into 80s rock songs whilst headbanging. And of course, not to be outdone by Kumamon (with whom a video of a play fight went viral) it also has a large online following.
Mascots such as Kumamon and Ieyasu-kun play a large role in encouraging tourism and also educate about local culture whilst providing a relatable face. Both were Japanese mascots who went to the UK for the 2014 Japan Matsuri in Trafalgar Square, London. Yuru-kyara’s influence and popularity are continuing to grow and don’t seem to be waning any time soon.