Japan’s yuru-chara (lit. soft character) craze has been going strong for over a decade. The country’s thousands of cute, quirky mascots represent prefectures, towns, local attractions, and more. Their designs are usually based on the history, culture, or cuisine of the place they represent.
Unlike sports mascots and commercial characters, yuru-chara are often intentionally unsophisticated and awkward, which boosts their lovable charm.
But in an oversaturated market, sometimes desperate measures must be taken in order to stand out from the crowd.
— Dynamite with a laser beam (@katiamariacarv3) May 1, 2018
“Yuru chara:” A PR lifeline
Although regional mascots have been around for much longer, the current yuru-chara boom began in 2007 with the creation of Hikonyan, a cat in a samurai helmet, to commemorate 400 years since the founding of Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture. The mascot’s popularity earned the city of Hikone an extra 200,000 visitors, boosting its economy by an estimated ¥33.8 billion.
Although creating a mascot doesn’t absolutely guarantee an increase in revenue, it’s not hard to imagine how a memorable yuru-chara could seem like a lifeline for struggling rural municipalities.
Who is the most popular Japanese mascot?
Kumamon has gained international recognition, and Funassyi’s clout is so great that it was once asked for its view on Prime Minister Abe’s constitutional reform ambitions at a foreign correspondents’ press conference.
Although Funassyi masterfully dodged the journalist’s question, other yuru-chara have not always escaped scandal. The city of Tosu, Saga Prefecture, found itself in hot water after its mascot, Totto-chan — one of the few that spoke — made lewd comments on a late-night radio show.
The city of Tottori unveiled but promptly canceled a yuru-chara called Katsue-san, a woebegone girl holding a frog, who represented the Tottori peasants starved to death by 16th-century warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Lovely.
Amid a seemingly endless supply of amusing yuru-chara, there are some whose design and backstory are even more memorable than the rest, though often for perplexing reasons.
These are our favorite Japanese mascots that push the boundaries of common taste and sense (in the best ways) to result in something truly terrifying.
1.Tsukihashi Wataru, Arashiyama (Kyoto)
Where: Arashiyama, Kyoto
What is it: Togetsukyo Bridge
Tsukihashi Wataru is the official yuru-chara of the Arashiyama shopping district. Arashiyama, one of Kyoto’s most popular tourist destinations, is known for its bamboo-lined path, fall colors, and monkey park — so it’s a mystery why Wataru’s body is simply a humanoid white blob. His only connection to the area he represents is the railing on his back, which represents Togetsukyo Bridge, another of Arashiyama’s iconic landmarks. Luckily, Wataru’s chest is conveniently labeled with his name, though he still looks as confused as the rest of us as to what he’s supposed to be doing.
2. Baron Ciste, Mukawa (Hokkaido)
Where: Mukawa, Hokkaido
What is it: An ammonite (extinct marine mollusc) baron
Technically an unofficial mascot, Baron Ciste was created by the Mukawa Ciste Committee to promote the town. According to the committee’s website, Ciste was a treasure-hunting game enjoyed by the French aristocracy (and not, as Google was trying to tell me, a misspelling of “cyst”). With the tentacles of an ammonite — fossils of which can apparently be found near Mukawa — and a loose approximation of aristocratic clothing, the one thing truly mind-boggling about the Baron is that extra bit on his chin.
3. Monbe-mon, Monbetsu (Hokkaido)
Where: Monbetsu, Hokkaido
What is it: A local monster
In the distant past, Monbetsu’s local monster, Monbe-mon, ventured into the Okhotsk Sea in search of gold and tasty seafood, but he sunk and spent years sleeping in the cold northern waters. However, he woke again due to rising sea temperatures and returned to Monbetsu — although sources differ on whether he returned in 2012 or will return in 2021. In any case, Monbe-mon’s horribly clashing purple, pink, and orange body and black, glaring eyes earned him a place on this list.
4. Jinenja from the Shiroi Underground Kingdom, Shiroi (Chiba)
Where: Shiroi, Chiba
What is it: A ninja yam
Created by the Association Supporting Wild Yams of Shiroi, Jinenja is the punniest of our mascots on this list. His name plays on jinenjo (yam) and ninja, and the underground kingdom he hails from is called Neba-land (Sticky Land or Neverland). Jinenja’s mission is to rescue Princess Tororo (gooey grated yam), who has been kidnapped. With eyes that appear to be attached by velcro, Jinenja is capable of a range of expressions — presumably to convey that yams have feelings too, dammit.
5. Gajiro, Fukusaki (Hyogo)
Where: Fukusaki, Hyogo
What is it: A kappa (river imp)
Renowned folklorist Kunio Yanagita was born in Fukusaki and described the kappa Gataro, older brother to Gajiro, in one of his works. There are statues of Gataro and Gajiro located around Fukusaki, and Gajiro has been the town’s mascot since 2015. The “realistic” character design is in keeping with the kappa’s place among Japan’s monsters, and stitches from repairing the torn costume are left as is to increase the creep factor. Yeah, it definitely works.