What’s the Deal with Mascots in Japan?

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Photo by Takashi Nishimura

In all my years living in and writing about Japan, there have been several occasions when I’ve looked at something, smiled and said to myself: “Ah, only in Japan!” For visitors here, or those new to the country and its culture, one experience sure to provoke such a reaction is your first encounter with a Japanese mascot character.

At times adorable, at other times terrifying, these larger than life characters have ingratiated themselves into almost every facet of Japanese public life. Sports teams have them, companies have them, municipal and prefectural governments have them. Even prisons have them.

Dolphin hangover cure

My first encounter with a mascot character was in early 2007, when I was living in Narashino City, Chiba Prefecture. After an all-night izakaya and karaoke splurge in nearby Tsudanuma, I’d taken the first train home. A couple of hours sleep later, hungry and hungover, I headed to the local shopping arcade to get something for breakfast, and hopefully something to ease the pain of my hangover.

As I rounded the corner, there was some kind of event going on. It turns out it was the opening of a new opticians shop next to the convenience store. The shop’s mascot, a huge dolphin-like creature with over-sized sunglasses, waddled up to me, hugged me and then patted me on the head.

I stood there, stunned, and certainly sobered.

Having read about the dangers of alcohol induced hallucinations; I didn’t drink for a few months after that! In fact, sometimes when I look at these mascots, I wonder if the creators were drunk, high, or a combination thereof when they designed them.

In fact, sometimes when I look at these mascots, I wonder if the creators were drunk, high, or a combination thereof when they designed them.

Mascot mishaps

Take as an example, the adorable Sora-yan, the mascot of Osaka Itami Airport. The idea of a walking, talking airplane with a passion for colored scarves and hats seems like something from a Pixar movie. However, when you see her face, with its puffy swollen red cheeks, tiny eyes and giddy smile, you can’t help but wonder if Sora-yan has been at the bottle before work.

Then there’s the occasionally hilarious culture clash that sometimes occurs when Japanese companies try to give mascots names that are a fusion of Japanese and English, without conducting the necessary research first.

Osaka’s Fukushima Electric Company (named after the Osaka district, not the prefecture) discovered this to their embarrassment when they unveiled their new mascot a couple of years ago: the cute, smiley faced, but horribly inappropriately named “Fukuppy”.

Despite a desperate campaign to explain to non-Japanese that it was pronounced “FOO-KOO-PEE”, by that point, the damage was done. Poor little Fukuppy was quickly withdrawn, never to be seen again.

Photos by Takashi Nishimura.

Shake your money maker

However, for the hundreds of Fukuppys who fade into obscurity all too quickly, if you have a mascot that really clicks with the public, it can be a massive money spinner.

Take for example Kumamoto Prefecture’s much-loved mascot; Kumamon. Since debuting in 2010, the big, cuddly, black bear has built up a global following. Not only that but he has brought massive amounts of revenue through merchandising to the prefecture, which, at the latest estimate was calculated at over nine billion yen.

It’s been a similar story for my former stomping ground of Funabashi City in Chiba, where their unofficial city mascot Funnashi, a bizarre child/pear hybrid has captured the hearts of fans all across the country.

In fact, every year Japan hosts it’s national mascot championships where people can vote for their favorite character. This year the event will take place in Mie Prefecture, with voting polls opening in May. You can check out previous winners and who’s in the running for 2017 at this highly entertaining website.

Why do people love mascots?

But why is it that these cutesy characters have struck such a chord with the Japanese public?

Some commentators have argued that Japanese people’s long-standing love of anime, and the subsequent success of animators like Hayao Miyazaki and kids’ characters like Doraemon and Hello Kitty, has created a society that just loves anything kawaii.

However, it also runs deeper than that. As a friend of mine who works in the local city government explained to me recently, mascots also play an important role in educating the public.

“The fact is,” she said “if you really want to get a message across to the public, we find it’s better to use bright and colourful characters.”

“Putting it bluntly, kids are more likely to listen to road safety advice if it comes from someone like Kumamon, rather than a faceless, bland infomercial.”

“Putting it bluntly, kids are more likely to listen to road safety advice if it comes from someone like Kumamon, rather than a faceless, bland infomercial.”

Mascots are also good at taking things often condemned as boring in other countries and making them cutesy, fun and interesting.

The idea has even been copied outside of Japan, such as in 2010 when The British Revenue and Customs Service (HMRC) started using the animated character Hector the Tax Inspector in their TV ads and marketing.

Unfortunately poor old Hector hasn’t yet attained the same adulation of millions of fans that the likes of Kumamon and Funnashi currently enjoy, but I guess anything’s possible, right?

So, from both a commercial and a publicity standpoint, mascots in Japan make a lot of sense. And as time goes on, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of them. Where will the next Kumamon will come from?

I’ll be honest, I don’t think it will be Osaka. No matter how cute he may be, seeing Minnarin – the sunflower inspired mascot of Osaka’s Minato Ward – greeting me with a wide grin as I enter the ward office doesn’t make paying my municipal taxes any less of a pain in the proverbial backside!

Which is your favorite mascot in Japan? Why? Let us know in the comments!

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.
  • maulinator says:

    Check out my friend’s book Hello Please! which is a compendium and analysis of the mascot “culture” of Japan.

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