Japan loves mascot characters, part of its unholy obsession with anything “cute.”
If you want a list of such characters, it’s hard to know where to begin. Yet, if we must, there’s Domo-kun, the NHK television mascot, who resembles a walking square of chocolate, only with a gaping, blood-red mouth and teeth perpetually bared as if to bite.
Yeah . . . adorable.
Or how about Sento-kun, the half-deer, half-monk, all-weird mascot of Nara? If Sento-kun were real, would you: 1. lock him away; 2. shoot him; Or 3. let him frolic freely over the hills and dales of Nara?
I’d be for 3. As long as he stayed in Nara.
And then there’s Jiimo-kun, from Moji Ward in the city of Kitakyushu.
Jiimo-kun sort of resembles a penis. A cheerful penis. One with stubby arms and a green cap. The ward perhaps hopes he will attract visitors. The question is: What kind?
A mascot far less intriguing is sitting in my office at this very moment. Me.
For I too am a mascot character. True, I have neither a red mouth nor deer antlers and if any thing my body resembles a pillow, not a penis. I am about as close to cute as my office is to Mars.
But I am indeed a mascot. And have been for years. However, through time, my mascot role has changed.
When I first arrived, I was “Gaijin-kun.” And I wasn’t alone. Almost every Japanese community had its own Gaijin-kun or Gaijin-chan.
While not quite as electric as a giant penis, we were still lightning rods for all kinds of language-learners, foreigner freaks and other assorted oddballs.
They would bask in (what they thought was) our excellent English, assist us in stumbling through Japanese culture and then laugh “with” us when our stumbling — as it always did — placed us flat on our backsides.
And along the way a lot of them paid us too, which was nice.
Anyway, those days are gone, and good riddance. Most foreigners still earn their yen by teaching, but are now far too numerous to stick out like the Sento-kun-type characters we must have seemed back then.
Yet now I am a character on the other side. A wild-eyed alien of sorts. Whenever I return to my hometown in Hinterland USA, I am on full display.
Uncle Tommy-kun! The relative from another world!
It didn’t used to be that way. When I departed, I was just a run-of-the-mill brother, cousin, nephew and so on. I could chew the family fat and spit it out as well as anyone.
But time and distance are witches. They cast their spells and things change.
Oh, I am still a brother, cousin, nephew. But no matter how much patchwork Skype and email I employ, I’m now a guest back home. For children have been born and raised and have had their own children in the meantime. And to all of them I am . . . that guy.
The one who flies in once every year or two with dried squid on his breath, and bearing cornball gifts of Pocky and Black Black gum. The one who thinks Wal-Mart is akin to Disneyland. The one who carries coins full of holes.
To the older members, I am that convenient excuse — as if they needed one — to unite over beer and burgers. After a dutiful “Do you still like it over there?” they then begin to instruct their long-lost mascot about how life has transpired on their side of the planet. As if Japan, or any place else, didn’t carry American news.
Yet beer and burgers are witches, too. With their assistance, it usually takes mere minutes for me to work my mascot charm.
And all of us are off on a rocket ride to the past. We shuffle through memories of elementary school. We relive the awkwardness of adolescence. We delve into recollections of family reunions, family holidays and family fights. All of it funny now. Ha ha. We mascots have that power.
And while we cannot quite summon the dead, we can request their photographs.
Thanks to a digital picture frame — placed on the counter by the green bean casserole — soon flash images of Grandma and Grandpa and this aunt and that uncle, all of them gone off to far better dining many long years before.
The mascot leads everyone on a tour of the past because, after decades in Japan, the past is the stronger connection than the present. Uncle Tommy-kun is sponsored by yesterday.
So for a few days a week or so, it is a mascot-character event. Until the present begins to nudge in. And then Uncle Tommy-kun flies away, not unlike Santa Claus, to return with more Pocky and Black Black gum some distant day.
Uncle Tommy-kun is a fun character and I do not mind the role a bit.
At the very least, I need not wear a clunky costume. The guy in the Jiimo-kun suit must be jealous.
Or, who knows, maybe not.
From April, Thomas Dillon’s When East Marries West will appear on the fourth Monday of the month. Send comments on this topic to firstname.lastname@example.org.