When first-time visitors arrive in Japan, a few things they may notice right off the bat include the juxtaposition of the high-tech and the ancient, the unfailing politeness of locals, and a curious fixation with cuteness — to wit, all the cute mascots that promote regions, historic sites, local specialties and events, the police, you name it.
In recent years, these wildly imaginative mascots have exploded in popularity and profitability, bucking the downward trend of the manga and anime industries that have been declining for a decade. And, unlike multi-billion dollar stars such as Sanrio’s Hello Kitty, this variety known as “yuru-kyara” — which means something along the lines of “cheesy but lovable characters” — earn their keep by drawing attention to a particular place, organization or idea despite, or because of, their lack of polish.
What’s more, they can offer redemption to cash-strapped areas of the country in the form of a sweet furry savior.
It is this boom that twins Edward and John Harrison, both designers and illustrators from England, sought to illuminate in their second book about Japan’s general mascot craze. With vivid photos and amusingly quirky bios, “Fuzz & Fur,” which came out earlier this year, catalogs some of the more intriguing personalities of this fertile scene. Grouped by region — from Hokkaido all the way down to Okinawa — the characters truly are everywhere.
What makes yuru-kyara so irresistible to their fans is their disarming air of sweetness and innocence, bolstered by hammy performers who dress up in plush yuru-kyara costumes called “kigurumi” and interact with the public, deftly wielding their floppy charm.
“People can connect with these characters more because they’re moving around and you can meet them and photograph them,” said Edward Harrison in a recent phone interview.
He first noticed the trend of fur-suited mascots a few years ago when he went to Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture to see Hikonyan, a big white cat whose name combines the city name “Hikone” with “nyan,” Japanese for “meow.” Legend has it that Naotaka Ii, the daimyo who built the castle four centuries ago, was once saved by a white cat who steered him away from a lightning bolt. Since the Ii family used only red armor, Hikonyan’s samurai helmet is red, showing how design and name capture the place.
“People went nuts when they saw him, screaming and taking pictures and giving him presents,” said Harrison. “Hikonyan was the impetus for all the other characters that came after him because his popularity and success encouraged others to think they can get a piece of the action.”
Following Hikonyan, who debuted in 2007 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Hikone Castle and now makes four weekly appearances before rapt crowds, a slew of local governments rolled out their own lovable mascots, often chosen out of thousands of submissions from the general public. And the competition among cities and prefectures to come up with the next superstar has led to a glut.
With the field now saturated, there could be well over 1,000 of these guys. Kobe City alone boasts 42 mascots who represent a wide range of campaigns, such as recycling, smoking manners and “friendliness” — which comes in the form of a smiley heart who encourages citizens to play nice.
But nowhere is the popularity of yuru kyara more vividly on display than at the annual Kigurumi Summit — known as the Yuru-Chara® Festival — held in Hikone. Seventy-five thousand fans attended the third festival this past October; nearly double that of the first one in 2008. Last year featured 150 characters, hailing from all over the country, who strutted their stuff for three days of sheer fuzzy mascot joy.
“These characters are a good opportunity for small cities in Japan to get people’s attention,” Shinsaku Arakawa, the director of the Society of Organized Yuru-Chara®, wrote in an e-mail.
He explained that because so many Japanese people adore cute characters, regional governments are using mascots to attract more visitors to off-the-beaten-path areas of the country in the hopes of cashing in on the celebrity character hitting it big. Hikonyan, the samurai cat, boosted visitation 60 percent and still brings in a steady flow of tourists who eagerly purchase all manner of related merchandise.
“Hikonyan is the king of yuru kyara” Arakawa continued. “And our aim of the Summit is to give the other characters a chance to become better known through his popularity.”
All this might not have come about if it were not for Jun Miura, the godfather of the yuru-kyara world. He first drew attention to these below-the-radar creatures when he assembled them in his 2006 book, “Yuru-Chara® no hon.” Miura, who declined to be interviewed for this story, coined the term “yuru kyara” and serves as an advisor to the Society of Organized Yuru-Chara®, said Arakawa.
“Miura noticed that every single prefecture and lots of cities and neighborhood events have their own cute characters that they use to promote themselves,” said Matt Alt, coauthor of the 2007 “Hello, Please! Very Helpful Super Kawaii Characters From Japan,” which plumbs the depths of Japan’s cute character culture. “And whenever they had a special event, they would trot out these guys in the furry suits.”
To distinguish them from purely commercial characters, such as the incomparable Mickey Mouse, Alt dubbed them “working characters” because, well, they’ve got a job to do. He chalks up their success in part up to their ability to transcend gender and age demographics.
“You would never have a super cuddly mascot for the U.S. Marine Corps,” he said, but the Self-Defense Force in Japan has its very own Prince Pickles. Likewise, the Tokyo police have Pipo-kun, whose massive ears, large eyes and an antenna help him spot trouble.
Alt points out the irony that, though initially created to draw attention to something besides themselves, “These once obscure regional mascot characters have been thrust into the limelight, becoming marketable characters in their own right.”
And it is their unlikely journey from the periphery of Japanese culture to the mainstream that may one day give the likes of Hello Kitty a real run for her money.