Embassies using mascots as ambassadors

Cute characters get to promote nations, events

by May Masangkay

Kyodo

With the Japanese public smitten with adorable or bizarre costumed characters created to promote localities or events, some foreign embassies are not missing out on the chance to catch a ride on the massive mascot boom.

Collectively called “yuru-chara,” which translates as “loose or soft characters” for their laid-back feel and unrefined image, unlike mascots such as Hello Kitty, the characters are taking on unique roles as “cultural ambassadors” for the Israel Embassy and other diplomatic missions in Tokyo.

Ronen Medzini, head of the Israeli Embassy’s press and information section, which was the first to produce an original mascot, said his country faces the “problem of branding” as the media often depict Israel as a place of conflict.

“Since we are trying to find an interesting way to introduce Israel to Japan, we decided to use the Japanese pop culture as a platform to introduce the soft side or the real side of Israel as we see it,” Medzini said.

Shaloum-chan, the embassy’s parrot mascot, made its debut on June 13 after a winning entry was picked from across Japan. Its name combines the Hebrew word “shalom” for peace and the Japanese word for parrot, which is pronounced “oum,” adding the suffix “chan,” a Japanese term of endearment.

Shaloum-chan — which features the Star of David on its forehead, an olive branch in its hand as a sign of peace, and red cheeks symbolizing the Hinomaru flag — has been busy engaging in goodwill activities such as visiting Tokyo Gov. Naoki Inose to cheer on Tokyo’s bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

The diplomatic missions of Latin American countries in Tokyo are also keen in promoting their own mascots.

Peccary, a mascot originating from Bizen Latin American Museum in Bizen, Okayama Prefecture, which holds a collection of rare historical pieces from ancient Latin American civilizations, is the first from that region.

“Initially, Peccary was created to promote the museum, but now his role has expanded to promoting the city of Bizen, its country of origin, Ecuador, and with the help of his friends, all of Latin America,” museum curator Yasuyuki Morishita said.

The peculiar-looking Peccary comes from the design of a clay figure. Debuting on Oct. 9, 2012, Peccary has more than 1,500 Twitter followers and sings beautifully.

Morishita said the plan is to eventually create mascots for all 21 Latin American countries that have embassies in Japan, with the mascots to be dubbed as “Peccary’s friends.”

“Yuru-chara gets people’s attention and it will be very useful to have this bridge between Ecuador and Japan,” said Carlos Guevara, third secretary of the Embassy of Ecuador.

In September at a summit where the mascots promoted their local cuisine, Peccary appeared in public with two new Latin American mascots, I. Quimbaya of Colombia and Don Taino of the Dominican Republic. Another new character is Pupusa, who represents El Salvador.

“A mascot like this can provide a way to learn more about Ecuador,” said Yukiko Tamaru, 26, after seeing Peccary for the first time at the event.

Yuru-chara expert Akihiko Inuyama said he believes the mascots’ success is unlikely to be short-lived.

A 2013 online contest of local and global mascots, including Shaloum-chan, managed to attract around 1,500 entries, up from 865 last year.

“Even if the boom fades, I see it as an established (part of) culture,” said Inuyama, who has also created mascots.

The Finnish Embassy’s Twitter character, called Fintan, which has around 97,000 followers, is close to the concept of yuru-chara, a term coined in 2002 by illustrator Jun Miura to refer to mascots that work for localities, are unstable in their movements and have full body suits.

Mikko Koivumaa, the press and culture counselor, said the Finnish Embassy has found new fans among males as Fintan tweets about various topics related to Finland apart from the traditionally popular Moomin characters and Santa Claus, which already have a strong female fan base.

“Fans go the extra mile to learn more about the mascots,” Inuyama said, adding the current social media culture has made the likes of Shaloum-chan, Peccary and Fintan more like “friends.”