Japan’s cuddly yet costly mascots face extermination



Japan’s swollen ranks of cuddly mascots, once de rigueur for every self-respecting local government and commercial brand, are coming under increasing threat, with some being exterminated and others combined in at times grotesque ways.

The cull comes after the Finance Ministry last year decided to crack down on mascots, ordering authorities nationwide to cut back on the use of life-size yuru-kyara (laid-back characters), which it derided as a waste of public funds.

In the major metropolis of Osaka, officials have stamped down on the wild proliferation of mascots, whose number had skyrocketed to 92, including special creations for everything from child care support services to tax payment campaigns.

“We have decided to select Mozuyan, our oldest mascot, following doubts about the public relations impact of having too many of them,” an Osaka prefectural official explained.

“The number has now fallen to 69 and there is no plan to create any new ones,” she assured, in a move local media described as “virtual restructuring.”

Osaka’s choice of mascot is perhaps emblematic of the brutal fate awaiting many yuru-kyara: Mozuyan’s head is modeled on the shrike, a carnivorous bird known for impaling prey on thorns before consuming it, much like a medieval monarch brandishing the decapitated head of an enemy.

Meanwhile, in the remote district of Rumoi, Hokkaido, a rather monstrous patchwork character made up of different elements of eight extant mascots was being rolled out. Ororon Robo Mebius, a hybrid that resembles the gigantic humanoid robot from the “Mobile Suit Gundam” anime series and franchise, has legs, arms, a face and a body that all came from different yuru-kyara representing different communities.

“We have concluded that it’s better to join forces rather than each of the mascots working individually,” said Rumoi official Mayuko Miyaji.

With a population of just 53,000, Rumoi had one mascot for every 6,500 inhabitants.

Japan has thousands of larger-than-life puppets with cutesy yet improbable features that are used to promote everything from star regional attractions to public safety issues. These include Kumamon, a potbellied bear who stumps for a lesser-visited prefecture of Kyushu, and Asahikawa Prison’s Katakkuri-chan, a square-faced humanoid with a purple flower for hair who is intended to soften the public image of the notorious jail, which is located on the northern shore of Hokkaido and in wintertime can resemble a Siberian gulag.

The most successful mascots become national celebrities, spawning a huge range of merchandise that can be worth billions of yen a year, by some estimates.

But the vast majority are destined to languish in obscurity, wheeled out by local police forces or libraries at public events where the actor inside the suit must jig jauntily and pose for pictures with a stream of slightly baffled children.

Last year, the Finance Ministry said that many public bodies had put little thought into the rationale for having a mascot, or whether a cuddly character would represent value for money. Ongoing maintenance costs can be exorbitant, the ministry tersely noted, with one somewhat reclusive mascot setting back its owners ¥1 million a year, despite only making five outings.

To dodge criticism that they are frittering away taxpayer money, authorities in the city of Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, collected ¥1 million in donations after an Internet campaign to re-create their Otsu Hikaru-kun mascot when the original one wore out.

“We also wanted to draw people’s attention,” a city official explained, because it’s rare to use crowdfunding for purchasing a character doll.