On our island of just 529 people in the Inland Sea, we have one post office and one bank. The bank, run by the almighty JA (Japan Agriculture), shares an office with the JA dry goods store, which offers everything from rodent poison to a new water heater.

Going into the bank side of the JA is kind of like entering a business run by your second cousin once removed — always friendly, always chatty, and conversations infused with laughs and a few guffaws. We exchange news about what’s happening and they ask about my family when I’ve just returned from a trip home. So it wasn’t surprising when one of the ladies prefaced a question with, “Amy-san, can I ask you something?” I could tell that a personal question was about to be unleashed. “Do you pay into Japan’s pension program?”

Since many Japanese people have the false impression that foreigners don’t have to contribute to the country’s social welfare program while living here, I assured her that I do pay into the system, and I took a little extra time to explain reciprocal social security agreements between nations.

She listened politely, then said, “This is a little early for you to think about, but how about signing up for an account with the JA to handle your pension money when the time comes?”

A little early? Fifteen years in the system is very early to be thinking about receiving pension benefits! Perhaps I look much older than I am.

“You want me to sign up for an account?” I said hesitantly, still trying to make the leap to retirement age within the first minutes of conversation.

It wasn’t until I spied a squirrel in the distance that I grasped what she was talking about. This animal was poking its head out of a paper bag held by a JA staff member, who I’ll call cousin Charlie.

“Yes, if you wouldn’t mind the JA handling your pension fund.” As cousin Charlie walked towards me with the paper bag, the critter came into better focal range. I could see that this was not your average bushy-tailed squirrel — he had big bulging cheeks too.

“Kawaii!” I said. No one had mentioned cute rodents! If they were going to give me squirrel goods, then naturally I needed an account with the JA. “Of course I’ll sign up,” I said as Charlie handed me the bag. I could feel a squirrel fetish being born.

As part of the new pension account campaign, the paper bag was stuffed with Chorisu character goods (the character’s name is a play on the kanji character cho, which means “to save,” and risu, which means “squirrel” in Japanese) in addition to four bottles of clothing detergent from the local department store. It was so bulky, I cradled it in my left arm and had to jut my left hip out to bear some of the weight. Thus I experienced my very first squirrel cuddles while filling out the pension account application form with my free hand.

When you think of a squirrel, you probably think of its bushy tail as being its defining feature. But the JA chose not to display the tail prominently and instead, for good reason, chose a different body part. I looked down at the animal in the bag, his big cheeks elongating his smile. His jowls were so full, his paws were poised underneath to hold them up. Awwww. OK, so it was just a squirrel-shaped sponge looking up at me, but still, it was cute.

The paperwork was easy. In fact, they filled out most of the form for me. And then, in that sublime moment when one moves from distant family relation to squirrel owner, when all I had to do to make it official was sign off on the document, cousin Charlie commandeered my inkan seal and stamped the paper for me, as if he thought I just might pull out of my risu commitments at the last moment.

Whereas some banks use flowers (that symbolize growth) or even fruits (to represent ripening), the implications of using a squirrel to represent a savings campaign is obvious. When you need to save up and store away large amounts of cash in a safe spot where you can get to it later, leave it to an animal with a neocortex. Squirrels have a propensity for saving and stockpiling their supplies.

Once home, I looked over the profits in the bag: a refrigerator magnet clip emphasizing the mammal’s cheeks, a cleaning sponge, a towel punctuated with squirrel footprints and an acorn, and a vinyl “summer bag” to take to the beach, the pattern of which showcased the talented risu performing a variety of summer sports. All goods were made in China. The worth was probably about ¥1,000, but the cuteness factor would have been worth much, much more. After all, this is a business.

And, the rodent dances. Chorisu has become a bit of a phenomenon nationwide because of a TV commercial that features the mammalian creature breakdancing while morphing into the shape of each prefecture. All 47 of them. He continues to enchant his fans year-round, starring in winter savings campaigns that offer Chorisu blanket giveaways with new accounts.

It’s all kind of corny, a bit cagey. But it works. We can ignore the reality of the shrinking pension fund and forget about cyber-security breaches, because Chorisu the squirrel will distract us from the truth that we don’t, and never will, have enough acorns.

Japan Lite usually appears on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

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