Whatever happened to Domo-kun, the furry brown monster with the jagged maw? When I first got to Japan I used to see him everywhere. Now Chiitan, the masochistic Otter who reps the city of Susaki in Kochi Prefecture, stacks my social media feeds with memes, and Unari-kun, from Narita, is the current reigning champion of the Mascot Grand Prix. Domo-kun has some serious competition.
The NHK mascot was the first yuru-chara (literally, soft character) to achieve success overseas thanks mostly to a photoshopped picture of two Domos chasing a kitten that went viral in 2002, according to the website Know Your Meme. But our little woolly friend became a star in Japan after debuting in a series of stop-motion sketches in 1998. That’s right, Domo turns 20 in December.
It feels like it wasn’t that long ago that Domo was hatching from an egg in the underground burrow of a rabbit known as Usajii-san. What followed was a real “Odd Couple” situation, with Domo wreaking havoc on Usajii-san’s home.
The character isn’t what you’d usually expect to see coming out of Japan’s polished anime culture, which is part of his charm. Creator Tsuneo Goda designed him to be simple, which makes him seem child-like. Domo’s constant scowl also puts him squarely in a lineage of lovable curmudgeons from Oscar the Grouch to Grumpy Cat. In short, you end up rooting for the little monster.
And there has been plenty to root for. In 2008, NHK teamed up with American kids’ network Nickelodeon to bring Domo to U.S. audiences. That same year, department store Target made him its official mascot for Halloween. The character didn’t talk his way into the job, he can only say “Domo.” But even without the gift of gab, he was one of Japan’s first true viral success stories.
According to Google Trends, though, Domo’s online popularity reached its peak in 2004. This could be because fame is fleeting — one day you’re in, the next day you’re out. It’s more likely, however, that Domo simply forged a path that other yura-chara perfected. While our furry friend was out making it big in America, animators in Japan continued to think up mascots for almost everything: Funassyi, the giant pear from Chiba, and Kumamon, a bear from Kumamoto, were two mascots that should probably thank Domo for his efforts (come to think of it, Domo should probably thank Hello Kitty as well).
The way Domo’s target audience shares information has changed too. Domo’s virality was great for online messaging boards, but he’s been largely absent from social media. Today’s mascots, on the other hand, use everything at their disposal to win you over. On Twitter and Instagram, Chiitan will reference pop culture, goof around on camera and is good with fan engagement.
So it isn’t so much that Domo-kun has disappeared; it’s more that the mascot field he helped push into popularity has become more crowded. With his anniversary approaching, maybe his fans will see a new look? At the very least, expect to see NHK roll out the red carpet for him once again.