Culture | 2010S: DECADE IN REVIEW

Mascots: The secret weapon in Japan's soft power arsenal

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Soft power. For a long time, the concept was used to refer to when a country used its pop culture exports as a way to improve its image on the global stage. Japan is proficient in the art of soft power — sushi, anime, the money gulch that was “Cool Japan” — but this past decade saw the idea manifest itself on a local level.

The flight of young people to Tokyo has left their rural hometowns in the lurch when it comes to a robust citizenry, and that’s even before we factor in the aging population in general. Towns and cities across the archipelago have found themselves looking for ways to bring in tourists and make money. Enter the yuru-kyara, which is a portmanteau of the words “yurui” (loose, laid-back) and “kyarakutā” (character), meaning mascot.

“The idea of every prefecture, city and town having a mascot has only been popular for around a decade,” says Chris Carlier, founder of the mascot-focused Twitter account Mondo Mascots and an authority on Japan’s cuddly creations. “Kumamon first appeared in 2010, and although it wasn’t the first local mascot, the character’s success inspired a lot of municipalities to create their own.”

That’s a bit of an understatement. By 2014, local governments were considering a cull of cuddly creatures after so many tried to replicate the economic success of Kumamoto Prefecture’s Kumamon. Carlier says the mascot boom peaked in 2015, and far fewer new characters emerge nowadays, but the fascination surrounding them remains. The 2019 edition of the Yuru-kyara Grand Prix wrapped up last weekend, with Nagano Prefecture’s Arukuma taking the crown for most popular mascot of the year.

Yuru-kyara wielded a lot of power in the 2010s, boosting economies in local regions and crossing over to more mainstream Japanese platforms, clashing with corporate creations from Sanrio and San-X in popularity.

“I thought getting every elementary school student in the country to vote for the 2020 Olympic mascots was a memorable mascot moment, and evidence of how big a deal mascots have become,” Carlier says. Japan’s mascot craze also won the attention of countless websites and TV shows from overseas.

To celebrate 10 years of mascots, The Japan Times has come up with a power ranking of the fuzziest force the nation has ever conjured up.

10. Bary-san

Imabari, Ehime Prefecture

Bary-san serves as a representative for all of those above-average yuru-kyara of the 2010s that helped to bring glory to their home regions. This rotund chicken captures all of the qualities required of a good local mascot — it features region-specific details shoehorned in (Bary-san’s headwear resembles a local bridge), its likeness has been plastered over all kinds of merchandise and the end result looks, well, slightly janky. This round fowl deserves the spotlight because it won the 2012 Yuru-kyara Grand Prix and managed to release a CD single. But, also, look how huggable Bary-san is! That’s got to be worth something.

9. Nazo no Sakana

Chiba Lotte Marines

Mystery Fish (Nazo no Sakana, for those of you trying to impress your Japanese colleagues) pushes the limits of yuru-kyara more than any on this list. This fish represents professional baseball club Chiba Lotte Marines, but sports franchises are also big draws when it comes to supporting local economies. Mystery Fish achieved the kind of online viral status that most government characters could only dream of. After Mystery Fish entered its “third stage” — wherein a skeleton-like character leaped out of Mystery Fish’s mouth, possibly signaling an exit from this mortal coil — the subsequent clip was shared millions of times. Mystery Fish not only set a high bar for Japanese sports mascots, but also for the country’s conceptual artists as well.

8. Hikonyan

Hikone, Shiga Prefecture

One of the simpler characters to enjoy massive popularity, Hikonyan taps into tradition to stir up some good ol’ memories of yesteryear. The white cat’s origin story comes from an old legend tied to the former lord of Hikone, who was saved from a lightning strike by a well-timed meow coming from a cave. Several centuries later, said cat has been memorialized as an anthropomorphic PR campaign. It has worked like a charm, Hikonyan has brought in millions of yen through merchandise sales and increased tourism to Hikone. It also happens to be one of the first examples of how much of a boon a costumed character can be to a less-traveled locale, helping set the yuru-kyara decade in motion.

7. Sanomaru

Sano, Tochigi Prefecture

Look, it’s a little samurai dog who spilled ramen on his head! How could you not be charmed by whatever it’s selling?

6. Kaparu

Shiki, Saitama Prefecture

Saitama — long seen as “north of the wall” compared to Tokyo’s “King’s Landing” — embraced local pride in the 2010s, rallying around the 2019 film “Fly Me to the Saitama” and adopting the “Saitama Pose.” Kaparu offered another chance for the oft-maligned prefecture to shine on a national level. The character (a take on the turtle-like mythological kappa) won the 2018 Yuru-kyara Grand Prix, resulting in an outpouring of love for an underdog. Mascots aren’t popping up like they used to, but Kaparu crossed the finish line with Saitama on its shoulders.

5. Sento-kun

Nara, Nara Prefecture

You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, which explains why so many yuru-kyara look like Disney-fied takes on body horror. Nara’s Sento-kun marked what might be the first backlash against a mascot when it was introduced in 2008 ahead of a proper debut in 2010 as part of Nara’s 1,300th anniversary. The designer combined two prominent elements of the city — deer and Buddha — but nirvana was most definitely not achieved. People reacted pretty negatively to this chubby boy with antlers poking out of his noggin, who looked like he was more suited to represent the uncanny valley.

Sento-kun got the last laugh, though. He’s still going strong as the city approaches year 1,310, and reports indicate he has helped bring in billions of yen. Since his debut, Nara’s tourist numbers have risen significantly.

4. Nyango Star

Kuroishi, Aomori Prefecture

At their most noble, yuru-kyara help small cities stay economically relevant in the face of declining populations and a trudge toward irrelevance. Nyango Star helps to preserve the city of Kuroishi using a tool no other mascot in Japan has laid claim to — sick drum playing. As a segment on Vice News Tonight underlined, clips of Nyango Star pounding away on the skins went viral, harnessing the awesome power of another 2010s phenomenon: share-worthy content in the social media age. I’m not sure if an apple possessed by a cat with a love for heavy metal should have all that power, but at least it’s using it for good.

3. Funassyi

Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture

Funassyi redefined what’s possible with a mascot. The yellow pear fairy (it’s a long story) isn’t an official representative of the city of Funabashi. When it appeared in late 2011, Funassyi was a rogue yuru-kyara who acted decidedly unlike the other government-backed fuzzballs of the time. Rather than waddle, Funassyi darts around and puts itself in harrowing situations. Instead of staying silent, Funassyi talks, screams and headbangs while shrieking. Though its peak days are in the not-too-distant past, Funassyi was at one point the richest yuru-kyara in the game (hey, when “the man” can’t take any of your money because you’re independent — that’s mascot freedom).

“Anybody can now make a costume and declare themselves a mascot for their town, and potentially make a ton of money doing so,” Carlier says. Lots of other unofficial mascots appeared in that character’s wake.”

That includes one who took Funyassi’s hustle to the next level ….

2. Chiitan

Susaki, Kochi Prefecture

Chiitan is an agent of chaos built for social media. The unofficial otter mascot for the city of Susaki garnered international online attention thanks to an assortment of “Jackass”-style stunts that ranged from going nuts on a room full of balloons with a baseball bat to flipping a truck. This is soft power done as aggressively as possible.

The genderless otter’s immensely shareable uploads turned Chiitan into a commercial hit worldwide, but what shoots it up the rankings is how it has punched back against powerful institutions. Chiitan’s very existence goes against Susaki’s own approach to yuru-kyara, which led them to cut ties with Chiitan and the real-world otter it was based on (leading to a segment on Emmy-winning U.S. TV show “Last Week Tonight,” which gave the grifter even more attention).

When Twitter suspended Chiitan’s accounts, it pushed back against Silicon Valley in a way that would make Elizabeth Warren proud. It takes something special to go against the government and big tech, but Chiitan fears nothing.

1. Kumamon

Kumamoto Prefecture

Sometimes the predictable choice is the right one. Even though the nature of yuru-kyara has changed from quiet PR tool to frantic online influencer, Kumamon has trod a steady course since debuting in 2010. The black bear is mischievous, but in a jolly and nondestructive way. It celebrates Kumamoto, but also seems to inspire people in other parts of the world — the bear has popped up on television alongside K-pop power players BTS and has been used as a costume for those protesting on behalf of human rights in Hong Kong.

Kumamon has dabbled in music and exercise tapes, and has generated billions of yen for its home prefecture, and that alone might be enough to land it at the top of our rankings.

However, Kumamon is more than just a money machine. Mascots of all types come and go in Japan, but Kumamon has remained at the top for the entire decade. As Japan enters what could be an uneasy decade ahead with climate change and depopulation, we can count on Kumamon to be our rock.

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