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.

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