Japan is overrun with cute mascots. They represent everything from chain stores to police departments, and for the past decade or so there has been a marked increase in the popularity of one species of mascot called "yuru-kyara." The second half of this word stands for "character," while "yuru" is from the adjective "yurui," which means "light" or "weak," though in this case the nuance is that of being unserious, unfinished, unimportant. They are designed for local governments; sometimes by professionals, sometimes by amateurs, sometimes by the local governments themselves. The point is that they aren't skillfully executed. In fact, the amateurish nature of their concept and design is their main appeal.

The yuru-kyara boom was profiled several weeks ago on NHK's evening news show "Closeup Gendai," which used as its leading example Hikonyan, a catlike mascot that wears a samurai helmet and brandishes a sword. Hikonyan was made by a professional designer for the people who operate Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture as a way of celebrating the structure's 400th anniversary. However, the popularity of the character outlasted the yearlong celebration, and people still flock to the castle — not to learn about the infamous Ii clan that started building it in 1603 but to watch some person in a Hikonyan costume prance around. Since its creation, the Hikonyan character has generated about ¥1.7 billion in souvenir sales.

The designer got paid a flat fee of ¥1 million, making Hikonyan an exception to the yuru-kyara rule, which is that almost no money is spent on the character. NHK reported that there are "several hundred" such mascots throughout Japan, and most were designed and chosen by local residents. A seaside town in Hokkaido came up with Unimaru, a round creature with floppy spikes meant to resemble a sea urchin (uni), while a city in Okinawa created Imotchi, an oblong fellow that represents a sweet potato (imo). Some are quite bizarre. Kushiro City has Marimokkori, a round-headed humanoid critter named after the algae balls (marimo) found in local lakes but with a prominent bulge (mokkori) in the vicinity of the crotch.