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.

The main purpose of yuru-kyara is to attract attention, but because many local governments don’t have money, they rely on grassroots methods, which includes extensive use of the Internet. For this reason, the mainstream media has overlooked the phenomenon. Illustrator Jun Miura is believed to have coined the term “yuru-kyara” back in 2002, and I remember seeing him explain it several years ago on TV Asahi’s late night variety show “Tamori Club,” but it wasn’t until this past spring that major media picked up on the boom.

In February, Nara unveiled Sento-kun, the mascot the city would use to celebrate the 1,300th anniversary of Nara becoming the capital of Japan. “Sento” means “moving the capital,” and the character is basically a baby-faced Buddha with the horns of a deer, thus incorporating two of the city’s tourist attractions. A Buddhist group blasted the design as “insulting.” Locals didn’t like it either, but their resistance had nothing to do with notions of blasphemy. They just didn’t think Sento-kun was cute. So the city came up with a new character, Manto-kun, which in the yuru-kyara style has less distinctive features. Sento-kun, created by a fine-arts professor, was too skillful. People want something cruder. Nevertheless, the controversy did the job. It brought the city about ¥1.5 billion worth of PR.

This makes conventional advertising and PR firms nervous. NHK interviewed design houses that are purposely dumbing down their creations to make them look more like yuru-kyara. A foreign ad agency created the Yubari Fusai characters for the city of Yubari in Hokkaido, which famously filed for bankruptcy last year. “Fusai” has two meanings, “debt” and “married couple.” The characters are two roughly drawn figures dressed in ragged clothes with Yubari melons on their heads. At first, the citizens weren’t flattered, but through the sheer persistence of familiarity the characters have caught on and even made money for the city. The ad agency, however, saw this as a test case and didn’t charge. A representative said the agency still isn’t sure how it can make money from yuru-kyara. Media critic Yukichi Amano told NHK that yuru-kyara succeed because of their incompleteness. People “participate” in their creation, and that makes them feel closer to the characters. Through such a process, the mascots become bigger than the things they ostensibly promote. Nobody cares about Hikone Castle, but they love Hikonyan.

In the country that invented Hello Kitty, that sounds about right, but what happens when you use yuru-kyara to draw attention to something of genuine social significance?

The Justice Ministry, for instance, has encouraged local prosecutors to create yuru-kyara to promote the introduction of the lay-judge system that starts next year.

A woman in the Utsunomiya investigator’s office came up with Beri-chan, a strawberry-featured creature that looks like a baby, because, as she told NHK, “the new system is just starting out.”

Is the system’s immaturity something she wants to emphasize? “We want people to enjoy the characters so that they get used to the lay-judge system,” one ministry representative said, sidestepping the point that maybe people need to understand the system first.

Even the former justice minister got into the act. As a PR stunt for reporters, ex-Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama recently donned the costume of Saiban Inko, a play on the words “lay judge” (saibanin) and “parakeet” (inko). Maybe if the new justice minister wears the green bird costume the next time he announces signing an execution order for a death sentence, everybody will feel better.

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