He’s not cute, in fact many have dubbed him “creepy,” but finally after courting much controversy, the people of Japan have taken Sentou-kun, to their hearts as the official mascot of Nara’s 2010 celebrations. Sentou-kun, who looks like a young Buddha with deer antlers atop his head, is just one of many “yuru kyara” (literally “loose characters”) that have gained national fame in Japan over the last few years.

The phrase yuru kyara was coined by kitsch connoisseur Jun Miura to describe characters that have been rather naively created by non-professional artists to comic effect. While aiming to be cute, an odd concept or a badly executed design produces the opposite effect. Miura’s Web site is a treasure trove of rather odd yuru kyara, from concrete mixers making the peace sign to grinning 2-meter leeks.

But it’s the characters created by local government to attract tourism that have really set the imagination of the Japanese public on fire. In December 15,000 people gathered for a festival in the town of Ginan in Gifu Prefecture and according to a questionnaire, over half were there to catch a sight of Negicho, the popular aforementioned grinning leek character, or rather, a hapless civil servant shanghaied into wearing an uncomfortable leek suit.

Yuru kyara are not particularly expensive for local authorities, especially if they decide to go the route of having the character designed by an amateur artist. What might set them back a pretty penny are the character suits that can cost as much as ¥300,000-700,000 to make. The characters are a merchandiser’s wet dream and help boost sales of local souvenirs.

Generally a character takes the form of famous produce of the region, but my favorite yuru kyara is the fabulously naïve Yama Rin from Gifu Prefecture who has a mountain for a head and a river for his body. One wonders where the unique selling point of Gifu comes in here; it’s not as if mountains and rivers are particularly unique to this region.

According to studies, yuru kyara are especially popular with children and the elderly, so it’s hard to imagine that their appeal is purely ironic, perhaps rather the naivety of the design appeals to these consumers more than highly polished corporate creations like Kitty-chan or Rilakkuma.

There are signs that the nation’s appetite for yuru kyara, which peaked between 2007 and 2009, is beginning to wane. Koichiro Sato of Tajimi City Council says that their mascot Tajimi is not doing well, and plenty of unsold merchandise is moldering on the shelves. However, this hasn’t deterred the citizens of Matsusaka in Mie Prefecture, who are waiting to unveil their new character for 2010. Scant details are available but the character will be promoting Matsusaka beef and is said to have a rich green motif. Mooove over Sentou-kun?

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