• Kyodo

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A bear and a bird, of sorts, are in a dead heat in an online popularity contest between some 350 local mascots from across Japan.

Created by local governments and businesses to attract tourists and invigorate their communities, these characters, known as “yuru-kyara” (literally, “loose characters”), convey a rather unrefined and laid-back image.

As of 11 a.m. Tuesday, Kuma-mon, Kumamoto Prefecture’s bear mascot, was the front-runner in the contest that began in September, having garnered some 232,000 votes.

Kuma-mon is closely followed by Bari-san, the bird character representing the Ehime Prefecture city of Imabari, with some 230,000 votes.

The black bear was created in March by the Kumamoto Prefectural Government to commemorate the completion of a 260-km bullet-train line connecting Fukuoka and Kagoshima via Kumamoto in Kyushu.

Bari-san is a yellow bird wearing a towel belly-warmer, as towel-making is among the key industries in Imabari. Grilled chicken is also a specialty of the city.

The contest is being organized by the Society of Organized Yuru-Chara, a group based in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture, that promotes the use of yuru-kyara for the purpose of spurring local economies and promoting regional exchanges.

Votes can be cast until 5 p.m. Saturday. The results will be announced Sunday on the contest website, www.yurugp.jp.

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