Several weeks ago Fuji TV’s morning news show sent a reporter to the Gunma Prefecture “antenna shop” located across the street from the Kabukiza theater in Tokyo’s Ginza district. The store, which sells products made in Gunma, pays ¥64 million a year in rent for the small two-floor space, and an independent auditor had concluded it’s too much given the prefecture’s shakey finances. Though the story reflected negatively on the shop, the manager was happy to talk about it, since it was free air time and, as the saying goes, any publicity is good publicity, but just to play it safe during his interview he was accompanied by the silent, smiling figure of Gunma-chan, the prefecture’s official yurukyara, or costume mascot — a squat, bipedal horse.

The presence of a cute character takes the edge off a news report that might be critical in tone, though this strategy could backfire if it gives viewers the impression that the manager wasn’t taking the implication of fiscal irresponsibility seriously.

The employment of Gunma-chan in this situation demonstrates the diversity of yurukyaras’ PR utility. Ever since Kumamoto Prefecture’s bear mascot, Kumamon, achieved superstar status not only in Japan but also abroad, all local governments have pushed their “image characters” relentlessly in order to earn the same sort of brand recognition. The Kumamoto branch of the Bank of Japan estimates that Kumamon brought the prefecture ¥123.2 billion in revenues over a two-year period starting in 2011.

A lot of local governments have too many yurukyara, since individual divisions created their own mascots with their own budgets. Most are instantly forgettable, and not just because the bureaucrats who came up with them lack imagination. The more mascots a local government has, the less likely the public is going to be able to remember any one in particular. A recent article in Tokyo Shimbun conjectured that, based on a perusal of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s home page, the capital has at least 20. There’s Yurito, a kind of seagull dreamed up for the 2013 Tokyo Athletic Games, and Minkle, an anthropomorphized vehicle created to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the city’s public bus system, which shouldn’t be confused with Toaran, a streetcarlike character meant to publicize the Arakawa Line. There are characters representing the prefectural tax bureau, the board of elections and two molelike creatures for the construction division.

The Tokyo public relations office told the newspaper that it has no central authority over the various characters and, in fact, didn’t even know how many there were, which explains why, despite the talent and money at its disposal, Tokyo has no memorable yurukyara. The same goes for Osaka, which had to run a survey last fall to find out just how many they had. The number was 32, but after the survey was completed, they found 13 more. They also found that most of the workers in the sections these characters represent couldn’t explain what they were for, so the prefecture decided to select one main character that it would promote exclusively. It chose Moppi, based on the official Osaka bird, a mozu (shrike), devised back in 1997 to publicize a national sports competition.

However, another survey found that a majority of Osaka citizens never heard of Moppi. In last year’s Yurukyara Grand Prix, a contest to choose the best mascots in the country, out of 1,580 entries Moppi came in 1,072nd, which hardly demands national coverage, and that’s what local governments want. An Osaka official told Asahi Shimbun that they will try to “maximize” the character’s appeal, but if it doesn’t work then the bird will be downsized. If it makes Moppi sounds like a civil servant, that seems to be the point. Kumamon is presented as an employee of the Kumamoto prefectural government. The prefecture grants usage rights for free to anyone who applies to use him for promoting goods and services from the prefecture.

The situation is very different for Funasshi, Kumamon’s main rival for the title of most popular yurukyara. Associated by name to the city of Funabashi in Chiba Prefecture, Funasshi, which shares some physical features with pears (nashi), one of Chiba’s biggest agricultural products, is a lone wolf, a hired gun. The anonymous creator of the character reportedly tried to sell the design to Funabashi, but the city said it wasn’t interested, so she made her own videos and uploaded them on YouTube, where they went viral. Though Funasshi is still not authorized by the city, most Japanese probably think he is, which amounts to the same thing. Funabashi’s official mascot is Asari-kun, a shellfish creature that nobody cares about and appears to operate only in two-dimensional form.

It’s hard to pinpoint Funasshi’s appeal, but it probably has something to do with his manic behavioral tics and excitable vocal effusions, and in a sense Funabashi gets free publicity — sales of pears have doubled since the character’s advent —whenever Funasshi is used by anyone who wants to pay for his services. He has an agent and, according to various media, earned ¥200 million in income last year. Several manufacturers are working directly with the character on product development. He now appears in eight advertising campaigns, including one for Softbank.

Nice work if you can get it, which is why yurukyara creators are steering away from the public sector and instead trying to establish their own brands. There’s potentially more money to be made as an independent. In a disarmingly candid NHK interview, Funasshi says he thinks the reason the public likes him is because he “works alone.” Ask any freelancer to describe their biggest worry and they’ll say lack of job security, and Funasshi understands stardom is fleeting in the world of cloth creaturedom. When he’s washed up, he says, he’ll be happy to entertain kindergartners for free. In the world of yurukyara, such an attitude qualifies as being principled.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.