When Ryo Taniguchi, designer of the official mascots for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, was thinking about studying abroad as a teenager, his illustrator father gave him some sage advice: take the scenic route.
Taniguchi, whose winning designs of two futuristic, rooted-in-culture characters were selected by elementary school students nationwide and overseas, heeded his father’s call, which set him on his career path.
It led him to head stateside to earn a four-year degree as an art major at Cabrillo College in California. Influenced by his father, Yutaka, the Fukuoka native grew up drawing, but said he had nothing more than an ordinary education in high school.
“I had thought about attending a vocational school abroad but when I consulted my father, he told me ‘That’s no good,’ ” said Taniguchi, 43, now a professional character designer and illustrator, in a recent interview in Tokyo.
“Vocational schools allow you to aim for a certain goal in a short period, but my dad said, ‘If you’re going to go study abroad, you might as well take a detour. If you’re going to do it, go (major in art),’ he told me.”
Taniguchi said more than half of what he learned abroad was rough sketches and art fundamentals. He studied watercolors, acrylics and plaster, among other art mediums. Now his work is featured in exhibitions and in English-language textbooks by companies in Japan.
By chance, he saw on Facebook in February of last year that there would be a Tokyo 2020 mascot competition.
When the Tokyo organizers for the Olympic and Paralympic Games announced the public application requirements for mascot design proposals in May 2017, Taniguchi resolved to throw his hat in the ring.
“I thought of submitting a proposal, and what came to mind was using the ichimatsu moyo checkered patterns of the (Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic) logos. … I thought there should be a Japanese style since these are the Tokyo Games.”
He said he struck upon the idea of having the Olympic mascot’s head resemble a samurai war helmet, and using the ichimatsu moyo motif that became popular during the Edo Period (1603-1868).
“I made a rough drawing of it and kept the idea on the back-burner until the official application requirements came out, and after that, I reworked it and made it based on my original design.”
His two superhero characters — the athletic Olympic mascot that represents ancient tradition and new innovation, and the cherry blossom-inspired Paralympic mascot — were among the three design sets short-listed last December following a review of 2,042 entries in the nationwide competition.
Although his Tokyo 2020 mascots have similar traits to other characters he has designed, Taniguchi said he paid particular attention to their eyes in order to make his submissions stand out from the crowd.
“The characters don’t differ widely from what I draw normally, but I tried drawing several separate eye patterns. Most of what you see out there of the characters other people draw are two dots … The eyes were a particular focus for me,” he said.
Taniguchi said he was also conscious of the foreign tourists expected to visit for the Tokyo Games who are fond of “Japanese subculture.”
“I integrate Japanese nature, tradition and the country’s future. It’s the selling point. So it’s not just Japanese but has those elements.”
The 2020 Olympic mascot, with its futuristic vision, is said to have “a strong sense of justice,” always staying connected to the latest news and information. It has a special power that allows it to move anywhere instantaneously.
The Paralympics mascot has “a dignified inner strength and a kind heart that loves nature.” It has the power to move things at a glance.
Around 6.5 million elementary school students cast their votes for the three short-listed sets of designs between Dec. 11 and Feb. 22 before the announcement of the winner on Feb. 28.
The mascot competition attracted widespread publicity in Japan and in Japanese schools overseas. Some 200,000 classes at over 16,000 schools took part in the selection process. Taniguchi’s winning designs stood apart from the competition, receiving 109,041 votes — more than the other two finalists combined.
Games organizers hope the characters will serve as ambassadors to Japan’s expanding tourism industry while promoting regional products. Asked what the mascots mean for Tokyo 2020, Taniguchi said, “I think the characters, just like the logos, will become the faces of the games, the gatekeepers.”
The mascots, whose names will be decided later by a panel of creative professionals and will officially make their debut in July or August, have opened up roads professionally for Taniguchi. But with praise comes responsibility, he said.
“I have gained prestige in my career since winning, so it has been a big plus. At the same time, it means I have a lot of pressure and responsibility. … I have to be even more focused now,” he said.
Although Taniguchi will not take part in naming his characters, he said he looked forward to hearing the different proposals at a screening he was scheduled to attend the next day.
“I have a vague idea of a name that has a Japanese ring to it but can also be accepted by people around the world. The names should probably be short and easy to remember. But I have no concrete idea of names myself.”
Tokyo 2020 owns the intellectual property rights to the mascots for now but must relinquish them to the International Olympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee after the Tokyo Games.
Whether there will be a substantial windfall from the mascots, and other merchandise and licensing opportunities, remains to be seen. An official for Tokyo 2020 said in an email that of the total revenues, around $130 million (about ¥14 billion) is forecast to come from licensing, including mascots and other Olympic emblems.
The mascots could remain a legacy of the Tokyo Games, depending on how successful Tokyo 2020 is in capitalizing on their appeal.
“As those elementary school students who chose the characters grow up, I hope they will remember fondly the Tokyo Olympic mascots with each Olympics every four years,” Taniguchi said.