Registration for this year’s Yuru-kyara Grand Prix opens on May 7, with eyes nationwide turning to see which cute and cuddly mascot will snap up the prestigious award in 2018.
Winning the competition carries plenty of weight, something that is perhaps illustrated best by the success of Kumamon, a rotund black bear representing Kumamoto Prefecture who won the contest in 2011.
Kumamon has charmed netizens thanks to his aerobics, his vaguely “Wicker Man”-like moments, and the fact he generates billions of yen worth of income for his home prefecture.
Indeed, it wasn’t long before seemingly every municipality and government-aligned organization started rolling out their own yuru-kyara (mascot) in an attempt to ride on the coattails of the bear’s success.
“I remember being very taken by the characters on signs and posters everywhere from the moment I arrived here — probably because I couldn’t read any of the actual text on the signs,” says Chris Carlier, founder of the mascot-focused Twitter account Mondo Mascots. “The more acrobatic costumed characters, such as Funassyi and Kumamon, made me dig deeper later.”
While these creations charmed with pure cuteness and a variety of wacky stunts — I’m a fan of Funassyi skydiving — they became popular internationally, peaking in 2015 when comedian John Oliver devoted a segment to mascots on his U.S. TV show “Last Week Tonight.”
As that piece points out, though, local governments started curbing the use of mascots owing to worries over the use of taxpayer money, with the Finance Ministry calling for some mascots to be culled all together. Being cute, it seems, only takes you so far in life.
However, life goes on and more recent versions of the cuddly critters have found some salvation on social media.
“In recent years, the mascots have become very internet-savvy, and all have social media accounts,” Carlier says. “You can follow them on Twitter, Line and Facebook.”
No mascot has better adjusted to social media than Chiitan. The large otter represents the city of Susaki in Kochi Prefecture, and was inspired by an actual version of the animal that also became popular online.
Strangely enough, Chiitan has a predecessor named Shinjo-kun, which also promotes the city and which won the Yuru-kyara Grand Prix in 2016.
Chiitan, though, does something a little different.
“Chiitan posts a new slapstick video on its Twitter account each day that gets thousands of hits,” Carlier says.
The otter is also popular on YouTube, where she shares experiences that fall somewhere between Buster Keaton and “Jackass.”
Whereas older mascots act almost like TV celebrities in how they approach the entertainment industry (think myriad TV appearances), Chiitan leads a new generation of mascots that push the envelope in terms of creating a marketable personality, including drumming maniac Nyango Star and the Chiba Lotte Marines’ manic fish character.
RocketNews24 has wondered if Chittan is the second coming of Funassyi, while TV programs have devoted various segments to the mascot’s popularity (while also making it pull off a few brand new stunts).
Chiitan has even attracted some love from Western publications such as Buzzfeed, which made a video featuring several of its best hits along with the text “I am this Japanese mascot failing at everything.”
The interest in mascots outside of Japan is strong thanks in part to Carlier’s online presence.
The ubiquitous presence of mascots on Twitter can serve as a bright spot on a medium that’s come under fire recently for being toxic.
“I had a ton of pictures and decided to share them online to cheer myself up in 2016, when most of the news and content on Twitter was increasingly grim,” he says.
As the social network continues to slip into cynicism and negativity, there may indeed be something to be said for the existence of tempura critters such as Nagorakko and hemp fairies like Asamiko-chan.
Let’s hope any moves to cull their number suffer the same embarrassing fate as a clumsy otter trying to fire an arrow from a bow while riding a bike.