Kaparu’s victory in 2018 mascot awards gives Saitama a reason to shine

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

The Yuru-kyara (Promotional Mascot) Grand Prix in Japan has become one of the internet’s most anticipated events of the year. The 2018 edition lived up to expectations, and even featured a little voting drama. In the end, the city of Shiki’s Kaparu captured the crown.

Reaction came in fast, most celebrating Kaparu’s triumph. The kappa-inspired character generated plenty of fan art, several comics and even a latte design. Other costumed legends offered their congratulations. And Kaparu got plenty of media shine, including on Buzzfeed Japan’s web show, where hosts talk about topics while playing with puppies.

However, Kaparu’s victory carried undertones of a different kind of celebration. Shiki sits in Saitama Prefecture, and the green mascot’s triumph quickly became a win for the region at large. Many online users, hyped by the result, had Saitama listed somewhere on their profile. One of the publications celebrating the results happens to be a digital portal devoted to all things Saitama. Even Saitama Gov. Kiyoshi Ueda played down the reasons for Kaparu’s victory, saying that “people know its face.”

It was a chance for Saitama netizens to — ever so briefly — walk back the narrative surrounding their home prefecture. Few places in Japan are as mocked and degraded online as Saitama. In 2018, however, folks from this derided prefecture are getting a chance to celebrate it in their own way.

Saitama’s reputation came about well before the rise of the internet. TV celebrity Tamori reveled in poking fun at the prefecture in the 1980s, playing the comedy song “Naze Saitama” (“Why Saitama?”) and implying that most of the young people participating in takenoko-zoku (the ’50s-style rock-a-billy dancing that was once omnipresent in Yoyogi Park) hailed from the neighboring area. Most importantly, he coined the term “dasai-tama” (ダ埼玉, or ダさいたま), a portmanteau that pretty much sums up the prefecture’s uncoolness.

The term has been used for decades and is now commonplace online. Lists have been assembled trying to figure out why this reputation persists — one theory: Saitama is not located next to the ocean — while the Wikipedia entry for the term is surprisingly thorough and includes a detour into ancient history. Even if the term isn’t referenced directly, many of the stereotypes linger. Saitama residents are believed to be far less sophisticated than their Tokyo counterparts, and only come to the city to get up to no good. See this year’s Halloween mess in Shibuya as one example, which netizens blamed on people from prefectures outside of the capital — but especially Saitama). It’s classic city vs. countryside dynamics in the same vein as the way in which New York views almost every other part of the United States.

This image of Saitama has lead to conflicted views from many actually born and living in the prefecture over the years, often played out online. The biggest response is the “Saitama pose,” a popular gesture where you cross your arms while making an “OK” sign with your fingers. Entire music videos have been made celebrating it, soundtracked by songs riffing on the “dasai-tama” phenomenon. It has also graced the cover of magazines.

Others kick back, however, or at the very least openly question the prefecture’s tarnished reputation. This year, YouTubers have made videos rallying against Saitama’s uncool image. They have also highlighted the prefecture’s attractions, or uploaded more gimmicky posts in which they try to name 100 good things about Saitama in a limited amount of time (spoiler: they made it as far as 48). Recently, the man claiming to have invented the Saitama pose released a book that focuses on why Saitama people appear to be OK with being teased.

On Twitter, however, there have been plenty of chances for anybody to celebrate Saitama in their own way. Kaparu’s triumph in the grand prix gave people a chance, as did the “Saitama No Hi” (Saitama Day) hashtag. Held on Nov. 14, Saitama Day allowed users to share maps explaining what the region was all about (or even ones from early in the Showa Era), create comics honoring non-kappa-inspired mascots and produce and show off their best Saitama photos. Or, simply enough, it gave famous folks from the area a chance to show some pride.

Saitama’s overall image is probably not going to change anytime soon, but more individuals who call the prefecture home are willing to defend and honor it … or, at least, twist the dasai-tama idea around a bit. And don’t expect either side to disappear. The trailer for the live-action adaptation of “Tande Saitama” was released recently. It is based on a comic from the 1980s about how people from Saitama are persecuted by those in Tokyo. And the clip features both portrayals of Saitama as virtual badlands … and of characters doing the Saitama pose. Here’s hoping Kaparu can make a late cameo and really get the discourse going.