National | Regional voices: Chubu

Have Japan's yuru-kyara reached critical mass? Minds behind the mascots discuss

Chunichi Shimbun

Over the past few decades, towns, cities and prefectures throughout Japan have been churning out mascots to represent and promote themselves, resulting in an annual contest, the Yuru-kyara Grand Prix, that has come to symbolize their popularity.

But last year’s contest in Osaka in November for the promotional mascots known as yuru-kyara drew attention after it was discovered that some, including the Konyudo-kun character from Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, were being propped up by organized voting schemes involving civil servants who cast multiple ballots by abusing voting IDs.

We asked people involved in creating the ubiquitous mascots to speak about their outlook for the boom.

Tomohiro Mori

Yokkaichi Mayor Tomohiro Mori says its mascot is something that bonds the city, like a bridge connecting it with the people.

Tomohiro Mori
Tomohiro Mori | CHUNICHI SHIMBUN

“It helps strengthen the sense of belonging among people, just as a baseball team participating in the National High School Baseball Championship helps foster regional identity among local supporters,” Mori said.

Konyudo-kun took part in the contest because the Yokkaichi Municipal Government wanted to create a sense of unity among its citizens, he said.

“Regional cities don’t have that many things to feel proud of, and Konyudo-kun is the city symbol most widely supported by its people,” he said.

According to the city’s website, Konyudo-kun was derived from Onyudo, a traditional giant monster puppet that appears in the city’s annual festival. The mascot was created in 1997 to commemorate Yokkaichi’s 100th anniversary.

“There was no such term as yuru-kyara at that time. Konyudo-kun came long before the yuru-kyara boom,” Mori said.

He said his government didn’t mean to artificially inflate the mascot’s popularity, adding it was confident the mascot would do well in the contest anyway because it came in fourth in the previous year’s contest.

“There were reports that the mascot got organized votes from municipal workers, but I believe the Grand Prix is a contest to demonstrate how enthusiastic we are,” Mori said. “We were the ones asking citizens for support, and we couldn’t just sit there doing nothing ourselves.”

While admitting municipal workers were asked to vote, Mori said they were not forced or obligated to do so.

“Each worker cooperated on his or her own in a way that didn’t affect their daily tasks,” he said. “We worked together across the divisions to promote our city. I wanted municipal workers to feel a sense of unity through supporting Konyudo-kun.”

Mori said he doesn’t intend to depend only on the mascot to promote the city.

“There are many nice things to represent Yokkaichi, such as factory night views, Banko ware and kabusecha (a type of green tea), and Konyudo-kun is regarded by citizens the same way as other local specialties,” he said.

“Regional cities are currently facing fierce competition and we have to make use of every possible resource that we have to promote ourselves,” Mori stressed. “We won’t be able to survive if we just keep the status quo.

“All of the governments are struggling to increase their presence. Yokkaichi takes the stance of doing everything we can to promote things we are proud of. Konyudo-kun is one of those things.”

Koheita Saito

Okazaemon, the mascot of Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, was designed by artist Koheita Saito initially as an illustration for Okazaki Art & Jazz 2012, a contemporary art exhibition.

Koheita Saito
Koheita Saito | CHUNICHI SHIMBUN

“When (illustrator) Jun Miura first created the word yuru-kyara, I think he intended it to mean useless things that entertain people, just like (artist) Genpei Akasegawa found useless but interesting objects on the street and named them ‘Thomassons,'” Saito said. “But as a result, useless things became useful because they are funny.”

At first he shared this view, but then he started questioning himself about the meaning of creating useless things.

“That was when I came up with the idea of creating a character myself,” Saito said. “At that time, I also wanted to try erasing the ego of the desire to express things I want to express as a creator, so I designed the character genuinely for the purpose of depicting Okazaki.”

Upon seeing his black-and-white Okazaemon character bearing the city’s kanji turned into a public mascot, Saito said he would not be surprised if people became critical of the city for using tax money to promote something that started out as “useless” artwork.

“At the same time, I can’t simply say it is useless, because there are many people who honestly regard the character as cute or funny, instead of viewing it critically,” Saito said. “Maybe it’s because the character was not intended to be funny or anything. That’s interesting also from an artistic viewpoint.”

Saito mentioned an incident in 1995 in which the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo bought Roy Lichtenstein’s “Girl with Hair Ribbon” (1965) for ¥600 million. The decision by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government caused a stir in the metropolitan assembly, prompting one member to ask why it let the public museum pay so much for a manga-like work.

“Some criticized the assembly member for knowing little about art, but the incident indicates that if you step out of the world of art, it might be normal for people to question why an artwork would have such a high value,” he said. “I sometimes think about such differences in people’s sense of values.

“I also reflect on myself and feel that I’m evaluating art only within the values of beauty I learned,” Saito said. “Local mascots are interesting because they go beyond the intentional context of art. They make me think about the double standard of beauty.”

Kosuke Motani

Kosuke Motani, chief senior economist at Japan Research Institute, said even if a municipality manages to become well-known thanks to its mascot, it is unlikely to have an economic impact large enough to revitalize it.

“If a mascot appears at a local event, children will become excited and gather around it. Well-designed ones like Kumamon from Kumamoto Prefecture and Hikonyan from Hikone, Shiga Prefecture, are popular with adults as well,” Motani said. “But there is nothing more to them.”

He said funny local characters existed even before the term yuru-kyara was created, such as Billiken of Osaka.

Kosuke Motani
Kosuke Motani | CHUNICHI SHIMBUN

“Billiken is loved by the people of Osaka and can be described as the most successful case in that sense,” Motani said. “But how much effect did it have in boosting Osaka’s economy?”

Kumamon is regarded as the king of the mascots. Products bearing the smiling black bear logo sell extremely well.

“But the products aren’t manufactured just in factories within the prefecture, which means the effects on the local economy are limited,” he said.

“Yuru-kyara were created originally as entertainment. The Yuru-kyara Grand Prix was also meant to entertain,” Motani said. “It is nothing like a competition for people to get serious about.”

He said many people must have been surprised to see governments like Yokkaichi and Omuta in Fukuoka Prefecture desperately trying to garner votes for their mascots in last year’s Grand Prix.

“What the two cities have in common is that both are regional industrial cities,” Motani said. “Since they have constantly been driven to compete on a global landscape as industrial cities, they might have thought their mascots should be No. 1 as well.”

When asked by reporters why they were so eager to make their mascot win the contest, an executive from the Omuta Municipal Government said, “There is nothing else in Omuta to promote.”

Motani disagrees.

“Omuta has the Miike coal mines, which contributed largely to Japan’s industrialization. The mines were added to the list of UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage sites,” he said.

“As for Yokkaichi, the city was a major post station town on the road connecting Edo and Kyoto in the Edo Period, and it boasts Nagamochi rice cakes with bean paste, a local specialty that has been handed down for hundreds of years,” Motani added. “The city currently has major industrial clusters, mainly a petrochemical complex, and it has overcome its pollution problems.

“Both Yokkaichi and Omuta have prospered with the power of the people, not of the authorities. Children should be taught about the cities’ history and adults should also learn,” Motani said. “If they learn more about the place they live in, they will take pride in their cities.

“The first step for regional revitalization is for residents — including those who have moved in — to become aware of the history and the attractiveness of their communities and promote them to the outside world.”

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published March 2.