• Kyodo, Jiji

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The winner of this year's annual mascot competition will be hoping they attract as much international attention for the prize as Kumamoto Prefecture's Kumamon black bear-like mascot did after winning the inaugural event in 2011. The competition wraps up for the final time after nine years on Sunday.

Audience members who made the trip to Takizawa, Iwate Prefecture, as well as those who are eligible to vote online are likely to find it tough to choose from the more than 690 contenders who lined up in the final vote.

The mascots, or yuru-kyara, began vying for national honors almost a decade earlier in an attempt to boost the profile of the country's ailing regional economies.

The winner typically attracts international attention. Products bearing the image of Kumamon racked up sales of almost ¥158 billion ($1.5 billion) last year, another record-high for the character.

Numerous families attended the finale in Takizawa this year, despite concerns over large gatherings as a result of COVID-19.

"There are too many cute characters," said Sora Hosoda, 7, as she had her photo taken with some of the mascots.

"It's difficult to know which to choose."

Over the years, mascots entered in the competition have represented prefectures, cities, towns and companies. The number of entries swelled to 1,727 in 2015, up from 349 when the event began.

In recent years, however, the competition has attracted criticism over "organized votes" and overzealous campaigns to rig the competition.

In 2018, it was discovered that the first runner-up, Ja-Bo from Omuta in Fukuoka Prefecture, and the third pick, Konyudo-kun from Yokkaichi in Mie Prefecture, were supported by municipal workers and others who voted multiple times using a large number of online voting identities. Ja-Bo attracted 843,682 votes and Konyudo-kun 807,592 votes.

Yokkaichi’s mascot took first place in a preliminary tally after the municipal government distributed more than 10,000 online voting identities to its 4,000 workers. However, the organizing committee stopped accepting ballots from what appeared to be organized votes and announced revised results.

Kenji Yoshimi, an associate professor of social informatics at Seikei University, said the decline in the participating mascots in recent years suggests that people's interest in the competition has waned due to the rigged votes.

"The hosting of a mascot grand prix that created competition initially attracted a lot of attention," Yoshimi said. "It is important for local governments to take another look at what makes their region appealing without simply jumping on a bandwagon."

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