text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Despite their love (I’m trying to avoid using “fixation” for the umpteenth time) for everything fluffy, cute and cartoonish, the Japanese weren’t the ones who invented the concept of the mascot; I am reading that like the word itself, the concept comes from the old French to mean anything that brings good luck. And even though you can find mascots anywhere in the world and related to all kinds of subjects and activities (sports teams, cities, schools, colleges etc.) their popularity in Japan, especially in the last decade, has become news for tens of international media –probably because as happens with most things, when the Japanese do something, they do it with no particular sense of reason or measure. (Yes, with time, I’m coming to the conclusion that the Japanese society’s biggest contradiction is how measured it is in some aspects and how uncontrollable it is in others –and that this contradiction includes its own explanation).
In Japan, mascots appeared during the “bubble” period of the 1980s, when there was a surge of campaigns to promote tourism in various provincial towns. But the phenomenon didn’t really take off until 2000, when Miura Jun, a manga creator, called “Bunkakki” (ブンカッキー), the mascot of the National Cultural Festival in Hiroshima a “yuru-kyara” (ゆるキャラ); “kyara” means “character” i.e. “mascot” whereas “yuru” means something that is gentle, soft and cuddly –in other words, cute. And with typical Japanese meticulousness, Mr. Miura also laid out the three provisions that make a mascot a real yuru-kyara presentable as a “kigurumi” (着ぐるみ) i.e. worn as a costume and participating in various events: it must illustrate a city’s or area’s characteristics, it’s behavior must be quirky and it must be lovable and warm.
From that moment on started a race for the creation of mascots by every possible (and impossible) body and institution: the Japanese Armed Forces have “Pikurus-oji” (ピクルス王子), Tokyo police has “Pipo-kun” (ピーポ君) –incidentally all prefectural police departments have their own, distinctive mascots- the Fire Department has “Kyuta” (キュータ), the public broadcast organization, NHK has “Domo-kun” (どーも君), the Japanese Communist Party has eight (!) and every city has at least one, especially after the 2007 popularity of Hikonyan (ひこにゃん) the character for the city of Hikone and the eponymous castle –and of course after the hundreds of millions of dollars it brought to its hometown.
“Race” means “challenge” so things went even further: every year national popularity contests for yuru-kyara are held and every month more are added to the collection; most weird among them are probably the tax department’s “Eeta-kun” (イータ君) and nuclear power advocate “Pluto-kun” (プルト君) where “pluto” stands for plutonium (needless to say this was before the accident in Fukushima). Each foreign embassy in Japan has designed its own yuru-kyara so they can communicate best its country and there are rumors that last summer, believing that prime minister Shinzo Abe’s main shortcoming was a failure to emit a sense of warmth, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party considered the idea of creating a yuru-kyara with his face. And I’m sure that while I’m typing these lines, there is somewhere in Japan a manga artist drawing it.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.