Have mascot, make money
Using mascots for marketing promotions is a multibillion dollar business in Japan
The excited crowds had their camera phones at the ready as they waited in position near a concert stage, so passersby could be forgiven for thinking the latest J-pop band was about to appear.
Instead, a cast of quirky costumed characters appeared.
They included a superhero whose power seemed to be growing fried noodles from his head, a zombie bear with a strange knack for juggling intestines, and an oversized spherical pig who needed navigational guidance from two assistants.
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Japanese mascots.
Mascot-based promotions are serious business across the country, with many regional governments and companies recruiting people to put on attention-grabbing costumes in an attempt to draw tourists and customers.
Some mascots – like Mikyan, the large mandarin-shaped ambassador for Ehime prefecture in southern Japan – are backed by an elaborate social media presence featuring highly sharable pictures of the cute characters in sightseeing spots.
“I fell in love with Mikyan at first sight,” confessed Tokyo woman Riko Onodera, who has met the character at least 20 times since their first encounter at a product exhibition three years ago.
Mikyan’s name is a variation of the Japanese word for mandarin (mikan), reflecting the fact that Ehime prefecture produces large volumes of the sweet fruit.
Asked why she liked Mikyan, Onodera said: “First of all, as expected, it is the adorable appearance. The round shape of the body, the heart-shaped nose and the mandarin flower tail – it is very cute!”
She added that she had not known much about Ehime prefecture at first, but subsequently discovered it to be a wonderful place with warm-hearted people. This shows the power of such promotions to generate domestic tourist visits.
Curious cast of characters
Mikyan was among the 100 Japanese mascots to greet thousands of adoring fans at a recent special weekend festival at the base of Tokyo’s Skytree tower.
Excited children, and more than a few enthusiastic adults carrying a stash of merchandise, flocked to the event to snap a photo alongside their favorite cuddly icons.
“I prefer the more ridiculous mascots,” said festival-goer Chris Carlier, who covers the latest trends on his Mondo Mascots blog.
“The funniest thing I saw was a stage performance by Chosei Tonyu-Kun, a carton of soy milk with a straw coming out of his head. He was dancing so exuberantly his face fell off. Then, while trying to reattach his face, he fell off the stage.”
Another strange moment was when Zombear, a zombie teddy bear representing a product manufacturer called Hacienda International, danced on stage while waving a (pretend) set of intestines around. “The kids in the audience were surprisingly unperturbed,” Carlier observed.
Carlier, who has lived in Japan since 2002, explained that he had started his blog because of his growing fascination with the range of mascots known as yuru-chara.
“I like to travel around the country a lot, and a few years ago I started noticing these odd characters appearing in brochures and signs in all the towns I’d go to. I’ve always found them very funny,” he said.
“I teach English and students often have pencil cases and key rings with the characters on them, too. After the holidays they sometimes bring me souvenir snacks featuring these weird local characters on the packaging.”
One of the crowd favorites at last weekend’s festival was Kumamon, the red-cheeked bear who rose to fame when promoting a new bullet train line to Kumamoto prefecture.
In more recent times, Kumamon has encouraged tourists to return to the region and support its economy after devastating earthquakes last year.
Kumamon’s image appears on the packaging of a range of goods like local fresh produce, while fans can also buy merchandise like stuffed toys.
Sales of Kumamon-related products totaled 128 billion yen (US$1.15 billion) in 2016, nearly 30 percent higher than the previous year, according to a prefectural government survey.
Such is Kumamon’s pulling power that the non-speaking character regularly joins the prefectural governor at press events.
Kumamon has also met Japan’s imperial couple and has traveled abroad, notably to the Cannes film festival in France and Harvard University in the US.
But being a mascot is not all fun and games. In 2015 the governor, Ikuo Kabashima, announced that Kumamon had been demoted from the position of “sales manager” to “assistant sales manager” in punishment for failing to lose weight during a diet.
“Kumamon’s weight and body fat remained unchanged from six months earlier as the mascot failed to stay the course, sneakily eating Valentine’s Day chocolates and other treats,” the Kyodo news agency gravely informed its readers.
Around the same time, a popular pear character known as Funassyi was asked to weigh in on the sensitive issue of Japan’s pacifist constitution during a grilling by journalists at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. “I want everything to be peaceful,” the mascot replied.
And last year a Japan Ground Self-Defense Force base south-west of Tokyo came under fire for printing envelopes depicting local sunflower character Zamarin holding an assault rifle.
The stationery was withdrawn amid reports that the base had failed to get approval from the municipal government.
Like the rest of the workforce, mascots have had reason to be worried about job cuts.
A few years ago, the characters faced a round of retrenchments after the finance ministry encouraged local governments to scrap the less popular ones in order to save public funds.
Still, if the crowds at the two-day festival in Tokyo’s Sumida ward were anything to go by, mascots are not going out of fashion any time soon.
That is just as well, because organizers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games are asking the Japanese public to play a key role in designing icons to symbolize the international sporting event.
They announced last month that school students across the country would select the winning designs from a shortlist of publicly submitted entries.
In a clear sign of the importance of the decision, a “Mascot Selection Process Panel” held no fewer than eight meetings to decide on the precise methods.