Who's who in Japan's mascot scene: Meet the cute, cool and creepy characters
Published on May 11, 2014 3:34 PM
A harmless-looking pear-like character that bounces around and speaks in a squeaky high-pitched voice is threatening the survival of its cuddly counterparts in mascot-crazy Japan.
The Osaka prefecture announced last week it is looking to trim its stable of 45 state-funded mascots or yuru-kyara, which means laid-back characters, to concentrate its efforts on a few more-recognisable characters.
The rethink was triggered by the success of Funassyi, an unofficial pear-fairy mascot for the fruit-producing city of Funabashi near Tokyo. The character was created by an ordinary citizen and does not have the backing of the local authorities unlike most state-funded yuru-kyara in Japan. Yet Funassyi, which has appeared in TV commercials and even released a CD single, is far more popular than some of the mascots which have official endorsement.
The Japanese take mascots so seriously that they organise a yuru-kyara grand prix every year for the public to vote for their favourite characters.
We look at the cute, cool and creepy in Japan's competitive mascot scene:
The yellow pear-like character was created by an ordinary citizen in 2011. It got so popular that it became the unofficial mascot of Funabashi city in Chiba Prefecture which is known for producing pears. It got its name by combining "Funa" - short for Funabashi - and "nassyi" which sounds like the Japanese word for pear.
According to its creator, it was "born" to a big family with 274 "children". Its birthday is July 4, and it turned 1,875 years old in 2013.
Star quality: Most Japanese mascots are slow moving and hardly utter a word. But Funassyi speaks and sometimes shrieks, usually ending its sentences with "nassyi". It bounces around, jumps, and makes violent movements like head-banging.
Unlike its oh-so-cute counterparts, Funassyi's love for heavy metal - it is a fan of Aerosmith - instantly ups its cool quotient.
Earning power: According to estimates, Funassyi raked in 200 million yen (S$2.5 million) in 2013 alone. It has appeared on TV programmes and commercials, and it even released a CD single Funa Funa Funassyi in November 2013.
The cuddly bear with red cheeks, which represents the southern prefecture of Kumamoto, is the superstar of mascots. Kumamon means "bear-person" in the dialect of Kumamoto - nevermind that bears do not actually exist in Kumamoto prefecture. Kumamon was conceived from the link between the Kanji characters used in the prefecture name, "Kuma", which means a bear in Japanese.
Star quality: The cuddly bear with a smilely face turns heads wherever he goes.
He has made many TV appearances and his wobbly signature dance - once performed for Japan's Emperor and Empress - has notched up more than 2 million views on YouTube. He has more than 300,000 followers on Twitter.
The bear with no voice is so well-known that he even held a press conference in Tokyo earlier this year, "fielding" questions from a dozen or so international journalists through his "spokesman" to promote Kumamoto. He is also the winner of the yuru-kyara grand prix in 2011.
Earning power: Kumamon has had his smiley face plastered on literally everything from bread and keychains to cars and airplanes - and even the front page of Wall Street Journal - since his debut in 2010.
The Bank of Japan has estimated that Kumamon-related products created an economic impact worth a whopping 123.2 billion yen in the past two years alone.
The official mascot of Sano city, Tochigi Prefecture, took the top spot in the yuru-kyara grand prix in 2013, beating more than 1,500 characters which represented other municipalities and corporations.
Star quality: The cuddly character was inspired by the tough Japanese samurai. But instead of donning a Kabuto helmet worn by ancient Japanese warriors, Sanomaru wears an upturned ramen noodle bowl; instead of a sword, it carries two potato fries. It is no coincidence that Sano-ramen noodles and potato fries with a special sauce are the culinary specialties of Sano city.
Earning power: It has brought revenues worth an estimated 100 million yen to Sano city in 2012 through the sales of some 350 different types of merchandise ranging from cellphone straps and badges to children's books.
On top of that, Sanomaru makes about 60 appearances a month, earning a modest 5,000 yen fee each time.
Had enough of cute mascots? Meet the creepy ones who have their fair share of fans.
Okazaemon, a white ghostly-looking character with dead eyes and a helmet-like hairdo, stands out in the crowd of cute and cuddly mascots. Designed by two contemporary artists, the unconventional mascot made its debut in 2013 as the new face of Okazaki city in Aichi prefecture. The city's mayor Yasuhiro Uchida even described Okazaemon as Okazaki's Minister for Arts Promotion and presented him with a formal letter of appointment.
Star quality: He's so creepy that he's actually cute, say Okazaemon's fans.
Earning power: Relatively new to the scene, Okazaemon's earning power is not proven yet. But its popularity has inspired Higashimiyoshi town in Tokushima Prefecture to come up with Okazaennu, which looks like a female version of Okazaemon, right down to the dead, expressionless eyes.
Sento-kun is the granddaddy of so-not-cute mascots.
The character was created by Nara City Office to commemorate the 1300th anniversary of Nara Heijo-kyo, the ancient capital of Japan, in 2010. Ever since his debut, Sento-kun - a boy who resembles a young Buddha crossed with the antlers of a deer which Nara is famous for - has been the target of ridicule and revulsion.
The character, designed by Mr Satoshi Yabuuchi, a sculptor and professor at Tokyo University of the Arts, has been slammed for being disrespectful of Buddha, and for being simply not cute.
Star quality: He's controversial because he's so not cute.
In fact, two other mascots - Mantokun and Naamukun - were created to rival Sento-kun, out of concerns he's just not adorable enough.
But all the negative publicity got him a lot of attention, and made him a celebrity.
Earning power: Sento-kun merchandise, including calendars, badges and ballpoint pens, reportedly sold well. The controversy surrounding his looks brought the city about 1.5 billion yen worth of PR, according to reports.