TOKYO (AFP) - Dozens of state-funded cuddly mascots could be culled in western Japan after a local authority found the public doesn't recognise many of them, as managers look to rein in an obsession with cuteness.
Thousands of "yuru-kyara", or "laid-back characters", have been created all over Japan by police, traffic safety officials, tax offices, libraries and even prisons in a bid to press home various messages to a public particularly susceptible to oversized puppets.
The most successful go on to become national celebrities, playing their part in an industry worth tens of billions of dollars a year in merchandising alone.
Creations like Kumamon - a tubby black bear used to promote a lesser-known part of southern Japan - are instantly-recognisable motifs that have become part of the country's cultural landscape, adorning everything from aeroplanes to keychains.
But the huge number of yuru-kyara - many of them with disproportionate features - condemns most to obscurity, peddling little-heeded public safety messages.
Now Osaka prefecture has decided it is time for a cull, and is looking to trim its stable of 45 yuru-kyara to concentrate its efforts on a few more-recognisable characters that can be used across departments.
"As I have said many times, we have too many characters," Osaka governor Ichiro Matsui told reporters last month.
Stung by the success of Funassyi, an unofficial pear-fairy mascot for the fruit-producing city of Funabashi near Tokyo, Matsui said many of Osaka's yuru-kyara barely registered on the public radar.
"We are all being beaten by this character. We've got to do something," Matsui said.
Osaka's own offering, Moppy, which is inspired by a native bird, ranked a lowly 1,072 among more than 1,500 mascots that took part in a popularity vote last year.
Governor Matsui has suggested the local government cast aside some of the lesser-known mascots and focus their efforts on Moppy, perhaps by letting him procreate and even learn to talk.
"I think it is a good idea for Moppy to have a family - Moppy Jr. could help promote child rearing policies and Moppy's wife could assist with women's employment issues," he said.
But The Japan Local Character Association, a group that supports regional economies through the use of mascots, urged patience Thursday, saying it takes time for yuru-kyara to become popular.
"Kumamon was not necessarily popular from the very beginning," said Noriko Nakano, who works at the association's headquarters in central Shiga.
"Neither was Funassyi. There was time when people gave him the cold shoulder.
"It is important to use social networking and blogging, but mascot characters must also go out and communicate with people directly. Low-key activities are important to gain popularity," she told AFP.