TAMA, JAPAN (THE WASHINGTON POST) - When Mr Michiyuki Arano was between jobs as a chef two years ago, he decided to take a trial lesson at the Choko Group Mascot Actors' School here, just outside Tokyo.
For US$60, he put on a pig suit and bumbled around. He was hooked. "I really loved it," said Mr Arano, a short, round 35-year-old with a lisp. "Once you have a different layer on, you become somebody else, not your normal self. You become a pig or a squirrel, and you see people react to you, and that makes you want to help them even more."
Now Mr Arano is a regular at the Mascot Actors' School, where Ms Choko Ohira, who's been in the mascot business for almost 40 years, teaches her craft.
"Some people come to become professional, some come in for fun, for the stress relief," Ms Ohira said before a group lesson a recent day.
During years as a freelance mascot - yes, that's a thing - she played Porori, a popular television mouse pirate, for a decade. Then she opened the school, "raising the next generation of mascots", she said.
Now, for US$270 for 12 two-hour lessons, Ms Ohira teaches people how to move so that the character looks alive and drills into the students that they must never show any skin in case they give away the secret that there's a person inside the costume.
The Choko Group also makes costumes and acts as an agent for companies needing mascots and mascots needing work.
In Japan, it's hard to go anywhere without encountering a mascot, a cute and fluffy creature designed to make you feel all warm and fuzzy in some of the most unlikely situations.
Visiting the Wakayama prison? Waka-P, an orange mascot with a huge, citrus-fruit head and a letter P (for prison), will be there to give you a hug and remind you to aim for a crimeless society, bright like a satsuma mandarin.
If you're using the facilities in Yokohama, especially on Nov 10, also known as Restroom Day, you might encounter Toilet-kun, a lovable character with a toilet-seat lid for a face and a bowl for a belly.
Toilet-kun ("kun" is the Japanese suffix used with boys' names) represents the city's waste recycling bureau.
And who better to represent the Defence Ministry than Prince Pickles, from a country called Paprika, and his girlfriend Princess Parsley, who hails from the country of Broccoli.
Maybe it's better not to mention the egg-angel mascot for Fukushima Industries, whose name is an unfortunate combination of Fukushima and the English word "happy".
Yes, he's called "Fukuppy".
No self-respecting town, business or ministry in Japan would be without a mascot.
The United States Embassy in Tokyo even has one - an Alaskan jellybean called Tom who's a freshman in college. (He's orange-flavored but turns lemon when he's nervous.)
According to the embassy's tale, while he's doing an exchange program in Japan, Tom promotes American culture and promotes US-Japan relations, often with Kumamon, the black and white bear who's the king of Japanese mascots.
Thousands of "yuru-kyara" - or "laidback characters", as they're called here - attend the Yuru-kyara Grand Prix each year, vying to be crowned the most popular mascot in Japan.
The mascot industrial complex is so huge in Japan that the Finance Ministry launched a campaign last year to cut the number of mascots to save unnecessary spending.
There are no official figures, but Mr Masafumi Hagiwara, a researcher at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting, estimates there are about 4,000 local government-related mascots in Japan. The prefecture of Osaka alone had about 92 mascots, but it gave pink slips to 20 of them during the Finance Ministry's campaign.
There are probably an additional 6,000 characters at central government agencies, companies and other organizations, Mr Hagiwara said.
That makes "mascot" a viable career choice in Japan. The day rate for a mascot is about US$100.
"I was just a salaryman," said Mr Shinji Kumamoto, 51, who was taking off his gorilla suit after a recent lesson. "When I quit my last job I thought, 'Why don't I do something I always wanted to do?'"
So for the past eight years, he's been making a living in a furry costume. "I really enjoy being something else or someone else," he said. "I really enjoy doing things like jumping up and down in the street. Things you can't do in regular life. I can come out of my shell."
That's a pretty universal refrain among mascots in usually restrained Japan. "I enjoy doing something that I can't do normally," said Ms Yuko Mura, 19, who works part time in a fast-food restaurant and started lessons in January. "Of course, if you're out on the street no one comes up and starts talking to you, but when you're a character, people - even adults - want to talk and high-five you."
Indeed, as Mr Kumamoto and Ms Mura and their classmates practiced dance routines without their costumes, they studiously ignored two reporters in the room. But the moment they put on their costumes, they were all handshakes and selfies with the outsiders.
Ms Megumi Iwata was bounding around the room during the class while she had her fox suit on, posing for photos and joking with the other mascots. But as she disinfected her costume after the lesson, she was the definition of shyness. "I don't want to be interviewed," she said, looking down.
Some people enjoy being mascots because it offers some escape from ordinary life, said Mr Akihiko Inuyama, a character consultant and author of the book "Yuru-kyara Theory".
"You can be detached from a society and become a different you. In normal life, you don't get admired by strangers, but when you put on a mascot costume, you are popular in an instant," he said.
And people react to mascots as they would to a pet, he said. "They're like pets because even though you can't communicate perfectly, they still accept your love. You don't need to worry about confrontation because they simply accept you," Mr Inuyama said. "Mascots shake hands with you and hug you. Their existence can make you feel accepted in society."