The crazy world of Japanese mascots
One of the things Japan is most famous for is its love for cute, simply drawn characters. Some of them, such as Hello Kitty, are well known all over the world and have been popular for decades. Others, like Rilakkuma, are more recent and less international, but still everywhere in Japan.
In recent years, this love for cute characters has led to the popularization of ゆるキャラ (yuru-chara) or characters designed to represent a specific region, company or event. Yuru-chara is short for yurui mascot character, yurui meaning laid back or relaxed. The most popular of these mascots are the ご当地キャラ — gotouchi-chara, or local characters, those designed to represent a specific region in Japan.
There are all sorts of gotouchi-chara, to the point where a lot of people forget who they are, where they’re from, and what they represent. Indeed, there are so many that some local governments have had to cut back on mascot usage. There is an online database with thousands of entries called gotouchi-chara catalog, if you’re curious.
The start of this phenomenon is often attributed to Hikonyan, a mascot created to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Hikone Castle in 2007. Since then, the race to design the cutest character has borne fruit, with some really popular examples being Kumamon and Funasshi — representing Kumamoto Prefecture and the town of Funabashi, respectively. Yes, Funabashi is not even a prefecture!
You will also find some unofficial and sometimes controversial characters, created without the local government’s consent. These normally become extremely popular on YouTube and other social media. Chiitan, a naughty mascot who represents the small city of Susaki and whose mischiefs range from punching things to turning over cars, is probably the prime example.
There are even some characters that pride themselves in being the ugliest or creepiest, Zushi Hokki being an especially revolting one (don’t look it up if you suffer from fear of patterns or holes). Zushi Hokki has recently been named the most memorable character in Japan, so the strategy seems to work.
With so many to choose from, which gotouchi-chara will end up being your favorite is anyone’s guess. One thing is clear though, if you’re planning to spend any amount of time in Japan, you better know your characters.
Hi, I’m Sergio.
I’m from Spain, lived in the UK for seven years and came to Japan in 2012.
I majored in journalism in London and have been teaching English in Tokyo.
I like traveling, cycling, photography, movies, and spending time with friends.
I wrote articles about life in Japan as a foreigner and anything that I might find interesting.
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