This week, several mascots from Niigata were to be found in Ueno Station, Tokyo. They came to promote their home prefecture. I managed to see Black Bancho, a super-cool squid from Itoigawa City; Reruhi-San, the 270cm-tall skiing mascot based on Theodor Von-Lerch, an Austro-Hungarian major who brought the sport to Japan; Na-chan, a fireworks fairy from Nagaoka; and Burikatsu-kun, a half-man/half-fish from Sado Island.
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Today, under the shadow of an incoming typhoon, thirty mascots from Saitama Prefecture came together in Kumagaya Sports Culture Park (in Kumagaya, Saitama). They came to celebrate their native prefecture, outside a football stadium where Saitama’s FC Omiya Ardija were playing Gamba Osaka. Ardija means squirrel in Spanish, and the team’s squirrel mascots were present. The match was a draw (2-2).
Each of the characters had a QR code on its person for you to scan on your phone, each of which revealed a word. After getting six words you could add them all together to make a question, which you then had to answer in order to enter a raffle to win prizes. The question was an obscure one—about an Omiya Arija striker’s goal scoring record. Luckily a beer stand barman helped me out with the answer and I could enter the raffle.
Eventually it began to rain and the yuruchara waddled away.
Here are a few of the mascots I met:
*Edit: One week later I received a package in the mail. I had won a prize in the raffle. A box full of Saitama mascot goodies!
On September 8th and 9th, several mascots from the Bitchu area of Okayama Prefecture paid a visit to the Tottori/Okayama Antenna Store in Shimbashi, Tokyo. They were there for the Okayama Bitchu Marche, promoting goods and produce from the area, and encouraging tourism.
Last weekend I went to “Charadise Japan”, a large indoor yuruchara event in the Grand Prince Hotel New Takanawa in Shinagawa, Tokyo. There was a stage, workshops, a restaurant, a trick photography area, and multiple booths selling character goods. Although the event wasn’t very well attended, seeing dozens of mascots interacting in such plush surroundings was a novelty, and I took lots of photos. Here are some of them:
Gunkanjima is the nickname for Hashima, a tiny island off the coast of Nagasaki, which was once the most densely-populated place on Earth. Crammed with towering apartment buildings, the 4-kilometre rock was mined for coal until the mine was decommissioned in 2001. Since becoming a ghost-town, Gunkanjima (Battleship Island) has become a popular destination for urban explorers and photographers of modern ruins, drawn by its eerie and unsettling atmosphere. That atmosphere is set to be livened-up by Gansho-Kun, the island’s new mascot.
A brown and misshapen blob with concrete buildings for a hat, Gansho-kun is intended to resemble the brown rock of the island. In fact, he looks more like a lump of poo with incongruously seductive red lips. A regrettable Tinder date.
The Jabba the Hutt lookalike was unleashed on a bemused public at a special event held on the island last month, and has subsequently appeared in a series of short Youtube cartoons.
Since Gunkanjima appeared as a location in the James Bond film, Skyfall, in 2012, and was approved as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015, it has become a tourist attraction. Gansho-kun is tasked with making the spooky place more appealing to children. Whether or not he can pull this off while looking like a sour-faced pair of testicles remains to be seen.
Gansho-kun has only been around for a few weeks but he is already a controversial figure. His very existence is ruffling feathers in Korea and China. In the 1930s, thousands of Korean conscripts and Chinese prisoners of war were forced to work in the mines of Hashima under brutal treatment and harsh, dangerous conditions. The presence of a jolly mascot prancing about in such a notorious place is considered by many to be distasteful. It seems that Gansho-kun’s reign as Gunkanjima’s mascot may prove to be short-lived.
Yesterday was the day of Togosupo, a mascot-packed event held on the shopping street on either sides of Togoshi-Kouen station in Tokyo. Sporting events like basketball and soccer were held, culminating in a tug of war match between two teams of mascots. Hosting the festival were local characters Minami-chan, Ryuunoshin, and Togocho. Chief among the dozen other yuru-chara gathered at Togosupo was Togoshi-Ginjiro, the mascot for nearby Togoshi-Ginza.
Japanese mascots often behave in ways that are counter-intuitive. The most common example of this is the mascot who promotes a regional dish in which its own species is the chief ingredient. These barnyard animal mascots have a self-destructive propensity to encourage tourists to munch on their flesh.
This suicidal behaviour contrasts starkly with the mascots’ serene smiles. Each of them is ready at any time to skip blithely into the slaughterhouse. Much the like the creature from Douglas Adams’ “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” that has been genetically engineered to take pride in being eaten, these meaty mascots gleefully await their grisly fate.
They are dedicated to their own demises. Just last month, a pig mascot named Ecoton took an exam at the Fukuoka Fisherman’s Hall, testing his knowledge of the best fish to complement Tonkotsu Ramen, a local dish of noodles in broth made of pork marrow bones.
One of the most prominent of these enthusiastically edible characters is Hokkaido’s sheep mascot, Jingis Khan No Jin-Kun. The moniker comes from Jingis Khan, a barbecued mutton dish popular in the area, itself named after Genghis Khan, who supposedly popularised sheep meat in the region. But Jin-kun embodies none of the fighting spirit of his Mongolian warlord namesake. Despite being a sheep himself, Jin-kun spends his life singing the praises of the mutton delicacy.
Another mascot who shares this precarious existence is Coroton. He is a massive pig who resides in Maebashi, Gunma, a city celebrated for its pork dishes. So bloated that his forelegs barely touch the ground, Coroton is positively spherical, which must surely make him a sitting duck for local butchers. But, far from waddling to the hills, he happily acts as a cheerleader for his town. Coroton has a death wish that makes Charles Bronson seem timorous by comparison.
Although these mascots’ lifestyles seem to defy reason, they are at peace with their destinies. They are sure of their purpose in life, and are ready and willing to meet their maker, and for this, I envy them.
Why am hungry, all of a sudden?
Most Japanese towns and cities have their own, government-approved “gotouchi-chara” mascots, who help promote tourism and liven up local festivals; but renegade, “unofficial” mascots are just as likely to win the public’s favour. The official mascots are usually wholesome and squeaky-clean, so they tend to be upstaged at events by their unsanctioned counterparts, with their garish designs, and anarchic, outlandish behaviour. Typically, an unofficial mascot does not put forward an image of their hometown that the local government wants to project. But, much to the chagrin of local politicians, the unapproved mascots often turn out to be more successful than the approved ones.
Funassyi vs. Funaemon
Everyone’s favourite hyperactive pear, Funassyi, was conceived by a resident of Funabashi, Chiba, as a potential mascot for the city. But when its creator offered Funassyi to the town, they turned him away. Instead, a couple of years later, they came up with the spectacularly dull Funaemon, an Edo-era merchant who looks like a bland accountant from a 70s British sitcom. Whichever civil servant made that disastrous decision must feel as remorseful as those publishers who rejected the manuscript for Harry Potter.
Funassyi went on to become the country’s most popular mascot, raking in billions of yen through merchandise for its creator, who is now laughing all the way to the bank. While Funassyi could have generated a fortune in revenue for Funabashi City, it seems unlikely that boring old Funaemon will enjoy the same success.
Korou-kun vs. Kikuchi-kun
The official mascot of Kumamoto’s Kikuchi City is a cute soldier named Korou-kun. He’s a perfectly serviceable mascot, but looks sadly unremarkable when standing next to his unofficial mascot rival, Kikuchi-kun.
The unique Kikuchi-kun is a Frankenstein’s monster cobbled together from various points of pride from Kikuchi City (a locally-grown melon for a head, hot springs for eyebrows, a dairy cow’s legs, etc.) Although initially unpopular (he made children cry at his first public appearance) Kikuchi-kun has cultivated a cult following for his dry, deadpan comments.
Regardless of who proves to be more popular, both characters will have to endure living in the shadow of Kumamoto’s almighty Kumamon.
Hustle Komon vs. Nebaaru-kun
Ibaraki Prefecture’s official mascot is an old hustler named Hustle Komon, based on a character from the long-running Ibaraki-set period drama, Mito Komon. He faces competition from a lovable natto fairy named Nebaaru-kun. Natto is a healthy but foul-smelling food made from fermented soybeans, and originates from Ibaraki. Imitating the slimy beans, Nebaaru-kun stretches high in the air—an impressive spectacle. How can an old geezer compete with that?
Take note, mascot designers: human mascots are never popular.
Amakko-chan vs. Chicchai Ossan
I spoke too soon. One human mascot who is very popular is Chicchai Ossan, unofficial mascot of Amagasaki City, Hyogo. A balding, unshaven, middle-aged slob in a singlet, Chicchai Ossan is very relatable, thanks to his myriad imperfections.
These same imperfections no doubt led Amagaski’s government officials to look elsewhere for their official mascot. They recently chose Amakko-chan, a heart-headed girl who had been the city’s bus mascot until the service was privatized. Amakko-chan is charming, but she will have her work cut out if she wants to match Chicchai Ossan’s popularity.
Mayumaro vs. Warabi Maiko-chan
The beautiful historic prefecture of Kyoto has a surprisingly bizarre official mascot—a giant, 2000-year-old, waddling silkworm cocoon named Mayumaro. Somehow, his illegitimate rival is even weirder. Warabi Maiko-chan is a combination of a mochi dumpling and an apprentice geisha. What’s more, the costume is transparent, so you can see the performer inside.
Luckily for all these characters, the healthy competition between official and unofficial mascots never turns nasty. It is not in the nature of yuru-chara to be vindictive, so they all seem to get along just fine.