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Embassy Mascots in Japan

Embassy officials all over the world know the necessity of adapting to local cultures in order to grease the wheels of diplomacy. In Japan, this inevitably calls for round, furry monsters. Several foreign countries have recognized the value of creating cutesy characters to act as cultural ambassadors, representing their homelands at public events or in PR material. Many of these mascots are as adorable and weird as those of their host nation. Here are a selection:

Tom (USA)
Tom is the American embassy’s mascot. He’s a jellybean because the countless flavours of jellybeans represent the USA’s diversity.

Fintan (Finland)
The Finnish embassy’s mascot appears in anime videos and has 130,000 followers on Twitter. Apparently, like many westerners drawn to Japan, he’s into cosplay- he’s always wearing a lion costume.

Shaloum-Chan (Israel)
The Israeli embassy’s adorable mascot, Shaloum-chan, is a cockatoo extending an olive branch. His name is a combination of the Israeli word for peace, “shalom”, and the Japanese word for cockatoo, “oum.” The creator clearly knows how the Japanese do mascots.

Peccary (Ecuador)
Ecuador’s odd-looking Peccary is based on a clay figure in the Bizen Latin American Museum in Bizen, Okayama Prefecture, a city for which he also acts as a mascot. Peccary is quite the crooner, and has released a CD of covers of other yuru-chara’s songs, “Peccary Sings Japanese Popular Local Mascot Songs”.

Muay Taishi

Unveiled last year, Thailand’s Muay Thaishi is a kickboxing sea-bream/ ambassador. His name is a clever amalgam of the martial art, Muay Thai, and the Japanese words for sea bream (“Tai”), and ambassador (“Taishi”).

I hope embassies keep rolling out these characters, and the trend catches on worldwide. We can achieve world peace, through the efforts of rotund, friendly mascots.

Japan’s Least Popular Mascots

Each year a public vote is held to decide Japan’s most popular mascot. The Yuruchara Grand Prix attracts millions of votes from citizens all over the country, all rooting for their favourite characters. Last year 1,421 mascots entered the contest and the winner, with 4,345,960 votes, was Shinjou-kun, a character from Susaki City in Kochi Prefecture, based on a recently-extinct local river otter with a bowl of nabeyaki ramen on his head. (Perhaps the bowl is an example of the river pollution that led to the extinction.)

While reigning champ Shinjou-kun basks in glory, what about the characters at the other end of the scale? Spare a thought for the seven nondescript yuru-chara below, who suffered the indignity of coming in joint 1,114th (last) place. In the mascot community, this sorry bunch would get permanently swiped left on Tinder.

Ushi Goro is the bovine mascot for Ushizuashikari City Chamber Of Commerce and Industry.

The gardening-loving Mole-kun represents a Fukuoka garden centre called Ground Factory.

A8-Kun is the bee mascot for internet service provider, A8.net.

The pink dinosaur, Kyu-Chan, mascots for plumbing company, Toirex 9.

Machida’s Grandberry Mall has a shopping-mad female dog called Beriinu-Chan for a mascot.

Mokuzou promotes high quality lumber from the precious old trees of Osaka’s Settsu City. He has a tree stump for a hat.

The nightmarish Nukamura-kun travels the country promoting the Kitakyushu dish, nukamisodaki (headless fish pickled in fermented rice-bran).

Better luck next year, guys!
Source

The Sumida Gotouchi-Chara Festival 2017 – Day 2

Here are some photos from the second day of last weekend’s regional mascot event in Sumida, Tokyo. The star attraction on the second day was Funassyi, the hyperactive pear and unofficial mascot of Funabashi, Chiba. He and Kumamon never seem to appear on the same day at these events. They’re like the brothers from Oasis.

Funassyi takes centre stage.

Osaki’s Thom Yorke lookalike, Spanky, is the guitarist for the yuruchara band, GCB47.

The bedraggled, trippy Psyche-Deli-san is a fitting mascot for Tokyo’s counter-culture enclave, Koenji.

The entertaining Goya-Sensei, a bitter melon from Fukuchiyama City in Kyoto, talks out of his forehead.

The winking “green spirit” Inappi comes from Inazawa City, Aichi.

Shirakawan is a white dog from Shirakawa City, Fukushima.

Sanomaru, official mascot of Sano City in Tochigi Prefecture, was voted best mascot at the Yuruchara Grand Prix in 2013. He wears traditional attire except for a noodle bowl for a hat.

Coroton, the spherical pig, must surely be an easy target in his hometown of Maebashi in Gunma, a city celebrated for its pork dishes.

Sanada Yukimaru is the mascot of Ueda Haramachi in Nagano.

Fukka-chan, the beloved mascot of Fukaya City, in Saitama, a prefecture with seemingly hundreds of mascots.

Talking into his forehead is Chosei Tonyu-Kun, a soy milk mascot whose face occasionally fall off.

The citrus fruit-headed water imp, Yuzu Gappa, of Tokushima Prefecture, reclines in the park. Is he aware that someone has drawn spectacles on his face?

Keisei Panda, corporate mascot for Keisei Electric Railway, looks like he needs more sleep.

Kato Denosuke of Kato City, Hyogo. Cool hairstyle!

Jirokids, from Sumida, is a mouse in Edo-era garb.

Gatagoro, from Saga Prefecture’s Ariake Sea, draws portraits for his fans.

Iga Gurio is the tourism ambassador for Iga City, Mie. He’s a young ninja with a large belly from bingeing on local delicacies.

Kinshicho’s Kinbori looks like an escapee from South Park.

A mascot with a human face- Yamada Ruma, the friendly walking Daruma doll.

This slovenly middle-aged man, Chicchai Ossan, is the surprisingly popular mascot of Amagasaki City, and one of the first talking yuru-chara.

This old hustler is Hustle Komon, the mascot for Ibaraki Prefecture, and a character inspired by the long-running TV period drama, Mito Komon.

The Sumida Gotouchi-Chara Festival 2017 – Day 1

Last weekend was the annual Gotouchi-chara Festival in Sumida, Tokyo. One hundred different regional mascots gathered at three stages and a park near the base of Japan’s tallest structure, the Sky Tree. Here are some pictures from the first day of the event.

Tosakenpi, winking. Tosakenpi is a Tosa dog from Harimaya Bridge in Kochi. He likes sweet potato “kenpi” snacks.

2012 Yuruchara Grand Prix winner, Bari-san, is a giant baby chicken and the mascot of Imabari City in Ehime. Ehime is famous for chicken dishes, so he should consider relocating.

Cable internet company JCOM’s bouncy mascot ZAQ meets noodle-brained Udon Nou from Kagawa Prefecture.

The slick and streetwise squid, Black Bancho, is the mascot for Itoigawa City in Niigata.

Konyudo-Kun, the mascot for Mie Prefecture’s Yokkaichi City, pulls out his tongue.

Yoichi-kun, mascot of Otawara City, Tochigi, sells his wares.

Chiryuppi of Chiryu City, Aichi.

Mikke-Chan is a ballet dancing calico cat and the mascot for a shopping street in Hirakata City, Osaka.

Todorocky is the mascot for Todoroki, in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. He’s a musclebound sea lion who likes boxing and sweet buns.

Chiba mascot, CHI-BA+KUN, takes his shape from the outline of the prefecture.

The ubiquitous Kumamon, of Kumamoto Prefecture, busts some moves on the stage.

Sugamon the duck is a hit with the older women- he’s the mascot for Sugamo shopping district, the fashion Mecca for Tokyo’s elderly ladies.

Zombear entertains the crowd with a string of intestines.

2UYakisoban, a superhero with a bowl of yakisoba noodle soup for a head, hails from Kuroishi City in Aomori.

Tochigi mascot, Tochi-suke, is a warehouse fairy.

Melon-haired, onsen-eyebrowed Kikuchi-kun is the unauthorised mascot for Kikuchi, Kumamoto. He loves his town but scares local children.

The adorable Ebecchan is the sightseeing ambassador of Sanda City in Hyogo. His special skill is catching rice balls.

Hamamatsu’s Ieyasu-kun was the winner of the 2015 Yuruchara Grand Prix.

Shimabaran is the guardian deity of Shimabara, Nagasaki. This character was designed by the creator of Yokai Watch, Noriyuki Konishi.

Sumidile is the mascot of Fugador Sumida, the local futsal team.

Big-eared Hanipon (left) is the mascot of Honjo City in Saitama and came second in last year’s Yuruchara Grand Prix. Here he meets the regal Isa King (right) who hails from Isa City, Kagoshima.

Kiriko-chan looks like the fog that rolls in from the sea in her hometown of Miyoshi City, Hiroshima.

Tokoron, of Tokorozawa in Saitama, doesn’t usually have those eyebrows.

Obuse Kuri-chan of Obuse, Nagano is surely the world’s biggest chestnut.

Hokkaido’s Jingisukan No Jinkun is a sheep named after a grilled mutton dish. No wonder he’s brandishing a sword.

Japanese Sewer Mascots

Japanese mascots are enthusiastic about all sorts of things, even underground rivers of fetid, stinking human waste. Here is a selection of my favourite regional sewage works mascots.

Earth-kun


Earth-kun (or Ass-kun, depending on how you interpret the katakana) is a globe with a manhole cover for a hat. He’s the mascot character for the Tokyo sewage system. I don’t want to know what he does with that finger!


Suisui-kun

Suisui-kun, the mascot for the Japan Sewer Association, is a colourful chap. He is a fish with incongruous human legs, presumably for wading through excrement. Suisui-kun is a cheerful fellow, but even he has bad days from time to time:

Aquan


Images of an anthropomorphic splash named Aquan adorn manhole covers in Yokosuka City, where he is a cheerleader for the local water supply and sewage system. Being enthusiastic about those sewers is no easy task- he has to deal with the floating aftermath of barracks of soldiers bingeing on Popeye’s Chicken and Pizza Hut at the city’s U.S. military base.


Yattakun

The kappa was once a fearsome beast of legend, instilling fear in the hearts of folk throughout Japan. Yattakun is a cutesy, infantilised shadow of that former glory. As if being de-clawed and neutered wasn’t indignity enough, Yattakun also has to spend his days worshipping rivers of poo.


Yattakun was voted the nation’s fourth best sewer mascot in 2014, a prestigious honour, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Japanese Prison Mascots

Japanese Yuru-chara can be found in the most unexpected of places. They bring joy to sporting events, schools, and tourist resorts, but they can also be spotted at less cheerful institutions. Prisons, for example. Correctional facilities looking to soften their image as grey and forbidding hell-holes sometimes adopt bright and happy mascots, more likely to give you a cuddle than shank you in the showers.

Waka-Pi


Wakayama Women’s Prison has housed many notorious inmates over the years, including Hisako Ishii – a senior member of the Aum Shinrikyo death cult; and Masumi Hayashi, who killed four people by poisoning a pot of curry at a summer festival.
The prison is also home to Waka-Pi – its adorable mascot. The “Waka” in her name comes from the prefecture, Wakayama, and “Pi” is the letter P, for “prison”. Her head is shaped like the mandarin oranges which are grown locally.

Nipo-Kun


Abashiri is the most infamous prison in Japan’s history. Located in the desolate frozen wasteland of Northern Hokkaido, the maximum security facility long had a well-earned reputation for being the harshest prison in the country, as well as the most difficult to escape from. In the 1960s it inspired a series of yakuza movies starring Ken Takakuru. The original site was closed in 1984, and a new medium-security facility was opened not far from the city centre. That prison is home to Nipo-kun, a mascot modeled on a traditional toy made by the local Ainu tribes.

Katakurri-chan


Katakkuri-chan is a prison warden with a giant purple flower for hair, and is the mascot of Ashikawa Prison. There are male and female incarnations of the character, both unveiled in 2013 to soften the grim and isolated image of the facility. Ashikawa has been in trouble for its harsh and inhumane treatment of inmates. One hopes Katakkuri-kun is not responsible.

Nashikan-Kun


While delinquent American teenagers spend their spring break partying in Cancun, the young delinquents of Japan get Nashikan-kun. He’s the mascot of the Nara Juvenile Detention Centre.

Ginza Willow Festival 2017


Yesterday various yuru-chara mascots from around Japan were to be found on Tokyo’s Nishi-Ginza Dori for the 11th annual Willow Festival, a festival named after the trees that line the street.

The best-known of the characters in attendance was the ubiquitous Kumamon, who soaked up most of the attention as he paraded around in a traditional robe.

Kumamon

Kumamon was joined by fellow bear, Arukuma, the official mascot of Nagano prefecture. He enjoys walking and has a variety of different hats.

Arukuma

Also at the event was the minimalistic Kitekero-kun, the “hospitalitiy section manager” of Yamagata prefecture, pictured here without his trademark rolling suitcase.

Kitekeru-kun

Gunma-chan and Mito-chan, pictured below, have a lot in common. They are both tiny and are named after their hometowns. Gunma-chan has been around since 1983 (since when he has evolved from a blue-maned horse into his current incarnation), and won the coveted Yuruchara Grand Prix prize in 2014. Mito-chan, of Mito City, Ibaraki, has only been around for four years and is modelled on the television period drama character, Mito Komon.

Gunma-chan (left) meets Mito-chan (right)

Nyango Star Live

Nyango Star in Harajuku Alta

The fastest rising star in the world of Japanese mascots is Nyango Star, the apple/cat hybrid from Aomori’s Kuroishi City, whose popularity is skyrocketing thanks to a series of viral videos of him drumming along like a demon to heavy metal songs.

This afternoon I was lucky enough to catch a performance by the talented musician and fruit/animal hybrid in Harajuku. In order to get the ticket, I had to buy some Nyango Star merchandise from the toy shop, Kiddyland. There was a section of the store dedicated entirely to him, with mugs, towels, toys, and cushions featuring the red character.

Nyango Star goods in Kiddyland, Omotesando

The show, nearby on the top floor of Alta, on Takeshita street, was short but entertaining. A crowd of about fifty fans, almost entirely female, cheered as Nyango star pounded the skins to X Japan songs. He also communicated with a host by writing on a notepad, and guzzled water through an extra-long straw poked through a hole in his face. He greeted the fans one by one with high-fives as we left after the show, and handed out business cards. The job-description on the cards was Manager of Kiddyland (for one day only).

The Bizarre History of the Billiken

A giant Shinsekai Billiken

If you take a stroll through Osaka’s retro mecca, Shinsekai, you are sure to notice dozens of images and effigies of a curious character known as the Billiken. A serenely smiling, Buddha-like figure, the Billiken looks a bit like the actor, Wallace Shawn, from The Princess Bride. Each statue of the cherubic character sits flat on a plinth with the soles of his feet facing outward. It is considered lucky to tickle these oversized feet, and the denizens of Shinsekai can often be spotted doing this. When I spoke to some tourists visiting Shinsekai from other parts of Japan, they told me they had assumed that the Billiken was a religious symbol. He is indeed called “the god of things as they ought to be”,  but his origins are in fact as a mascot character, and his story begins in the U.S. A.

Billiken bench in Shinsekai

In 1908 a mysterious rotund figure appeared to Missouri art teacher, Florence Pretz, in a dream. She drew the character and named it the Billiken. Apparently the name comes from the 1896 poem, “Mr. Moon: A Song of the Little People” by the Canadian poet, Bliss Carman.

O Mr. Moon,
We’re all here!
Honey-bug, Thistledrift,
White-imp, Weird,
Wryface, Billiken,
Quidnunc, Queered;
We’re all here,
And the coast is clear!
Moon, Mr. Moon,
When you comin’ down?

Pretz patented the design (the first ever patented god) and sold it to The Billiken Company of Chicago. Soon they were mass-producing all sorts of Billiken merchandise—dolls, statuettes, marshmallows, pickle forks, hatpins, watchfobs, and incense burners to name but a few items. The Billiken became an overnight hit and even inspired songs, such as “Billiken Man” by Blanche Ring (1909).

Such fads were commonplace in the early 20th Century. Kewpie, a baby cupid character designed by cartoonist Rose O’Neill and which also enjoys enduring popularity in Japan, appeared the following year and was the subject of a similar craze.

The Billiken was seen by many as a tribute to then-president, William (Bill) Taft. His predecessor, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, had inspired the hugely popular teddy bear toys, and the mass-markerting of the Billiken was perhaps an attempt to replicate the teddy bear’s enormous success. There is even a terrifying hybrid of the two characters, called the Teddy Billiken.

The sinister Teddy Billiken

At the height of his fame, the Billiken became the official mascot of St. Louis University, due to his resemblance to their football coach of 1910-11, the beatific, grinning John Bender (not to be confused with John Bender, Judd Nelson’s brooding delinquent character from 1985’s “The Breakfast Club”, who is anything but beatific). The Billiken remains the university’s mascot to this day, and even made the news last year, when a new design of the character provoked a horrified reaction from the University’s students.

Even welcome in the shadowy world of freemasonry, the Billiken became the official mascot of the secretive Royal Order of Jesters, an elite Shriner group dedicated to the celebration of mirth.

Alas, within a couple of years, the initial American Billiken boom was over, but his legend lived on in Alaska, where for decades Eskimos could be found selling tiny ivory Billiken figures carved from walrus tusks.

Yakitori restaurant clown Billiken

Meanwhile, the Billiken took Japan by storm. Looking like a long lost cousin of Japan’s Seven Lucky Gods, the pudgy deity was a natural fit for the country. Florence Pretz claimed she had been “dreaming of all things Japanese” when she first conceived of him. She even speculated that she had been Japanese in a past life, and was photographed wearing a kimono for the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1908.

The Japanese were so accepting of “the god of things as they ought to be” that Billiken statues were enshrined throughout the country. Prewar Billikens can still be found in Kobe shrines to this day. This is like having a stained glass window of Hello Kitty in a Catholic church.

Elephantine rooftop Billiken

Japan’s best-known Billiken was enshrined in a Shinsekai funfair, Luna Park, in 1912. Since 1980, a replica of the famous Luna Park Billiken has been on display in Shinsekai’s prominent Tsutenkaku tower, and the porky fellow has been indelibly associated with the place ever since. That particular Billiken even went on to inspire a light-hearted 1996 comedy film, Billiken (directed by Junji Sakamoto), in which the titular mascot uses his power of luck to help the Shinsekai tourist board stop the demolition of Tsutenkaku tower. Today, the movie can be found on Japanese Netflix.

Billiken (1996)

And so it is that the streets of Shinsekai came to be crowded with statues and pictures of “the god of things as they should be”. While there, I bought myself a golden Billiken statuette because I could use some good luck, and it now sits proudly on my coffee table. Buying a Billiken is thought to bring good fortune, but it is considered luckier to be given one, and luckiest of all if you steal it.

Triumphant Billiken

UFO Religion Mascot

There are mascots for everything in Japan. Here is a UFO religion mascot I spotted today, distributing religious manga about the Rael movement, in Tokyo’s Nakano ward. Note the symbol on the alien’s chest- a swastika inside a star of David. The Rael movement (worshipping bisexual aliens) originated in France, but these promotional tactics are tailored to Japan.

Here are some highlights from the manga the alien was handing out.

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