Update 2: I was able to restore some of the links to other places but unfortunately some of the better ones from yurugp.jp have been updated and based on the new rankings the old translations have been replaced by new PR copy. HOWEVER – New rankings = New reason to talk about Yuru Kyara! Check out my second installment here, now with more CUTE!
Update: It looks like the mascots are being reranked and the contest is on. This means two things. 1) All my links are dead. Well, all the good ones. 2) I will be updating this post again when they release new rankings. You can go here for information about the mascot contest.
Squarely in the category of “this is not news to anyone,” weird mascots are everywhere in Japan. Also in the not news category is that mascots are not unique to Japan. In fact the United States gets pretty weird about them too. I submit Mr. Met and the Philly Phanatic as exhibits A and B your honor. Oh Hi, eh, Canada didn’t see you up there. Yes, you can come to the crazy mascot party too with Youppi!. The exclamation point is actually part of its’? name. In Japan mascots are called “yuru kyara/chara – ゆるきゃら,” which means “soft characters” or “loose characters,” depending on how loosely you translate Japanese. Japan also holds the world record for largest synchronized mascot dance. Its kind of a big deal here.
I don’t find mascots in general to be an odd phenomenon. In the US they are generally associated with two things commercial brands and products or a sports franchise of some sort. University mascots I generally consider to be a subset of the sports mascot but I don’t want to get too deep in to that semantic weed patch while I have the gaping maw of mascot’s in general to discuss.
The exploration of Japanese yuru-chara started for me when NTT (Nippon Telegraph & Telecom) came to one of my schools to give a presentation about a new technology that would help facilitiate communication in the event of an earthquake or other natural disaster. They had several stations set up with tablets and smart phones for the students to use as well as a stuffed animal or doll of some kind. I asked one of the employees why they were using stuffed animals instead of A-san (Mr. A) and B-san (Mr. B). He described the marketing team’s sensitivity to the 2011 earthquake’s effects on the area and felt the stuffed animals were more comfortable to deal with than real people when discussing emergency precautions despite the students being near high school age.
I started thinking about this a lot. After an endless downward spiral of youtube videos, funny twitter accounts (if you speak Japanese) and my personal favorite, poorly translated PR copy later I am ready to report my findings.
Most Japanese mascots are for places or commercial entities and follow a particular pattern that combines a food or local legend with a cute cartoon animal or person like ももりん(Momo-rin). This creates a chimera of some sort although the results are not always consistently adorable, cutesy or understandable.
Take a look at メロン熊 (Melon Bear) for Hokkaido. Melon Bear maybe one of the scariest things I have ever seen. According to his page this is what happens when you eat too many delicious melons. It’s like Jim Henson was combining a bad LSD trip, a taikō drumming session and The Edge, starring Alec Baldwin. (There is not a more perfect sentence in this blog than that last one). だるだる(Darudaru) is another mascot that without question belongs in the nightmare fuel pile. A demon from the Kumano region whose name literally translates to “tiredness tiredness”. I’m sure the children of Kumano will sleep well after seeing Darudaru. On a more subtle level of frightening is うどん脳 or Udon Brain. うどん脳 is the personification of liking udon maybe a little too much. He is also a representative of the Kagawa prefecture. I can’t tell from his expression if he is supposed to be a warning to people about the dangers of excessive udon consumption or an ideal state of udon related nirvana.
There are plenty of websites dedicated to exploring the general oddity and awesomeness of Japanse mascots in both Japanese and in English. Here is one that ranks 880 of the 1000 plus regional mascots in Japan. (Ed. Note: These links are no longer accurate so I deleted them. You’ll have to take my word for it. However, I highly recommend spending some time with Google translate and this website). It’s all in Japanese but you get the idea. If you turn on Google auto translate this website alone will provide several hours quality entertainment. Here are some of my favorites. ほっピーゆっピー (Mop’pē & Yup’pē – I think… I’m not entirely sure about that one) according to Google translate are named, “Pee pee slowly relieved.” They are actually fireflies. There is 赤ふん坊や or as Google calls him, “Red poop boy.” Rather unsettling when you think about it. Google was just getting warmed up with those two. Google gave me these delightful context free translations for たかまるクン – Takamaru-kun (Testes Kun) and さんぞくっく – Sanzokukku A.K.A. The Cum Bandit. Here Google gave しらっぴー (Shir’rapī) the rather sarcastically judgmental moniker of “Crappie and…” Finally I think personal favorite of them all: ふっかちゃん (Fuk’kachan). He is an adorable amalgamation of the famous fukaya leek, a deer, and a rabbit. The reason it is my favorite, well, I’ll just let Google handle that one.
“It does if you win fluoride:
Features of “do if you win fluoride” is angle exciting supple local products of “Fukaya leek” to mask well-bitch! The ♪ Summers to get Negishi also this year the vote for “do if you win fluoride” Because Ru Gamba steadily aiming at the highest point of the podium this year”
Thanks Google. It does indeed, but only if you win fluoride. Here are some other honorable mentions, スタン (Sutan), 妖怪いしみがきw (I have no, I don’t even, what…), 堺市ごみ減量マスコットキャラクター 「ムーやん」(Its a furry green thing with a trash can for a hat) and finally, まめうさ(Mamuusa) he’s just plain creepy. (Ed. Note: Ok the rest of the links should be good from here on out).
Check out this article from WSJ.com that talks about how current Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe got an image face lift with the creation of his own “yuru-chara.” Can you imagine President Obama getting his own cartoon likeness of himself? I would call it “Pregnant Pause-sama.”
In America we have mascots for just about everything too but they are not fun lovable creatures with hilarious backstories. Nor are American mascots particularly creative. A donkey represents the democrats and an elephant represents republicans. The majority of creativity for American mascots falls in commercial food products like the gang from McDonald’s or the many talking animals that shill sugary breakfast cereal to kids.
The yuru-chara in Japan are a cash-cow in their own right. Kumamon for example is one of the most popular yuru chara in Japan. From 2011 to 2012 Kumamon has provided roughly $140million dollars in revenue for the Kumamoto prefecture. According to one source Kumamon may have a problem with alcohol abuse (hence the red cheeks) but is otherwise affable and really fun to be around. What is the closest thing we have to this in America. To my knowledge; McGruff the Crime dog and Smokey the Bear. They are so serious. Rightly so. Its really hard to have fun around a dog that is constantly grimacing like Matlock. I feel like maybe American municipalities are missing the boat on this. Think of all the earnings a city could acquire without raising taxes if they had a lovable mascot like Kumamon.
I thought I’d take a crack creating one for California. A golden bear is a mascot for California in general. California also has the California quail and the California poppy as mascots or maybe more aptly symbols. California has cartoon cows for Clover Dairy and Mickey Mouse for Disneyland. If California followed the Japanese pattern for mascot creation we would have “Poppyhat Quail-chan” a silly, bright gold cartoon bear with small brown wings, a quail feather growing out of his forehead, a giant poppy blossom for a hat and a deep love of Disneyland. He may also have an opiate addiction.
So maybe not the ideal representative of the “Golden State” but the possibilities are endless. Anything that people associate with California can be combined with something else associated with California and turned in to a cartoon character. Try it with your state.
When all is said and done I think the creativity of the Japanese yuru-chara is just awesome. They still adhere to aspects of Japanese heritage and provide at the very least a giggle for children (most of the time, I’m looking at you Melon Bear). There is a lot of culturally unique items to Japan but I don’t think yuru-chara should be one of them. It just surprises me that there aren’t more versions in America. I’m sure there are exceptions to this, Punxsutawney comes to mind with their famous groundhog but some intense googling nets very few results outside of high schools, universities and professional sports. If there is one thing I know about America its that America loves to monetize things. Anything. So get with the program Sacramento, Miami-Dade County and the State of Nebraska. Get America on the path of frighteningly profitable representatives of your area.