Japan has a mascot character problem.
From municipal governments to smartphone apps to prisons, it seems like everyone and their mama-san has a cartoon representative.
Known as yuru-kyara, or “laid-back characters”, these costumed characters are often simple in design and move around with a disarming clumsiness to appeal to Japanese people’s insatiable fondness for all things cute.
The term was coined in the early 2000’s and has come to refer specifically to mascots created by local governments or other public organizations to stimulate tourism and economic development. Many companies and brands have also created yuru-kyara to build on their corporate identity.
Yuru-kyara rose to prominence in 2007 with the advent of Hikonyan, an adorable white cat wearing a samurai helmet created to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Hikone Castle.
Thanks to Hikonyan, tourism and merchandise sales for Hikone castle and the adjacent city skyrocketed, which prompted other municipalities and tourist destinations around the country to commission their own unique yuru-kyara.
In 2010 the annual Yuru-kyara Grand Prix was established to determine the most popular mascot by public vote.
Fan favorite Hikonyan won the title in 2010 but it was the 2011 champion, Kumamon, who set the stage for the rise and fall of Japan’s mascot empire.
Kumamon was created in early 2011 to promote tourism and local industry in Kumamoto in tandem with the opening of a direct bullet train line to and from Osaka.
His nationwide break came that November when he won the Grand Prix and as his profile rose, so did sales of Kumamon goods. In 2014 the Bank of Japan announced that sales of Kumamon merchandise totaled over $2 billion and the economic impacts on Kumamoto tourism and industry estimated to be millions more.
This led to a glut of new yuru-kayara as local governments across the country scrambled to create a mascot that could contest the black bear’s throne.
By 2014 there were over 3,000 registered local mascots—and potentially hundreds more undocumented mascots working at small businesses and events around the country.
By late 2014 Japan’s obsession with mascot characters had become so out of hand that the National Finance Ministry ordered authorities nationwide to crack down on the number of mascots per prefecture, citing waste of public funds.
Osaka, Japan’s second largest city, was one of the first to respond, cutting back the number of active mascots from 92 to 69. The mascots for child care support services and the municipal tax payment campaign were among those removed from duty.
While many yuru-kyara are now facing the axe, a small few are still able to rise to national prominence.
Even Kumamon is now seeing his popularity threatened by Funassyi (pronounced “foo-nahsh-shee”), a genderless “pear fairy” known for its manic energy at public events.
Only time will tell if Funyasi will be able to topple Kumamon’s empire, but this much is certain: the shroud of the black bear has fallen; begun, the character war has.