From baseball teams to giant corporations to even tiny towns, it seems that Japan has a mascot for everything. People claim that Kobe alone has 42 different mascots for everything from the city itself to recycling campaigns. In Japan, these mascots are called yuru kyara, or “gentle characters.” The costumes that yuru kyara wear are called kigurumi which, when worn by civilians, can tread dangerously into furry territory.
So why do so many Japanese cities and town create their own mascots? Mascots help boost a town’s profile, and create a brand that a town can market. Not to mention that mascots can be just so darn cute that they’re hard to ignore!
And in fact, mascots are hugely popular in Japan, having their own fan clubs, websites, and even conventions.
Sometimes though, a mascot can be more confusing or strange than appealing; and that, to me, is a lot more interesting. Let’s check out some of my favorite weird mascots:
Moments later, this local Japanese politician was devoured by Manbe-kun.
If you asked me what Manbe-kun is supposed to be, I don’t think I would be able to tell you. He’s something like a mix of a crab, clam, starfish, and soulless, unblinking eyes.
Manbe-kun is the mascot of a town called Oshamanbe in Hokkaido. Manbe-kun is surprisingly popular, and even has his own website and Twitter account.
Earlier this year, Manbe-kun got in trouble for making some political comments on his Twitter. You’d expect a town mascot to say things like “Our town looks very lovely this time of year” or “Be sure to visit during our seasonal festival!” Instead, Manbe-kun (or rather, the PR firm that runs his Twitter) posted tweets talking about Japanese imperialism during World War 2. Not exactly the kind of thing that brings tourists running to Oshamanbe.
Since then, the mayor of Ohsamanbe has suspended Manbe-kun’s Twitter account, leaving Manbe-kun to pursue his first love of terrifying people. You can check out Manbe-kun’s official YouTube channel, full of videos of him standing alone in complete silence, here.
Sasebo Burger Boy
Once again, America’s greatest contribution to the world is hamburgers. The Japanese city of Sasebo is home to a major naval port and during the US Occupation of Japan after World War 2, the US Navy established a base there. Tons of restaurants opened up around town to serve hamburgers to the American troops stationed at the base and even today, the city has a huge number of burger joints. The Sasebo government even produces a “Burger Map” of the city to help tourists find the tastiest burgers around town.
Longtime Tofugu readers will remember when Koichi wrote about Sento-kun, but here’s a recap for those who don’t: Sento-kun was the mascot for the city of Nara’s 1300 anniversary. Unlike Manbe-kun, Sento-kun is easy to describe: a half-naked chubby man-baby with antlers. (He’s actually supposed to be a Buddha to represent the Buddhist ties that Nara has with deer antlers as a nod to the tame deer that roam Nara.)
Sento-kun’s equally strange-looking grandfather, Rokuji.
People understandably really didn’t like Sento-kun when he was first created, so eventually Nara chose another mascot, Manto-kun. Even though Sento-kun was replaced by a cuter, less bizarre mascot, Sento-kun’s legacy didn’t end there. Sento-kun gained a cult following, spawning tributes, parodies, and homages to the former mascot.
I know I said I’d talk about the strangest yuru kyara in this post, but it’s hard to talk about mascots in Japan without talking about one of the most popular of all time: Hikonyan.
But most importantly? People go crazy for Hikonyan. He is, understandably, very adorable, and the mascot of a popular tourist attraction, but Hikonyan’s popularity goes way beyond that. He has a giant fan following, appears at public events, and becoming somewhat of a national sensation.
In fact, Hikonyan is a big reason why all of these other mascots exist. Once people caught wind of how much press Hikonyan was drumming up, they decided that they too needed a yuru kyara for their town/park/host club. So is Hikonyan a hero and a villain for kickstarting the yuru kyara craze? History will tell but in the meantime, I think we can all agree he’s too cute for his own good.
Which mascot is your favorite? Let us know in the comments.
Header Image Photo Credit: Edward Harrison
P.S. Fan of cute, furry things? Follow us on Twitter.
P.P.S. Have a cold, outer shell and can’t love adorable things? Like us on Facebook.