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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:

Manbe-kun

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.

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJedu_YgF0E']

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

“Big Kahuna Burger! I hear they have some tasty burgers.”

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.

Sento-kun

“Ladies.”

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.

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJJCzIdTmes']

Hikonyan

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.

Hikonyan is the official mascot of Hikone Castle and his name is a combination of Hikone and nyan, the Japanese onomatopoeia for a cat’s meow. His costume is a maneki neko wearing a samurai’s helmet.

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.

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Which mascot is your favorite? Let us know in the comments.

Header Image Photo Credit: Edward Harrison

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Correia/804870432 Michael Correia

    Is Domo Kun a mascot in Japan? I love Domo :D

  • Tutal33t

    “The costumes that yuru kyara wear are called kirugumi”
    I’m pretty sure this should be “kigurumi”, right? (着る + ぬいぐるみ)

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Yeah, Domo-kun is the mascot for a TV station in Japan.

  • KemushiChan

    Hahhahahahahahahh I LOVE sento-kun!  So… creepy…

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Good catch! Guess I’m Japanese dyslexic. :<

  • Cytrix

    Most definitely Kumamon from the Kumamoto city shinkansen. It seems everyone here is in love with this slightly “special” bear and he even has a range of accessories with Hello Kitty. 

  • http://twitter.com/jlw2000 Jimmy Lawrence

    I thought Ecoha was the most hilarious one ! http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/7.307247-Japanese-City-Blatantly-Rips-Off-Pikachu-For-Mascot

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Haha, nice! I guess turning the ears into leaves just wasn’t enough.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    From the pictures I’ve seen of Kumamon, he just looks perpetually surprised. :p

  • Edward Harrison

    I link to my book ‘fuzz and Fur’ would be appreciated seeing as you use two of my photos http://fuzzandfur.net/book/

  • Jacob H.

    I love the sneaky pulp fiction reference.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6ICXLAFPSWZCM5R47N6W3VX3PA Sebastian

    hikonyan is defiantly the cutest out of the ones listed ^~^

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Thanks! I’m glad someone caught it.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I love your site! There’s a link to it in the very first image of the post. :)

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I agree.

  • Murt

    onomatopoeia~~not an easy word to spell correctly

    and that style of combining two words to make a new, single word is called a portmanteau…just for future reference. or, as i like to say, futeference.

  • Mary Ann Moss

    What did sento kun get replaced with? when i went to nara this past may i saw sento kun in the train station, he is reaallly creepy. 

  • GodsGirl7

    I live in Mie Prefecture, and I see Sento-kun in ads all the time…  I didn’t even know Nara had a different mascot lol.
    And um, Yokkaichi, a city here in Mie, has possibly the creepiest mascot of all time: http://movie1.search.biglobe.ne.jp/video/watch/e80b0654503f414d

  • Anonymous

    Sorry about this, but as soon as I saw Sento-kun, I thought “Draw me like one of your French girls” XDDDD  Seriously, though, neat topic for an article… considering that mascots are typically confined to companies and products in America, this is (as far as I can tell) pretty much uniquely Japanese.

  • Kevin

    I lived in sasebo :D I use to see the sasebo burger shop every time i went through the train station!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Oliver-Marshall/507950250 Oliver Marshall

    Manbe-kun will be in my nightmares tonight.  Terrifying, hilarious nightmares, lol.

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    Spelling English is a lot easier if you’ve studied the major languages we get our words from — mainly Latin and Greek and French.  This is similar to how learning Japanese 漢字 is easier for people who are already literate in Chinese.

    In this case, the word is from Greek:  onomatopoeia is a straightforward combination of ὄνομα + (a nominalized form of) ποιέω: the word makes (the sound of) its name.  It couldn’t be simpler.

    Although it may not be obvious if you don’t know any Greek, the t does make sense.  Tau consistently drops off the ends of Greek words, but you can see it in other forms, e.g., the genitive singular of ὄνομα  is ὄνοματος.  The o after the t is just a connecting vowel, to make the whole thing pronounceable, which is a standard phenomenon in Greek, omicron being the most popular connecting vowel for masculine and neuter words (ὄνομα, like almost all -ματ stem words, is neuter).  Similarly, although the accenting on the lexical form of ποιέω prevents it, ιε normally contracts to ει.  The α on the very end is just a noun ending.  Thus, onomat + o + poei + a = onomatopoeia.  I know it sounds complicated, but if you’ve studied Greek it’s really obvious.

  • John

    To me, Kewpie is hands down the creepiest mascot of all time.

  • http://www.jmarket.com/ Ken

    It’s funny that Manbe-kun has a little attitude.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    wtffff

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Gah, thanks for the correction, good call.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    From what I could tell, he was replaced with Manto-kun:

    http://mantokun.net/

    But I may be wrong :? I’ll have to look into this

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    He’s sassy!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Hm, another commenter is saying the same thing. Maybe reports of Sento-Kun’s death have been exaggerated.

  • John

    I know dude! And he’s like all over the place. Stupid mayo mascot, haunting my dreams.

  • http://twitter.com/whatwhated Edward Harrison

    Manto-kun was created in a competition organised by people who were unhappy with Sento-kun. They are both used in Nara but I believe Sento-kun is more popular. http://idleidol.net/sento-kun/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=573675070 Edward Harrison
  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Did you just want the link changed to your book? Or, we can take that image down, happy to do either for you, but I just don’t really understand what you’re asking 100%…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000511548857 Hobbid Hobbin

    I thought it was spelt onyanmatopoeia?  

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    +1+1 lol

  • Edward Harrison

    You can use as many photos of mine as you like but I believe you should properly credit photos with a text link below.

  • Josh

    That look on Sento-kun’s face is just like “Guess what I’m not wearing under my skirt”

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    okaydokay, just added it in. Sorry for the proper-way-to-link-images shenanigans

  • Jmd448

    its all greek to me 

  • Jhgoforth

    to be honest, manto-kun looks a little too much like chopper from one piece  :s  i know they both probably have the same basic design roots in mythology but geez…..

  • Wriofruit

    So much time spent watching Hikonyan on Youtube. :D

  • tamachan87

    God I hate my city’s mascot – Kumamoto’s Kumamon.

    Creepy bugger…

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  • Kashii-chan

    Hikonyan is best!
    I saw him at Hikone Castle last year, it was magical. He has his own little theme song as well :D