Japan’s plushy, life-size yuru-kyara mascots are all the rage, but can they survive big budget cuts?

If Japan had an international mascot, it might be Hello Kitty, that globetrotting Sanrio darling. But these days the country’s been besieged by a whole host of other candidates in the form of yuru-kyara (ゆるキャラ). Yuru-kyara, or “laidback characters,” are soft-bodied mascots with gi- ant heads who appear at public events all over Japan. Most have some sort of geographical tie, and each character’s design and personality is intended to portray some notable aspect of their point of origin, whether it be a historical figure, a local plant or animal, or a major commercial product. These themes are usually incorporated into the character names as well as their costumes, which are called kigurumi. One of the most famous yuru-kyara, for example, is Kumamon, a red-cheeked, fuzzy black bear who represents Kumamoto Prefecture. There are no actual bears in Kumamoto, but the yuru-kyara’s design is a playful nod to the kanji for Kuma in Kumamoto, which means “bear.”

All yuru-kyara are verbally and visually punny, but that’s only part of their appeal. People love to meet, hug and take selfies with yuru-kyara, who were originally created to boost tourism in economically flagging regions. The term “yuru-kyara” was coined in 2004 by illustrator Jun Miura, and it has been used ever since. The mascots have become so popular that major metropolitan areas have a whole cadre of them. There are reportedly 49 mascots in Kobe City alone, representing everything from recycling campaigns to smoking manners.

Some yuru-kyara were launched in order to improve the image of institutions with a bad reputation, like Hokkaido’s “Dogtooth and Violetta” (Katakkuri-kun/chan), a pair of bailiff mascots representing the infamous Asahikawa Prison. Meanwhile, far south in Kagoshima Prefecture, a suave new representative named “Sexy Bear” (Ikébear) is winning over the region’s residents with his big head and chic black suit. Not all yuru-kyara are universally loved, however. When Tottori Prefecture rolled out “Ms. Starvation” (Katsue-san)—inspired by a famine that swept through 16th-century Tottori—she was killed off after just three days on the job.

Regardless of their original purpose, all mascots have one major dream: to win the Yuru-Kyara Grand Prix. Every year, yuru-kyara gather from all over the country to compete in a series of events that culminate in the crowning of a single winner, a spotlight that brings massive economic windfall to the mascot’s hometown. Today, the Grand Prix sees over 1,700 contestants who perform for 77,000 tourists over three days. And the event has become even more important in recent years, as regions faced with budget cuts have begun to axe yuru-kyara who can’t turn a profit. As purse strings tighten, it’s survival of the cutest for these roly-poly representatives.


Make sure you know your mascot etiquette

CELEBRITY MEET AND GREET

Yuru-kyara are friendly and down-to-earth, so feel free to get up close and personal with them. Just follow these three simple rules of interaction:

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DO take photos

A celebrity picture’s worth a thousand words—and who knows, one day they may become a Grand Prix winner.

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DON’T hug too hard

Yuru-kyara are designed to be lovably clumsy, so if you squeeze too hard they might fall over.

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DO buy souvenirs

From keychains to underwear, you can get your hands on any number of keepsakes to commemorate your encounter.


Illustrations by Chieko Watanabe