I published my first top-ten Japanese yuru-kyara list almost one year ago, and thanks to enthusiastic responses from readers I have decided to make an updated list with a view of 2012 as a whole. You will recognize some of the top characters from last time and also meet a number of new faces.
In Japan, yuru-kyara (character mascots for PR purposes) are designed for just about anything you can think of–cities, prefectures, companies, brands, projects, events, sports teams, products and more. This list is a ranking of my personal favorites, chosen from the hundreds (if not thousands) that exist throughout the country. I also give some special awards at the end of the post for some of the worst yuru-kyara I have encountered.
The results of the Yuru-Kyara Grand Prix 2012 were recently announced, with Barii-san ranked as #1 for the year based on nearly 6.6 million votes. Barii-san was mentioned in my previous installment in the #10 spot, and while I (personally) wouldn’t have chosen him for the #1 spot in the Grand Prix, I still think he is a great character and I congratulate him on his win.
I now present you with the Finding Fukuoka top character picks for 2012!
The mascot for an NPO in Kofu, Yamanashi, this character is said to have emerged from the earth underneath the north exit (kitaguchi) of JR Kofu Station. Based on the NPO’s logo, he also looks like the kanji character for “north” (北) when his arms are up in the air. I like these characters used for local organizations because of their simplicity and “handmade” feel–something you will notice is particularly prominent in Kitagucchi.
This Tottori Prefecture mascot is based on the two motifs of nashi (Japanese pear, a famous product of Tottori) and “bird” (based on the theme of “soaring” from the exhibition the character design originated from, and most likely because the first kanji character of Tottori means “bird”). My favorite part about Toripii is how his head seems to be attached directly to his pelvis.
Domo-kun makes his return at #8 this time around. He has been popular ever since making his debut in 1998 on NHK, and remains as one of the country’s most beloved character mascots. His mouth is permanently locked open, and he can’t really speak (he just makes strange sounds that only his friends understand). He lives in a cave and has a plethora of strange companions, including an alcoholic bat, a tea-drinking rabbit, a fashionable weasel and others. Domo-kun’s biggest appeal is that you can’t look at him and not smile.
It’s hard to keep a straight face when looking at Jimo-kun. Although the official city website claims that he has no gender, it also says that his special ability is “growing longer and shrinking”–this coupled with the fact that he looks astonishingly similar to a walking penis (with an army helmet?), I think it’s safe to say he’s a male. Jimo-kun is said to live in the ocean in the Kanmon Strait that separates Kyushu and Honshu. He is the mascot for Moji Ward, Kitakyushu City, the scenic part of town that borders the strait.
I have moved this mascot up in the ranking from #10 to #6 due to his win at the Yuru-Kyara Grand Prix 2012. This is the kind of simple mascot that people like, complete with an adorably stupid kind of huggability. Acting as the mascot for Imabari City, Ehime Prefecture, he is apparently a portly bird of some sort, and his accessories represent local Imabari products: the haramaki stomach band is made from towel material, as towels are a major Imabari product, and the ship tucked into his haramaki represents the town’s shipbuilding industry.
I’ve moved Nishikokun up in the ranking as well because (1) I love him more every day and (2) his popularity is growing rapidly despite his humble beginnings as the Nishi-Kokubunji Station mascot (a station in the suburbs of Tokyo). This mascot is like…some sort of intoxicated pendant with spandex-clad legs coming out of it. According to his profile, Nishikokun doesn’t like having his photograph taken in color because he always turns out in monochrome. Watch this video to get a better idea of Nishikokun’s unique appeal.
Hanii recently debuted as a character mascot for the national soccer association JIFA (Japan Football Association), and often appears with his partner Doguu. “Hanii” comes from the word haniwa, which are terracotta clay figures that can be traced back 1,600 years to ancient Japan (Hanii resembles a commonly seen haniwa form). I put Hanii at #4 for his enthusiasm and unique charm.
This character expertly achieves what most mascot designers in Japan seem to strive for but stop short of: a tantalizing balance of cuteness, stupidity and simplistic appeal. Serving as the mascot for Television Saitama (Teletama) in the Kanto Region, one of Teletama’s dreams is to “break out of his own shell”–yes, it seems that Teletama is an egg. Despite his clumsy-looking stature, Teletama is actually quite nimble. I wanted to rank Teletama higher than #3, but I think you’ll understand why I couldn’t when you see the next character…
This “mascot” is made from rice plants collected during harvesting and resembles the popular anime character Totoro (hence the similar name Totoron). Located in Yamanashi, this is the only mascot character on this list not operated by a human actor, although there is a back entrance opening into the hollowed-out middle section so children can play inside. This character’s whereabouts are not defined in detail–the owner wrote that Totoron “live somewhere in a rice field in Tsuzurasawa [Yamanashi Prefecture])–but that didn’t stop eager fans from searching for Totoron. In fact, this character was met with extraordinary popularity among locals when it was unveiled. For sheer uniqueness, universal appeal and unparalleled creativity, Totoron takes the #2 spot.
Despite Barii-san’s win at the Yuru-Kyara Grand Prix 2012, Kumamon is still considered by many to be the most popular mascot in the country, and he is by far the most popular in Kyushu. After winning the 2011 Grand Prix, this crazy-eyed character began to show up in stores in Fukuoka, Kagoshima, Nagasaki and everywhere else around the island, as well as in faraway locations such as Tokyo and Osaka. That’s because this half-deranged, potentially violent bear is also irresistibly adorable, and his simple style and strong personality make him the ideal character mascot in Japan. Kumamon was created to draw tourists to Kumamoto Prefecture with the opening of the Kyushu Shinkansen in 2011, and according to his profile he’s a public employee working for the same prefecture’s government. Nowadays you can find various foods and even bottles of sake with the Kumamon label.
Special Award Winners
Scariest Mascot Character: Melon Kuma
The first time I saw this mascot was on the news: Melon Kuma attended the celebration ceremony for the 2012 Grand Prix, and when he tried to approach a small child she began screaming and running, eventually ending up behind her mother’s legs sobbing uncontrollably as the deranged half-melon, half-bear monstrosity brought his glistening fangs ever closer. Melon Kuma (lit. “melon bear”) is the mascot for an organization handling local products in Yubari, Hokkaido, one of which is Yubari melons. His way of “making a promise” to other mascot characters is to sink his fangs into them–this seems to be his only way of communication other than terrorizing people. I’m not sure how this mascot is going to convince people to buy more melons (he looks like a science experiment gone horribly wrong), but I can guarantee he will be making an appearance in many children’s nightmares.
“F for Effort” Award: Kyusu-kun
The mascot for a Beijing-based tea-leaf shop, this character is meant to draw customers off of the busy shopping street into the nearby shop (as you can see by the pocket full of flyers). However, the mascot is unappealing at best, both because of its poor quality and because you can basically see the person inside. There’s also the fact that the arms come out in an incredibly strange spot. Kyusu-kun gets an “F” for effort.
Super Creepy Award: Takenokoman
This mascot can be found (or avoided) in Wakayama Prefecture. Keep your children and loved ones far away from Takenokoman and his flesh-colored bodysuit.
Most Intimidating: Ohre-kun
There are three mascots for the J. League Division 2 soccer team Ehime F.C. based out of Matsuyama, Ehime, all with mandarin orange heads (a famous product of the area). Although two of them are fine–one is an unintelligent-looking musician and the other is a nondescript female character–the leader seems overly eager to f*ck you up with his switchblade. In the photograph above, Ohre-kun most likely saying “gimme your wallet or I’ll impale you.”
Worst Mascot Ever: Sento-kun
Yes, I am still ranking Sento-kun as the worst mascot ever. Nobody has even come close to making a character that looks this “rapey.” He was created to honor the 1300th anniversary of historic move of the imperial capital in 710 to Heijo-kyo (now known as Nara)–they honored this momentous event by creating a Buddhist monk character with antlers jammed into his head (to represent the free-roaming deer of central Nara), a blasphemous design that was pushed through despite protests from numerous local monks. In the end, almost everybody was creeped out and/or offended by this monstrosity, but that didn’t stop the Nara PR folks from putting his image and life-sized statues, not to mention costumed mascots, all around the Kansai area.