Unveiling the Magic Behind Japanese Mascots

Jennifer Fuerte, Staff Writer

Japan is a country of many cultural aspects. From one perspective, one might identify Japan by its anime and manga, its most popular media. From another view, one might see Japan for its distinct food and rich history. Regardless of your opinion of the country, you should know that a fun sub-culture of commercial entertainment exists within Japan: mascots. Otherwise known as ゆるキャラ (yuru-kyara), these mascots are cute, funky, and specialized in advertising. The mystery behind the origins of these mascots can be boiled down to a few questions: What are their origins? How did they rise in popularity? What is their purpose, and how do they impact the world?

The Beginning

Most foreigners know mascots for their frequent appearances in sports. Most sports teams in the U.S. especially can be represented by a character, typically some kind of relevant animal, object, or character to the region. For these U.S. mascots, they’re designed to be eye-catching and appealing to the public eye, but through a quick image search of “sports mascots”, you can see that most of them are more bizarrely ugly than cute. They’re the kind of mascots that the majority of people wouldn’t recognize outside of a sports game unless they represent a popular team.

The first mascots were created with the intent to represent a group, or in the case of earlier mascots, a sports team. They provide the public with a unique symbol that can be easily recognized among others, and through this the group or team can become more popular and gain a larger following. Once the team or group accumulates enough fans, the mascot can be commercialized and used for profit. Through this method, the team or group can boost its popularity while making money on the side. It doesn’t get any deeper than that, unfortunately. Mascots, in short, started as and continue to be a tool to make money.

In Japan, their mascots have similar origins. They were first created to follow the distinct style of American baseball team mascots: comedic, bright, and great for making money. Most mascots were used for advertising sports teams, but after they proved to be quite good at what they do, their appearance in nonsports related things increased significantly. Instead of advertising teams, these mascots advertised other things, like a company or province. And instead of appearing just in games, they slowly made their way into variety shows and television competitions where they were able to build their individual popularity. From there, Japanese mascots began popping up all over the place until they became a common appearance within the commercial and entertainment industry.

Boom in Popularity

Now that mascots had penetrated the wall of the Japanese entertainment industry, they were able to market themselves directly to the public and become famous without the need for a sports game. Instead of showcasing themselves through half-time shows or merchandise, Japanese mascots could appear in commercials, television shows after they got popular enough, and exposition events where their companies could advertise themselves. The curve for mascot popularity over the years can be described by a neat, linear rise over a few decades before exponentially rising in appearance rate in recent years, with two mascots leading the revolution in particular: Domo-kun and Kumamon.

Most people can recognize Domo-kun but don’t realize that he’s actually a mascot for the Japanese company NHK. He’s brown, rectangular shaped, and supposedly resembles a piece of poop. While he isn’t a piece of poop, Domo-kun is the most popular Japanese mascot to this day, appearing in overseas commercial products and in stores like Urban Outfitters and Target. He was first created in the late 90’s while appearing in a stop-motion sketch for his company, and he gained many followers in the following years. While he isn’t so popular today, he still holds a special place in many people’s hearts as that weird brown monster that everyone was obsessed with as a kid, and he marks a special point in Japanese mascot history for being the one to kick off the mascot craze.

On the other hand, Kumamon isn’t as widely recognized as Domo-kun, but within Japan and the niche fanbase overseas, Kumamon is just as highly regarded within the mascot community. He represents the Kumamoto prefecture in Japan, hence his name, and he looks like a black bear with red cheeks, a jolly smile, and wide, unblinking eyes. Initially, most people get creeped out by his face, but after a while, his friendly persona causes them to ease up. Plus, when there’s a whole bunch of even weirder-looking mascots in Japan, Kumamon is likely the cutest of the bunch. Again, he isn’t as popular as Domo-kun is overseas, but Kumamon has probably the most fans within Japan and has raked in billions of yen in just over two years. He’s the perfect example of a mascot that has optimized their marketing strategies for profit.

Purpose

Mascots are great money-makers of course, but they also have the talent of making people of all ages happy. Children can be easily awed by their bright appearances and funny antics, but adults can also become happy in similar ways. Japanese mascots have mastered their characters and express themselves consistently as such by positively integrating themselves into commercial businesses. They make people laugh and smile, and they bring light to the Japanese economy in the most cutest way. Japanese mascots have become a bridge between the entertainment industry and commercial industry, and they did it while charming the hearts of the latest generation of Japanese. In the future, perhaps, they can bring their positivity across the ocean and popularize cute mascots in the U.S.

Graphic courtesy of NEWS.OBIAKS.COM