Japan’s yuru-chara (literally soft character) craze has been going strong for over a decade. The country’s thousands of cute, quirky mascots represent prefectures, towns, local attractions, and more. Their designs are usually based on the history, culture, or cuisine of the place they represent.
Unlike sports mascots and commercial characters, yuru-chara are often intentionally unsophisticated and awkward, which boosts their lovable charm.
But in an oversaturated market, sometimes desperate measures must be taken in order to stand out from the crowd.
Yuru-chara: A PR lifeline
Although regional mascots have been around for much longer, the current yuru-chara boom began in 2007 with the creation of Hikonyan, a cat in a samurai helmet, to commemorate 400 years since the founding of Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture. The mascot’s popularity earned the city of Hikone an extra 200,000 visitors, boosting its economy by an estimated ¥33.8 billion.
Although creating a mascot doesn’t absolutely guarantee an increase in revenue, it’s not hard to imagine how a memorable yuru-chara could seem like a lifeline for struggling rural municipalities.
Who is the most popular Japanese mascot?
Kumamon has gained international recognition, and Funassyi’s clout is so great that it was once asked for its view on Prime Minister Abe’s constitutional reform ambitions at a foreign correspondents’ press conference.
Although Funassyi masterfully dodged the journalist’s question, other yuru-chara have not always escaped scandal. The city of Tosu, Saga Prefecture, found itself in hot water after its mascot, Totto-chan — one of the few that spoke — made lewd comments on a late-night radio show.
The city of Tottori unveiled but promptly canceled a yuru-chara called Katsue-san, a woebegone girl holding a frog, who represented the Tottori peasants starved to death by 16th-century warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Lovely.
Amid a seemingly endless supply of amusing yuru-chara, there are some whose design and backstory are even more memorable than the rest, though often for perplexing reasons.
These are our favorite Japanese mascots that push the boundaries of common taste and sense (in the best ways) to result in something truly terrifying.
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