Japan likes cute. I mean, really likes cute, and nowhere else is this more apparent than Japanese mascots. Sure, people know Pikachu, Astro Boy and anything related to the more media side of things, but this obsession with cute characters and mascots has led to a nationwide battle. Prefectures, cities, towns and smaller municipalities all have their own characters that go head to head every year to see who is the most popular.
While the winner for this year is going to premiere in a Live-TV competition in about a month, the last two years the big winners have been Bari-san and Kumamon. Kumamon represents Kumamoto prefecture while Bari-san hails from Imabari prefecture. Naturally, these two are pretty popular in their hometowns, but they have also taken Japan by storm. Kumamon brought in $26 million in 2011 and $120 million in the first half of 2012 to the prefecture alone, according to the Japan Times. Both have also reached out far from their home prefectures; It was just the other day where I saw Bari-san plushies in UFO catchers in Kobe and Kumamon sponsored foods near Nagoya.
This is not just a recent occurrence, however. While it’s hard to determine just exactly where the craze started, one could easily point to Hikonyan, who was created for the 400th anniversary for Hikone castle. As “Fuzz and Fur” states, “People travel to the castle not to see the beautiful grounds or explore the castle, but to meet the samurai cat Hikonyan, who visits the castle four times a week.” The success of Hikonyan has prompted just about every other imaginable entity to create their own mascot/character: city halls, police stations and airports are some of the more elaborate examples.
I haven`t been able to walk ten feet without seeing one of the many mascots that Awaji island has to offer. Some are interesting, others appealing, but one cannot truly understand the craze without actually seeing them, so allow me to present just some Awaji (and surrounding area)-born mascots.
Starting from the largest covered area, Awaji island is located within Hyogo prefecture, which has Habatan as their ruling character. Habatan was created in remembrance of the 1995 earthquake that caused major damage all around Hyogo, especially Kobe (and the epicenter was at Awaji Island! Represent!). In the spirit of the rebuilding of Hyogo, a phoenix was chosen as the representative character for the prefecture. Now, if some of you are like me, it took a while to actually realize that Habatan was supposed to be a phoenix. Of course, I appreciate the sentiment behind the creation, and he is pretty adorable, but first glances had me thinking he was an odd chicken. With being a PR character an all, one could only imagine the amount of events and stunts these characters have to go through, but one of my favorites is the “Habatan Song,” where our yellow-feathered friend and a group of young girls do the Japanese version of the dougie.
Shibaemon is the resident Tanuki from Sumoto City, which is the closest area on the island that I can say I hail from. There is not really too much to find out about Shibaemon, besides the fact that he`s a Tanuki that is featured around the city. Tanuki, which is really roughly translated to “racoon dog,” are animals that are believed to have mystical qualities to them, including transformation abilities and really huge testicles. I can`t say much else on the later factoid besides showing the infamous wood-block painting. Supposedly, there are still Tanuki around, but I`ve chatted with countless Awaji residents that have said Tanuki are no longer on the island. Maybe the natives got rid of them because of the overwhelming jealousy.
3) Wataru a.k.a Bridge Bro
Bridge Bro`s claim to fame is being the mascot for the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, which is claimed to be the longest suspension bridge in the world, with the structure just over 1,991 meters (6,500 feet for we Americans). Compared to some other mascots in Japan, Wataru is a pretty simple creation: a yellow block with a happy face and a car riding on his head. The only place you`ll find Wataru is at the bridge, though the neighboring location of Awaji City has a similar bridge motif, with “Bubble God” (I really don`t get the naming) sporting a bridge as a hat.
There is another mascot that represents the entire island that like of looks like a green egg with a big, bushy mustache, however, even with the greatest mastery of google-fu, I was not able to find him. Having said that, it can be a bit hard to keep track of just all the characters that inhabit each area of Japan. My list here was just a brief sample of one island! But to show off a local character and see who is ranking in the popularity polls is pretty fun and does seem to get pretty intense. Here`s the current top mascot in Japan, the yellow pear himself, Funnashi from Funabashi City.
Keep on keepin` on, brother.