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Japanese cuteness overload could result in mascot cull

By Euan McKirdy, CNN
updated 4:57 AM EDT, Mon May 12, 2014
A 100 mil. yen gold represntation of Kumamoto prefecture's Kumamon mascot.
A 100 mil. yen gold represntation of Kumamoto prefecture's Kumamon mascot.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Japanese prefectures rely heavily on their mascots for promotion
  • An easily recognizable "yuru-kyara" can be invaluable
  • Osaka looking to cut character dead wood and focus on one yuru-kyara star

(CNN) -- In the face of an army of cartoon characters, some Japanese officials are concerned the public is facing a cuteness overload.

Mascots, known locally as yuru-kyara ("loose" or "relaxed" characters), are ubiquitous in Japan, and are used to promote everything from soap, food and train lines, to regions of Japan and even prisons. They come in every conceivable shape and size, including some downright bizarre creations, and are often conceived of and designed by amateurs, a fact that is often all too apparent.

But despite the oftentimes amateur nature of some of these beloved characters, it's safe to say that Japan is truly enamored -- or obsessed, to quote one editorial -- with these guys.

Noriko Nakano of the Japan Local Character Association told CNN by email that the Japanese have a long-lasting, deep emotional bond to "non-human" characters, with roots buried deep in an ancient polytheism.

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With these noble antecedents, a generation of cute characters, with names like Hikonyan and Barysan were born.

And these characters turned out to be perfect for promoting local regions.

"In an era when local governments are in need, (many have) considered a strategy of including emotional warmth and therefore creating 'local characters'," Nakano said. "I had noticed that, for selling local products, it isn't possible to increase the name recognition (if) there is no 'face' to the municipality."

Bona fide celebrity

Hence the rise of the regional character, some of whose fame has spread far beyond their territorial boundaries.

You don't, for example, need to go to Kumamoto Prefecture to bump into Kumamon. The Japanese region's mascot is a bona fide celebrity throughout the country, and appears on everything from promotional posters advertising his home prefecture and household goods like chopstick holders, to a 100 million-yen ($982,000) gold figurine, made by a Tokyo goldsmith.

Kumamon is the current undisputed king of the mascots, as his YouTube offerings make clear. He's also the most visual symbol of the character wars that Japan's prefectures -- akin to states -- are involved in.

Osaka is no exception. Perhaps surprisingly for the city that was the gritty inspiration for "Blade Runner," Japan's second city is as cute-obsessed as the rest of the country, if not more so, with some 45 Osaka-themed mascots plying their trade in the city.

But this town might not be big enough for all of them. According to the Osaka's local government, some of the city's cartoon representatives may be stepping out of the limelight, sidelined in favor of the chosen one, the city's Moppi, as Osaka's "core mascot."

"The prefecture has too many mascots," the Asahi Shimbun quoted Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui as saying. "People do not know what they are promoting or what policy they are trying to raise awareness of."

Used sparingly

Overkill and dilution of brand identity has meant that other stalwarts of the city, such as the kushiyaki-inspired Kushitan, designed to resemble a deep-fried Osaka delicacy, may soon be surplus to requirements. While the plan is not to kill the characters off -- such barbarism is clearly beyond the pale -- they will from now be used only sparingly, if at all.

Instead, the focus is being put on the narrow, bird-like shoulders of Moppi, who designed in the 1990s to resemble one of the prefecture's native avian species. There are plans to work on the Moppi brand, perhaps pairing him up with a Mrs. Moppi, and even having the lovebirds produce offspring. These characters, officials say, can help promote women's and childrens' issues.

Not everybody is in favor of the cull, including the prefecture's vice governor, who said "respective departments devoted their energy to creating their mascots, and each mascot has been loved by department officials... I hope such situations will be taken into consideration."

However, while there are dissenting voices, the benefits of honing one's yuru-kyara image to one or two distinctive faces makes sense, especially in modern Japan's crowded mascot marketplace.

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