Monday, November 9, 2015

Finding Pride in Cute Places (Reid Knight)

While it may sometimes be embarrassing to admit, one of my favorite things about Japanese pop culture is the cute characters it produces. This can be easily observed in my room at home, which is filled with stuffed toys, mostly of Japanese origin. In the past year or so, I have developed a new obsession with” Yuru Chara”, or mascot characters created to represent different cities in Japan. Although these characters are from individual regions, the most popular of these mascots have merchandise that is sold all over Japan! Currently, the most popular Yuru Chara is named Funnasyi; he is the unofficial mascot of Funabashi in Chiba prefecture, and is a sentient pear, since the area is apparently famous for its pears. Almost every store I have entered in Japan sells some sort of Funassyi product; I have seen collaborative memorabilia with Funassyi wearing Hello Kitty and Tamagotchi costumes, and when I went to a nearby festival, the stand selling chocolate-covered bananas had even made one to look like Funnasyi!
The banana in question, which I lovingly dubbed Funassyinana.
As the town I live in, Shiki, is small compared to many other places in Japan, I was not sure if they would have a mascot at all. I was happily proved wrong, however, on my first full day in Shiki, when I went to the district office to register as a resident. One of the first things I saw when I walked into the building was a large statue of a slightly alarmed-looking kappa, which I later found out was one of the THREE Shiki Yuru Chara!

Out of the three Shiki mascots, two are kappa, and one is a seal. The kappa I saw a statue of is named Kazasu-kun, while the other is named Kappi; I still have not learned the name of the seal, and am unsure if there is any significance to these creatures being chosen as the mascots. However, all three mascots are present in everyday life in Shiki; they can often be found on posters, as small keychains in the crane game machines at the department store, and every so often, the mascots will show up in the square of Shiki Station.

I was lucky enough to encounter Kappi during one of these times. Children and adults alike seemed entertained by his presence, and there was many a photo-op. Alongside the mascot was a table selling merchandise. Unlike the Funnasyi merchandise ever-present in stores, this merchandise seemed mostly handmade, which I assume is because of Shiki being such a small town. There were also a group of children that looked like they were in Boy Scout uniforms helping with the sales; I wasn’t able to ask, but maybe they were doing some sort of fundraiser with this merchandise.

Kappi posing for the camera.
Outside of just making money, I have seen the Yuru Chara being used as a public health initiative. One day, a machine showed up next to the ticket machines in Shiki Station; from what I can translate, this machine scans electronic pedometers and awards points for the amount of steps Shiki residents walk, which can then be redeemed for some sort of reward. Kazasu-kun is the face of this endeavor, and I was pleased to see the Yuru Chara being utilized in this way.
The Let's Walk! Kazasu-kun machine.
Whether it’s buying a kappa keychain or encouraging someone to walk a few extra steps, it’s clear that the Shiki mascots do hold an important place in the city. But do people truly identify and have regional pride for their respective Yuru Chara, or is it just another part of the nebulous “kawaii culture” often talked about in regards to Japan? I’m hoping to further research this question in the future, but for now I’ll enjoy my Kappi plushie that I could not resist buying at the merchandise stand.
Kappi sitting on top of a Funnasyi plush I purchased upon my arrival in Japan. It seems I have already amassed a small Yuru Chara collection.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

The culture around mascots is really amazing! My university was having a school festival, and a mascot from Kyoto (i think) came and did a dance at the opening ceremony. When it was over a girl went over to the mascot carrying a plushy version of it and asking for a picture, but while she was getting her picture taken she started crying because she was so happy!