More than just high-tech trains, gadgets, anime, and video games, Japan is also home to a plethora of quirky mascot characters representing anything from cities and prefectures to buildings and any number of businesses. Many of these mascots are of a style called “yuru kyara” (or yuru-chara) which is a portmanteau of the words yurui (which in this case means something like “light”, “gentle”, or “slow”) and character. Appropriately, these characters try to maximize their charm with playful, cute, and often intentionally amateurish designs coupled with laidback, childlike, or otherwise loveable attitudes. Read on to learn more about the development of the phenomenon that is yuru kyara and check out a spotlight on some of the most famous and beloved Japanese mascots out there! Let’s start!
The Birth of Yuru Kyara
While mascot characters of various sorts have existed for a long time in Japan, yuru kyara as we know them today (and the word itself) seem to have started with Hikonyan, a cute samurai cat character who is the mascot of the Lake Biwa-adjacent castle town of Hikone in Shiga Prefecture. Hikonyan’s name is a combination of Hikone and nyan (which means meow). He was created as part of Hikone Castle’s 400th-anniversary celebrations in 2007 and is loosely based on a legendary cat said to have beckoned Ii Naotaka, the lord of the castle, to seek shelter in a storm, saving him from a lightning strike. He also wears a distinctive red samurai helmet based on the actual Ii family helmet.
Hikonyan has proven to be an enduringly popular character with a huge, multi-billion yen impact of local tourism and remains a recognizable character throughout the country. Existing as a simple anime-ish-style drawn mascot, real-world costumed character, and on vast amounts of merchandise, Hikonyan’s style, playful attitude, and marketability in Japan set the standard for future yuru kyara mascots that would soon explode in popularity throughout the country.
Famous Yuru Kyara and the Yuru-Chara Grand Prix
As yuru kyara further increased in number and popularity, a special annual event called the Yuru-Chara Grand Prix was started in 2010 which consists of a gathering of mascots and a nationwide poll to rank the best-loved characters. The rise of yuru kyara characters is perfectly reflected in the Yuru-Chara Grand Prix which has grown from 169 entries in 2010 to between 1,000 and 1,500 every year since 2013!
With literally thousands of characters, there are too many to be able to mention in this article but some other really famous yuru kyara mascots include Kumamon—a loveable bear mascot representing Kumamoto prefecture who has achieved wide popularity even outside of Japan and has appeared in video games, music videos, and tons of merchandise—and the heavy metal-loving pear fairy Funassyi from Funabashi, Chiba who has been in countless TV programs and advertisements, has multiple dedicated stores across Japan, and was interviewed by major American news outlet CNN in 2014.
Unofficial Mascots and Controversy?!
Funassyi is also an example of an unofficial mascot, unlike Hikonyan and Kumamon, which sounds bizarre, especially considering their popularity. In fact, however, there are nearly as many unofficial mascots as there are ones created by local governments or businesses. Even unofficial mascots can have a big impact, though, and usually find support from locals and others alike, although there are some exceptions.
The most notable of these is probably Chiitan, the unofficial “zero-year-old” baby otter fairy mascot who became a huge international viral internet sensation but clashed with the local government of Susaki, Kochi due to its over-the-top, arguably “violent” and certainly ridiculous slapstick stunts that city officials received many complaints about being inappropriate. Chiitan’s situation was given a spotlight by comedian John Oliver earlier this year and things seem to have settled down a bit since Chiitan was banned from Twitter. The only other major controversy surrounding yuru kyara is simply regarding the number—some 3,000 or more across Japan—, which some see as diluting popularity too much and contributing to yuru kyara fatigue.
Yuru kyara characters don’t only have tons of variety when it comes to theming, from animals to traditional yokai spirits/creatures like Shiki City’s kappa mascot Kapal to vehicles and buildings like Tokyo Tower’s Noppon Brothers and even combinations like Narita city’s airplane-eel Unari-kun, they also exhibit a wide variety of skills! Many mascots also play in bands and perform elaborate dances, further adding to their appeal.
Ultimately, we think that yuru kyara are a ton of fun and yet another interesting phenomenon largely unique to Japan. Yuru kyara characters have shown that dedicated people in ridiculous costumes have the power to revitalize economies and spread happiness, and that’s pretty impressive! Do you have a favorite mascot? Are Honey-chan, Bee-kun, Bombón, and Mo-chan yuru kyara? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below and be sure to stick around Honey’s for more of all things awesome, Japanese pop culture and otherwise!