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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Feature: Yuru-kyara: What's the big deal?

The cuddly side of Japan in a nutshell

Some very interesting developments in Taiko no Tatsujin's song library (the Variety genre) include characters which foreigners might not be familiar with. Who is Funassyi? Who is Kumamon?

They're mascots called 'yuru-kyara' (ゆるキャラ), short for 'yurui mascot character' ('yurui' meaning 'gentle' or 'soft'). Yuru-kyara are created by government bodies and other organizations to represent many things, much like the many mascots created by other countries for major sporting events (think the Olympics and major league baseball), except with a much heavier emphasis on cuteness. Just look at all the soft, cuddly things on the picture!

Mascot characters for places, events and things, and people wearing oversized suits of characters have been around for a long time throughout the world, but the term 'yuru-kyara' is said to have only came about at the turn of the millenium, coined by manga artist Miura-jun (みうら じゅん) during the 15th National Cultural Festival in Hiroshima, upon seeing its main symbolic character named Bunkakki (ブンカッキー). Miura used the term frequently over the next few years, but it wasn't until the year 2007 when Hikonyan (ひこにゃん), a mascot created to commemorate the Hikone Castle, was created, that the culture of 'yuru-kyara' truly hit its stride, that everyone decided that making a mascot for everything would help increase its popularity.

Cute little samurai cat Hikonyan

Because of Japan's obsession with cute things, more and more mascots were created as a public relations symbol for places, organizations and events to bring attention to them. There is huge amounts of publicity and attention to be gained just by having a cute object to turn people's heads. When some of them even have fan clubs, merchandising and theme songs (as in Hikonyan, Kumamon and Funassyi's cases), you know it's turning into a full-blown craze. Even institutions known to be tough and stern use yuru-kyaras to change their image. Case in point:

Katakkuri-chan standing next to a cop

Believe it or not, this huggable creature is the mascot for a prison! There are mascots for other 'scary' things like the police and government officials, and is believed that the mascots make them a lot more approachable and well-accepted by the public.

Not content at just having a cute symbol, some mascots even have their own background stories, hobbies, catchphrases and personalities to endear them more to people and increase their uniqueness. A ton of them have stuff like this; it's up to you to dig up as much information about your favorite mascots as possible!

Since the popularity of yuru-kyaras translate into more exposure for whatever it represents, it makes sense to have a popularity contest for them, to further increase their awareness. That's what Japan has been doing for four years now! The annual 'Yuru-kyara Grand Prix' has been going on since 2010, and this year will be its 5th.

Yuru-kyara Grand Prix shot. Who's this cutie corn mascot?

The Grand Prix is a cute lover's heaven and (at least that's what it looks like from here) it's all too easy to drown in the sweet, fluffy diabetes as there are so many of them participating (865 in the year 2012, as shown in the above picture!). The congregation of cuddly things face off in an online popularity poll, where Japanese people vote for their grand prix winners online, American Idol style.

Guess who won it once?

Kumamon, representing Kumamoto Prefecture

Here's your winner of 2011! Kumamon continues to enjoy stupendous celebrity status and is well-known internationally, but we'll cover his biography and story in an appropriate Song of the Week feature! What we can say here is Kumamon transformed sleepy Kumamoto Prefecture into the center of attention, and has generated billions of yen in revenue. He's the flagship example for how influential yuru-kyaras can be.

Other example winners:

Barii-san, a super round and huggable baby chick mascot who won in 2012.

Sanomaru, a cute white puppy dog samurai mascot representing Sano City in Tochigi Prefecture, won in 2013.

Wait, something's missing. Where's that insane, violently-shaking pear of a mascot, Funassyi?


Funassyi is an 'unofficial mascot' representing Funabashi City. 'Unofficial' because it was created by a local citizen for his individual purposes at first. He tried to get it officially approved by the municipal council but was rejected. However, Funassyi grew extremely popular anyway because of its erratic behavior and hyper-activeness, something all other yuru-kyaras do not have. Like Kumamon, it has gained widespread recognition and is one of the most active yuru-kyaras in Japan in terms of public appearances and merchandising campaigns.

How can you not like a crazy dancing jumping pear?

Speaking of which, remember that event where Taiko no Tatsujin Momoiro sessions were to be projected on a building-sized screen? The one at the Huis Ten Bosch in Nagasaki? Yup, there's a yuru-kyara for that as well! The building and its surroundings are based off the Netherlands, famous for its tulip fields, therefore the mascot for the Huis Ten Bosch is a giant tulip named Tulie (ちゅーりー)! Tulie comes in five different colors and you can buy plush dolls of it on-site.

Tulie is a big pink huggable cutie-pie

Not all is rosy in the cuddly yuru-kyara land however; with how many are being made regularly, there is bound to be a group of characters who fade into obscurity and become dead weight (http://www.tokyoweekender.com/2014/05/unpopular-yuru-kyara-face-early-retirement/). When there are too many mascots in one area, the unpopular ones get the axe and are either re-branded or never seen again. If you know your favorite yuru-kyara is one of the less well-known ones, rally up some support for it sometime!

Someone take me to Kokonoe so I can physically hug Miya-chan aaaaaaa

We often think it important to have a symbol or character of some sort to promote something or someplace. But few people bother to make the symbol/character attractive and desirable, to the extent that people would know the character before whatever it is promoting! That's the mark of a successful mascot. Japan's various yuru-kyara are funny, sometimes weird, sometimes adorable. Popular or not, each of them carry a unique message to tell the world.

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