But there’s also some that are a bit more out there. Like Benki-Shiroishi, a blues singer with a toilet for a head that acts as the mascot for a disinfectant company. Or Kanzou-kun, the elephant/liver hybrid mascot that encourages hepatitis screening in Tokyo. Or Madori-kun, a wrestler with a floor plan for a head that promotes a real estate agency.
Chris Carlier an English guy who’s lived in Japan for the last 16 years, and is something of a mascot super fan, documenting the characters on his website, Mondo Mascots, and his social media accounts. He told me that while mascots have always been a thing in Japan, they exploded in popularity about five years ago after Hikonyan, the samurai cat mascot of a castle in Hikone, became hugely popular, leading to a boost in tourism and merchandise sales for the attraction.
“Every other town is having a go, small villages will make a really cheap mascot, like, they’ll cobble it together out of a cardboard box and some fabric and it’ll be based on a design from the local eight-year-old and they’ll have this shambolic mascot wandering around the town,” Carlier told me. “Pretty much almost every town or city [has] tried to have a mascot.”
There are currently thousands of these mascots across Japan. I spoke to Carlier by phone about some of his favorites and some of the weirder ones:
VICE: Why mascots?
Chris Carlier: When I first got to Japan I couldn’t really read any Japanese, so I just looked out for the mascots and the signs in the shops and restaurants. It was my way of remembering things. Then I sort of stumbled upon an event in Tokyo where about a hundred of them were all congregated in this park and then I thought, Oh wow this is brilliant. I was wandering around getting pictures of them all and I started to post them all on Instagram. Probably like, four or five years ago they were getting prominent, you’d see these fun mascots on TV doing high-wire stunts and skydiving or scuba diving or bungee jumping or that kind of thing. I liked them from that, too.
Is it a big thing or are you the entire fandom?
Each individual mascot has a fanbase who buy all the toys and T-shirts and things, but there aren’t many people who like all of them. It’s a real niche thing, so when I go to these events and take pictures and things I quite often see the same handful of people. They’re quite often women in their 60s or quite reclusive guys—middle-aged men with huge telephoto lens cameras hanging around their necks.
Do you have an idea of roughly how many mascots there are in existence?
If you’re including ones that are just 2D pictures on people’s company websites, there’s thousands and thousands of them.
I mean ones you could theoretically encounter in the real world.
It’s still hard to count. There’s some database I’ve been on and there were more than like, 3,000 on there. They have this thing called the Yuru-chara Grand Prix every year [where] all these mascots enter and try and get voted the most popular in the country. There’s usually about 1,500 entrants in that competition.
Have you been to the competition?
Well the competition is just an online vote, so…
Oh. It’s not a literal grand prix. That’s disappointing.
No. That would be fun. If they were driving sports cars.
Maybe a bit dangerous.
That wouldn’t surprise me, though. I’ve been to an event where they’re racing office chairs. But the Yuru-chara Grand Prix, the winner last year was a cross between an airplane and an eel [that's] called Unari-kun, and it’s the mascot for Narita City. There is an event at the end where you get 100 or so mascots gathered and they make the big announcement of who the winner is. I haven’t been to that yet, because they tend to hold it in really obscure locations.
What have been the most popular ones you’ve posted on your social media?
The ones that get most popular on social media tend to be the ones that are the least popular in reality. So the weirder ones. There’s one I posted Momiji-chan, which is like a pink deer that walks around with a shotgun that has this philosophy of hunt or be hunted. Chi-tan the otter is very popular recently, it does stunts all the time.
What are some other weird ones you’ve encountered?
There’s Kan-chan, which is is the mascot for a medical company that make fig-based laxatives and enemas. The mascot is a cross between a fig and an enema, with a penguin’s face. That one was doing some kind of promotion at a pharmaceutical event and the display it was standing in front of was a replica intestinal tract combined with a vending machine. That was one of the weirdest ones I’ve encountered.
What are some others?
There’s Melon Kuma. Quite often these characters are a cross between a fruit and a cat or a bear or something and it’s quite cute, but this one is actually looks like it would look in real life. This sort of terrifying chimera kind of thing. A bear with a melon for a head, but it’s got these sharp claws and it’s kind of howling in pain. That one runs around events sort of piling on all the other mascots and attacking them.
Are there any that just don’t translate at all?
Yeah, a lot of them. A lot of them are based on puns, and they’re very simple and kind of funny in Japanese but then they take like, five paragraphs to explain in English. There’s one that was the mascot for some kind of fort and it was something like a carp that’s been possessed by the soul of a dead soldier, but it’s also wearing stockings and suspenders and high heels. I think it’s a carp because they’ve got koi carp in the moat around the castle, and there was some battle there so there’s dead soldiers there, but god knows why it was wearing stockings and suspenders.
What are some of your favorite ones?
I do like Chi-tan, cause that character comes out with something new every day. I suppose I’ve gotta be loyal to my local mascot, the one for the town where I live. It’s called Sanchawan and it’s a dog with a tea bowl on its head. Some of the sports mascots are kind of funny. Have you seen the Mysterious Fish character? It’s the mascot for the Chiba Lotte Marines baseball team. But it kind of evolves every now and then.
I know the one you mean. It has something inside its mouth, right? That crawls out?
Yeah, a sort of skeleton crawls out of its mouth but then more recently, it’s now a skeleton whose head is a full fish. It keeps evolving.
Are there any that you think are shit?
Yeah, a few. Some of the ones that look like furries are not very exciting. There’s some where it’s like, just somebody dressed as a wolf and there’s nothing creative about the design.
Is there any crossover between the furry community and mascots? Are there people that are into the mascots?
Well, no one that I know. A lot of towns, the local governments will make mascots, but a lot of people became these sort of self-appointed mascots. So they put on a costume and just wander around the town. or they’ll be selling toys and T-shirts. A lot of local eccentrics will have homemade costumes or they’ve just bought them online [and] they’re pretty much furry costumes. I don’t know what they get up to, but they do have some gatherings and meetups. [But] it’s not like, a common thing. It’s not a factor that I’m aware of. I always look for mascots for obscure things. So I’ve looked to see if there are any mascots for like, porn companies or brothels or whatever. I haven’t had much luck finding mascots for those sort of things. I think they’re largely a sexless kind of thing.
Are there any that are intentionally sexy?
Some of them are kind of comically sexy because it looks funny. There’s one from Hokkaido which has got a bulging erection. That one’s based on a pun, it’s called Marimokkori. Marimo is some kind of seaweed, and mokkori is like, an erection, so it’s a pun-based one. And there’s Paiko-chan which is like, a bird that’s got this huge pair of boobs—that one is the mascot for Oppai Ramen, which is a ramen restaurant which is run by a woman with big boobs or something. I can’t think of any that are meant to be attractive. They usually looks quite hideous.
I read on your site that you’re trying to move into designing your own mascots?
Yeah. Most of these local town mascots are decided [by] members of the public [submitting] designs and [the towns] pick the best ones. I’ve entered a few of those contests. No wins so far, though. Eventually I could end up just designing one and getting the costume made and making one for something. There are some mascots that are just like, anti-smoking mascots where someone’s just decided to make it for themselves because they feel passionate about a particular cause.
What would your cause be?
Maybe something like a mascot to represent the immigrant community to Japan. I quite like the idea of making mascots for kind of abstract concepts like a mascot for the feeling of ennui or lethargy or something. I don’t know. I’ve got a bunch of ideas percolating away that I’ll get around to sooner or later.
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
Update 08/28/18: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said Hikonyan is from Hokkaido. He is actually from Hikone.
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