AOMORI PREFECTURE, Japan — Mascots in the U.S. are best known for haunting Times Square and advertising sports teams (or haunting sports teams, in the case of Gritty).
But in Japan, mascots — or “yuru-chara” — can represent police departments, restaurants, and even government initiatives like raising awareness for hepatitis screenings or driving safety.
Nyango Star is one of Japan’s most popular yuru-chara. He’s an apple that’s been inhabited by the spirit of a dead cat, and he absolutely shreds on the drums. He’s very cute but also very metal.
And last year, Nyango Star gained international fame when a video of him performing became an instant meme. Now, he's been enlisted to help boost the economy of a Japanese town whose population is rapidly declining.
Japan is full of yuru-chara — over 1,500 officially recognized characters. The Japanese prefecture Osaka is so overrun with them that in 2014 there was even a scare that the government would forcibly retire some of them.
Japan’s human population, however, is rapidly declining and aging, particularly in Nyango Star’s hometown, Kuroishi City, a rural farming community in Japan’s northern prefecture of Aomori. The population there is decreasing at more than two times the national average as older generations die and younger generations migrate to cities.
Yuru-chara are great for local municipalities like Kuroishi, because along with being a source of regional pride, they promote tourism and help generate revenue. That’s why Kuroishi’s mayor, Ken Takahi, thinks Nyango Star can help save the town's economy.
VICE News went to Japan to meet with the mascot and his management team and get an inside look at yuru-chara culture.
This segment originally aired January 9, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.