Professor, International Liberal Arts, Miyazaki International College
The term yuru kyara (lit. “wobbly character” and often translated as “mascot”) comes from the adjective yurui “loose, slow, wobbly” and kyara, from the loanword kyarakutaa (English “character”). Japanese localities and other organizations are often represented nowadays by cute yuru kyara who appear in two- or three-dimensional form as well as in media mix versions and countless products. Both parts of this phrase evoke specific social scenarios. Hiramoto and Wee (2019) locate these characters in the Japanese kawaii-scape, in which they are naturalized, ubiquitous, and evocative of affection. Yuru as a style is strongly associated with powerless abjection, having come to constitute its own category of looks, clothing, hairstyles, diets, even cleaning routines, realms popularly associated with the feminine (Occhi 2014). Kyara in this sense of representation hearkens back to the use of human celebrities to represent brands, events, and other entities now more commonly forefronted by fantastic, animate mascots, among which we find yuru kyara.
The phrase yuru kyara was nominated as Japan’s top trendy word of the year for 2008. It was coined (and trademarked in 2004) by the illustrator and pop culture critic Miura Jun, whose efforts since 2003 brought them into the national consciousness. For Miura, a yuru kyara has three essential characteristics. First, they are designed for PR of localities, events, and goods (especially when appearing live at events, animated by a human actor wearing a “furry mascot suit” (kigurumi). Also, yuru kyara are classified as “fancy” (fanshii), which Kinsella (1995) describes as rounded, neotenous (having proportions resembling very young children), asexual, and defenseless. Yuru kyara strongly express local color, including the representation of special attributes or products of their locale. Their physically wobbly instability is charming and provides “healing” (iyashi) power. Miura points out that in some cases, so many local things are mashed up that the resulting yuru kyara is puzzling; for example, he describes the combination of oyster (kaki), maple leaf, and hiragana phonetic letter hi that compose Bunkakki, a Hiroshima yuru kyara originally designed for a culture festival (Miura 2004: 2-3). Each mascot’s characteristics (ideally) render them unique and memorable. The combination of their typically fantastic shapes with their peripheral status evokes the trope of struggling wannabe idol singers, born in the provinces and seeking national and sometimes international fame. Miura capitalized on the wobbliness of yuru kyara, exploiting their abject status as the basis for humor, by staging televised sports competitions in which the kigurumi race towards a giant fan, battle in sumo style, or perform other improbable feats. Some have performed sumo-style wrestling and other contests on variety TV shows. Since 2011, Miura conducts the yearly Yuru Kyara Grand Prix competition which relies on votes (similar to AKB48-type singer popularity contests) to establish a national hierarchy. In this era of coronavirus, the 2020 kickoff event was held online as a YouTube Live broadcast on August 19 (discussed in more detail below).
Yuru kyara are often bizarre looking, deliberately so, reflecting both the need for originality and also the efforts of amateur designers who compete in local design contests. This method of appealing to future fans for character genesis spurs local support before the official mascot is chosen and manifested. Local events are another source for mascots who, like Bunkakki, may also survive and become generalized into mascots for their localities after the event. This homegrown aesthetic contrasts to nationally recognized, more polished characters such as Hello Kitty or Doraemon. It may be part of Kumamon’s power of popularity that he was designed by a well-known designer (Occhi 2018).
A less common name for yuru kyara is gotoochi kyara “honorable provincial characters.” However, this term is also used for localized versions of nationally famous commercial icons like Hello Kitty and the Kewpie doll, whose souvenir market share since 1998 was expanded by adding caps or other accessories that represented some local particularity to their usual form (Inuyama and Sugimoto 2013: 18). This mashup tendency of already famous gotoochi kyara created a novel category of souvenirs which combine national and local icons, different to the unique configurations of yuru kyara. It is as if these more stable national icons have come for a visit and partaken of local color. Kitty’s habit of dressing as locally famous figures can be considered as cosplay (Occhi 2012), which adds only a temporary, playful layer onto her already fixed identity as a British visitor. This representation of the national partaking in the local contrasts with the unstable yuru kyara whose epistemic status is based on essential emergence from their locales, not merely or temporarily clad in but made of the stuff they represent.
Yuru kyara have canonically been speechless, helplessly cute, and abject. When rendered in three-dimensional, ambulatory form, the poor visibility of their bulky kigurumi suits often necessitates assistance to help them negotiate through public space during official appearances at events. When I experienced performing in a kigurumi suit, I was only able to see out of one eye hole at a time, which made it difficult to perceive what was directly in front, and was unable to clap my hands or walk at a normal rate of speed. The yuru kyara is often a vulnerable entity. So helpers known as atendo, typically young women, will guide and speak for yuru kyara at events; they speak to the silent yuru kyara as one might address a very young child and speak on its behalf (Occhi 2012).
Naming is an important aspect of these often verbally silent and awkward characters’ communicative purpose. Their naming is often formed through wordplay referring to their sponsor or parts: Kumamon is Kumamoto’s mono (“person” in Kumamoto dialect). Bunkakki combines “culture” (bunka) with “oyster” (kaki). Double entendre is also common. The Miyazaki Ken mascots are named for Miyazaki Prefecture (ken) and are also dogs (ken). Though often speechless, many yuru kyara appear literate enough to have a presence in print, on Twitter, Facebook, and other SNS. These utterances, in congruence with their naming strategies, often include elements reflecting personality or local dialect, creating an idiolect “role language” (yakuwarigo) (Kinsui 2003). These wordplay strategies provide comical resonances of identity.
Linguistic play is another religiously potent aspect of Japanese cultural expression (kotodama) with variable cross-cultural acceptability, which along with tolerance for adult playfulness and fantasy, is an essential part of Japanese religiosity. Japanese “common religion” (Reader and Tanabe 1998) fundamentally incorporates animism and anthropomorphism; the ability for anything to possess spirit and be duly respected, and even used playfully, underlies yuru kyara (and other character) phenomena. Some yuru kyara even identify directly as gods, fairies, or goblins. This property contrasts with the English-language notion of “mascot” which indicates a person (originally, a young virginal girl), animal, or other entity whose presence is supposed to bring luck. The loanword term masukotto has, nonetheless, become part of Japanese as a term describing yuru kyara. Both are essentially magical entities. It has become commonplace for shrines and temples to use national characters such as Hello Kitty on their amulets (Occhi 2012; Porcu 2014), and yuru kyara are not unusual either. A Nichiren Buddhist temple in western Tokyo, Ryohoji, has developed its own set of mascot characters based on its affiliated gods and legends (Porcu 2014) and embellished various goods for sale including papers for copying sutras.
Over time many yuru kyara have kigurumi designed for nimble behavior; some are audibly verbal. A few frightening (kimokawa or creepy-cute) examples have emerged, including Zombear, a pale blue zombie teddy bear, and Melonguma, a lifelike bear with a green melon on its head whose snarls and fangs frighten small children. These performances are reminiscent of the shishi odori lion dancers common at festivals nationwide or Akita’s namahage ogres who invade households to scare children into good behavior.
Miura Jun (2004) points to the use of creature suits in kabuki (e.g., an octopus) as historical forebears of contemporary kigurumi. His encyclopedias kicked off a boom in similarly colorful catalog-style works, though that genre remains largely descriptive. Alt and Yoda (2007) dub the lot “working characters.” Nozawa (2013) takes a theoretical perspective on characterization phenomena across a variety of characters, with a nod to yuru kyara, and Occhi (2012) includes data on putative forebears as well as a case study of a yuru kyara event, comparing it to Buddhist and Shinto practices. The expansion of yuru phenomena into everyday life, and its gendering as female (however outnumbered female yuru kyara themselves may be), is analyzed in Occhi (2014). Inuyama Akihiko, who worked in kigurumi as Osaki Ichibantaro and others, co-wrote Yuru Kyara ron (Inuyama and Sugimoto 2013), which sets the phenomena in context of news events, media and technological developments. Moreover, it’s easy to see, in the context of burgeoning anthropomorphized characters in the popular children’s anime Soreike! Anpanman, how marketing of entities easily adopted the aesthetic.
Outside the social sciences and humanities, research on yuru kyara include analyses from business and engineering perspectives. Statisticians and computer scientists strive to find formulae to design better yuru kyara, by analysing their structural features (usually those of the Yuru Kyara Grand Prix top entries) and their emotive descriptors, reverse-engineering such corpuses of characters, and attempting to generate new candidates from those findings. The quality of being yurui was analyzed as a combination of childlike features including head to body ratio and eye placement, as well as essential factors of design, such as whether the character was derived from a cat (a good choice) or conversely, a crab (Jiyavorananda et.al., 2016). Structural elements and emotive descriptors provided another set of features for computational analysis and algorithmic generation. Again, childlike features, including short limbs, were found to be popular. These were combined with various descriptors, finding that “cheerful” was most highly rated as opposed to “gorgeous” and “carefree” (Hotogi and Hagiwara 2014).
With Kumamon as a common example, business literature concerns itself with product spokescharacter design or local promotion tactics. Kumamon, Kumamoto Prefecture’s PR character, is perhaps the most successful yuru kyara to date (Occhi 2017). The secrets of his success are documented, and he even has a resume describing his chief attributes (Kinoshita et al. 2014). Just as other successful yuru kyara have quirky, memorable backstories, we learn that Kumamon was designed with elements of the baseball player Hideki Matsui, who is celebrated in Amakusa, the hometown of Kumamon’s designer Oyama Kundo. Though Oyama was simply charged with designing a logo for the “Kumamon Surprise” promotional campaign, he included Kumamon in his presentation as a surprise of his own. Created in 2009 (though “born” in 2011 along with the Kyushu bullet train that passes through Kumamoto), this black, stout creature is often mistaken for a bear. After all, kuma means ‘bear’, and mon is local dialect for mono (person or thing). Given his looks and this interpretation of this name, Kumamon is typically described as a bear by domestic and international media. Yet his management office insists he is not actually a bear, nor is there such a thing as a kigurumi suit for any actor to wear, only his namami (flesh and blood). These kinds of fantastic quirks are typical in the yuru kyara universe, where a critter who looks like a cow may also be a fairy from the constellation Libra. Kumamon is both a naughty five-year-old boy and the head of the prefectural business office’s happiness department. As fanciful as this seems, he has brought in over $500 million to Kumamoto through the sale of goods bearing his image (by permission, without charging license fees). Kumamon has won the Yuru Kyara Grand Prix in 2001 and the Good Design Award from the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2013 (Japan Institute of Design Promotion 2013). He appeals to the average citizen by his cheerful fallibility, including his obese proportions. One of his anthems is an exercise song reminiscent of Japanese radio calisthenics, including praise for Kumamoto which is described as “Kyushu’s bellybutton.” By mere coincidence, Kumamon’s public debut happened shortly after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and nuclear disaster; he and other characters served to comfort Japanese nationwide through live appearances as well as in virtual promotions such as the Let’s Hold Hands (Te o tsunagō!) project. He is often quoted using dialectal mon as part of his yakuwarigo “idiolect” (lit. role language) though he doesn’t actually speak (and is often accompanied by and spoken for by a young unnamed woman.) As Japan’s tourism influx and cultural promotions marketing increased in the pre-coronavirus era, yuru kyara also increasingly sought a global audience. Kumamon has been the leader among foreign-bound yuru kyara, with visits to the USA, Asia, and Europe for Japan EXPO fairs and other events that are glowingly reported in Japanese media.
Much popular English-language media tends to report disparagingly on the Japanese yuru kyara boom. The concept of yuru kyara outside the kawaii-scape is often disparaged and considered intolerable. The typical English news article starts out with a humorous frame often including words like “wacky” and “weird,” discusses their economic effects, and refers to the 2015 news of an attempted “mascot cull” in Osaka. Academic scholarship on yuru kyara is not explicitly cited, though many articles seem to benefit from and even echo research findings in their content. Specifically, the recent Monocle treatment of Kumamon amounts to a rewrite and fact-check of a previous publication (Hall 2019; Occhi 2018). When this evergreen article genre bashes aspects of Japan found to be excessively cute for Western tastes, it aligns with the philosophies of Descartes and Piaget, and further, with the writings of Lafcadio Hearn, whose work fostered an image of Japan as “fairyland,” childish and odd, generations before yuru kyara emerged. These sentiments persist in much popular English writing on Japan because of the juxtaposition of Japan’s contemporary neoliberal economy suggesting convergence with the West and its persistent inclusion of animism and anthropomorphization, albeit its status as a developed country. This tendency reflects cultural and philosophical differences that are often overlooked in comparing countries’ popular culture, as convergence theory brings the expectation that economic similarity brings a flattening of cultural difference. Such misinterpretation readily occurs, e.g., when translating yuru kyara as “mascot characters,” merging them into a category with a different history. So yuru kyara often fall victim to disdain in foreign (especially non-Asian) contexts.
Conversely, a commonly expressed Japanese perspective on this reaction is pity for the inability to appreciate humor or to accept the appeals of neoteny. Nonetheless, the term “mascot” has been adopted as a loanword to translate or replace yuru kyara, or to refer to brand characters. Japanese media covers yuru kyara activity daily in newspaper articles, including photos of any mascot who takes the stage along with human dignitaries. Several of the yuru kyara have Twitter accounts (cf., Suzuki and Kurata 2017) and even YouTube channels as well.
One of the most balanced popular English language accounts has come from the comedian John Oliver, who while poking fun at the genre suggested that they should globalize, creating examples to represent the US governmental departments. He later covered the case of an unofficial otter mascot Chiitan from Susaki, whose wild antics were popularized on Twitter. Chiitan was modeled after the town’s official yuru kyara Shinjo Kun and shared a name with the city’s official honorary ambassador, an animal otter mascot. Chiitan the yuru kyara became eventually so violent that complaints ensued. The city divested its alliance with the actual otter animal mascot he parodized, and the Twitter account was closed. The comedian John Oliver created his own character out of sympathy in his second episode on the yuru kyara theme, coming to Japan to try to cheer up the dejected Shinjo Kun. The episode ended happily with ChiiJohn and Shinjo Kun sitting together on a bench gazing at the sunset.
Despite the recent cancellation of events where yuru kyara would spread their magic, their show goes on. The yearly Yuru Kyara Grand Prix was, like other public events in 2020, disrupted by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic but remained in progress. The winner to this Miura Jun production is usually decided by web-based voting followed by a live event where the winners are feted. The plan is to safely conduct the event in rural Iwate Prefecture’s Production Culture Center, presented at an “emergency web meeting” for the fans on 19 August 2020. Utilizing the catch phrase “GO TO yuru kyara,” a parody of the governmental economic stimulus for domestic tourism, GO TO Travel (sic)., this YouTube Live broadcast was hosted by the idol singer and kyara fan Yufu Terashima and attended in real time by almost 7,000 viewers. It echoed the previous tradition of live offline events such as the “yuru kyara parade” (Occhi 2012), where multiple characters are introduced, asked to provide specifics of their identity and affiliation for PR, and perform cuteness along with the MC. Starting with industry spokespeople characters (likely event sponsors), she introduced the top three among regional characters: the most popular, newcomers, and those planning their final appearances at the Grand Prix. A live feed of fan comments indicated that their cuteness was well received. Events like this indicate that English-language news articles suggesting that yuru kyara are excessive, or in demise and will reduce in number is not supported by the ardor of domestic fans. As a form of entertainment and communication, yuru kyara echo the similarly disparaged Japanese writing system in their eclectic qualities, continuing to adapt, becoming ever more complicated over time.
Alt, Matt, and Hiroko Yoda. 2007. Hello, Please! Very Helpful Super Kawaii Characters from Japan. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Hall, Kenji. 2019. “Follow the bear.” Monocle 129. https://monocle.com/magazine/issues/129/follow-the-bear/.
Hiramoto Mie, and Lionel Wee. 2019. “Kawaii in the Semiotic Landscape.” Sociolinguistic Studies 13, no. 1: 15-35.
Hotogi Maho, and Hagiwara Masafumi. 2014. “Analyses of Local Mascot Characters and Proposal of Automatic Creation System Using Kansei-words.” International Conference on Kansei Engineering and Emotion Research, Linköping, Sweden, June 11-13.
Inuyama Akihiko and Sugimoto Masamitsu. 2013. Yuru kyara ron. Tokyo: Voyager.
Jiyavorananda, Sittiphan, Ishikawa Hiroko, Sakai Shunsuke, Yamanaka Katsuo, Yamanaka Toshimasa, and Masuda Tomoyuki. 2016. “Elucidation of Factors Predicting the Impression of “Yuru-sa” in Japanese Yuru-kyara Mascot Characters.” International Journal of Affective Engineering 15, no. 3: 231-238.
Kinsella, Sharon. 1995. “Cuties in Japan.” In Women, Media and Consumption in Japan, edited by Brian Moeran and Lise Scov, 220–254. Richmond, Surrey, and Honolulu: Curzon and University of Hawai‘i Press.
Kinsui Satoshi 2003 Vaacharu Nihongo: Yakuwari no nazo. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten.
Miura Jun. 2004 Yuru kyara Daizukan.Tokyo: Fusōsha.
Nozawa, Shunsuke. 2013. “Characterization.” Semiotic Review 3 https://www.semioticreview.com/ojs/index.php/sr/article/view/16/15.
Occhi, Debra J. 2018. “Kumamon: Japan’s Surprisingly Cheeky Mascot.” In Introducing Japanese Popular Culture, edited by Alisa Freedman and Toby Slade, 13-23. New York: Routledge.
Occhi, Debra J. 2014. “Yuru Kyara Humanity and the Uncanny Instability of Borders in the Construction of Japanese Identities and Aesthetics.” Japan Studies: The Frontier: 7-17.
Occhi, Debra J. 2012. “Wobbly Aesthetics, Performance, and Message: Comparing Japanese Kyara with their Anthropomorphic Forebears.” Asian Ethnology 71, no. 1: 109-132.
Porcu, Elisabetta. 2014. “Pop Religion in Japan: Buddhist Temples, Icons, and Branding.” The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 26, no. 2:1 57-172.
Reader, Ian, and George J. Tanabe.1998. Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Suzuki Shohei, and Kurata Yohei. 2017. “An Analysis of Tweets by Local Mascot Characters for Regional Promotions, called Yuru-charas, and Their Followers in Japan.” In Information and Communication Technologies in Tourism 2017, edited by Roland Schegg and Brigitte Stangl, 711-724. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.