While there’s no official category for “Most Beloved Mascot” at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, that doesn’t mean the entire country of Japan won’t be rooting for its favorite characters as whole-heartedly as they’ll be cheering on the competing athletes. That’s how significant yuru-chara, a distinct kind of mascot design, is in Japanese culture. Furry, funny, and extremely cute, yuru-chara may be designed to make you laugh, but creating them is serious business; the design, production, and licensing of mascots generates the country billions of yen in revenue each year.
In Japan, there are mascots for almost everything. There are mascots for cities, villages, rivers, and businesses, including a real estate agency fronted by Madori Taro (“Floor Plan Boy”), which has a blueprint of an apartment as a face. The fire department has a mascot that teaches children about fire safety on YouTube. There are mascots warning against obscure diseases, even prisons use them to help boost morale. One particularly unlikely mascot is Kan-chan, a mascot for an enema manufacturer. It’s a combination of an enema and a penguin.
Before the upcoming Olympic mascots are revealed at the end of this month, we’re taking this moment to understand the creative process behind yuru-chara, and what the Japanese business of character design might teach us about building better brand experiences—even when no furry suits are involved.
A mascot can be as important for a business as its logo, if not more. And the design and selection of a character is an intense process. Often, yuru-chara are designed by amateurs who answer open calls for entries, and usually respond with very literal representations of what they stand for, be it local produce, wildlife, a myth, architecture, or geography. A pre-existing mascot for one company might also become the official mascot for an institution. Take Hello Kitty, designed by Yuko Shimizu in 1974 to advertise Sanrio plastic sandals, the beloved cat became the official mascot of Japan’s Ministry of Tourism in 2007 and can now be found everywhere from humble keychains and notebooks to wedding chapels to airlines.
The most prominent and popular yuru-chara are the regional mascots, called gotōchi-kyara (local characters). Part of what makes all yuru-chara so loveable is that they’re intentionally clumsy, a little silly, and slightly awkward. They can make you feel protective, as if by supporting them you’re rooting for the underdog. And before you know it, you’re involved in their oddly complex lives.
Now Tokyo 2020 is organizing a vote by local school children to select the upcoming Olympic mascot from a shortlist of adorable candidates that all fulfill the Japanese aesthetic of Kawaii (cuteness). One is modelled after the infamous Lucky Cat and enjoys napping in the sun; its eyes energetically sparkle with the colors of the Olympic rings. Watch the promotional video and you’ll see just how fleshed out the characters are, each with intricate back stories, personality traits, and symbols decorating their furry hides.
Whichever character is chosen will likely become the beating heart of the Tokyo Olympic brand—unlike the London 2012 mascot fiasco, where a pair of clumsy surveillance camera robots quickly became a global laughing stock.
Whether it’s for an enema company or the world’s biggest sporting event, “The costumes are a useful strategy for a brand’s image,” says Kazuya Kitora, a designer at a successful mascot costume company called SunMoldCo in Minoo, Osaka Prefecture, which was founded in 1999. Once a mascot has been selected by a company or a town, an illustrated version will be brought to a factory like SunMold for production.
SunMold makes mascots for both corporations and local governments, and has created hundreds of suits of every size, color, and character type (from robot, to food, to “flower tree”). First, Kitora transforms the 2D illustrations provided to him by clients into large fabric suits by re-sketching a design using 3D modelling tools, and then forming bodies from EPS, urethane, and bore fabric. Most recently, he’s created Chihaya Him, an “intellectual princess” representing Uji City of the Kyoto Prefecture; a giant blue cat for the an indoor tennis center (with a bright yellow tennis ball for a tail); and Yoshida’s Puddingly Chan, a character with a bowl of noodles for a head representing the popular Yoshida Udon shop. You can browse the fantastical list of characters on the company’s blog, each post complete with a video of the costume in action to emphasize the practical flexibility of the suits.
“The biggest challenge is turning the initial illustration into something that allows for the actors to be mobile,” says Kitora, indicating the heavy, large heads and small, stubby feet that gives most of the costumes their extreme cuteness, but also make them so difficult to actually walk around and dance in.
In addition to a drawing, when a client asks SunMold to create a costume, they also provide the designer with a list of specific character traits. A mascot is the friendly, public face for a company, embodying the personality of what it represents. If it’s well designed and original, explains Kitora, it creates more than just brand awareness—it inspires real, lasting loyalty.
Kumamoto, the internationally recognized symbol of Kumamoto Prefecture is a perfect example of this; the concept here comes directly from the name (kuma means “bear”). Between 2012-13, the iconic mascot generated 123.2 billion yen, far more than the average yuru-chara. After a series of devastating earthquakes struck Kumamoto in 2016, the local government relaxed the licensing rules around the image and likeness so that any business could use it freely in order to raise money for the Kumamoto Relief Fund. Unlike other disaster relief campaigns without a mascot as a rallying point, the beloved Kumamoto bear evokes positive and sympathetic public feeling: a character creates an emotional response, and in this case, one that resulted in donations.
While sports lovers may be looking forward to 2020, mascot fanatics have a very different date marked on their calendars. There are two important annual events for the designers, producers, and lovers of yuru-chara: the Yuruchara Grand Prix, where Mascot of the Year is selected by an ardent public (in 2015, there were 50.57 million total internet votes), and the World Character Summit, which has more than 300 mascots in attendance. Here, they wander around, pose for pictures, clamber on stage, stand silently and a little mysteriously next to judges. And dance, their main form of expression.
Chris Carlier is a British comic artist and educator living in Tokyo who has been fascinated with the world of yuru-chara ever since he moved there. To document his discoveries, he set up Mondo Mascots, a popular blog and Twitter account recounting trips to events like the World Character Summit, with additional bits of mascot news and trivia. During Carlier’s adventures in the brightly colored universe of yuru-chara, he also documents his own attempts to design mascots. Despite several entries into competitions, he’s yet to break through. It’s a lot trickier than it looks. The characters must have a fundamental wobbly cuteness, but also somehow a soul, an elusive inner being.
Recently, Carlier has become fascinated with one of the more sinister looking yuru-chara, Tsukihashi Wataru, the mascot of Kyoto’s Arashiyama district which “looks like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ if the man and the bridge switched places.” He’s also extremely fond of the “unofficial mascots for towns and cities, where a local eccentric takes it upon him or herself to design a mascot for their town, and walks around town in the costume.”
The process of documenting the annual champions and tracking down some of the stranger yuru-chara has made Carlier appreciate what works best when it comes to mascot-making. “Simple, colorful, symmetrical designs tend to work best,” he says. “And don’t shy away from silly, absurd ideas—those grab the most attention. I haven’t yet mastered the simple design myself, but I’ve been adopting the silly concepts in my comics. I’ve just made one called Spaboon, about the exploits of a pharmaceutical mascot who is a cross between a spoon and a baboon.”
Carlier isn’t the only Brit to have been inspired by the hoards of cuddly, quirky mascots emerging from the collective imagination of companies, governments, and institutions all across Japan. Graphic designers and animators Edward and John Harrison, two twins behind the London digital design studio What What, have a deep-felt appreciation for Japanese mascots, so-much-so that they’ve published two books about them, Idle Idol: The Japanese Mascot and Fuzz and Fur: Japan’s Costumed Characters.
“I believe that mascots have a halo effect, so if someone loves the mascot, then they will also have some affection for the brand that created it,” says John. “Take Domo-kun, the furry, brown, saw-toothed character is the mascot of broadcaster NHK in Japan. Outside of Japan, people may know of him but not understand the connection he has with NHK. The character can exist as a stand-alone, but can also act as a bridge or gateway to the brand it represents.”
Researching and spending time immersed in Japan’s culture of character design—from yuru-chara to 3D models and anime—has greatly informed the Harrison brother’s own practice, especially when it comes to both branding and character animation. “Japan has a long tradition of skilled illustrators, and they appreciate the mastery it takes to create an illustration that’s simple, instantly recognizable, and appealing,” says John.
His brother Ed agrees. “I think having the exposure to Japanese mascots has helped me to appreciate great character design. In the West I often see poorly designed mascots who have little connection to the brand and lack a compelling story.”
For the twins, the back stories and abstract psychological depth of yuru-chara, as well as the simplicity of the designs, is a large part of what makes them so compelling. Design a winning mascot, one that captures the combination of sweetness and inexplicable super power, and you give people a gateway to the heart of whatever it represents. While a yuru-chara might be a little helpless and bumbling, that only makes it—and whatever it stands for—all the more loveable.