Japan mascots face cull or combination

Shingo Ito

Tokyo (AFP) - Japan's swollen ranks of cuddly mascots, once de rigueur for every local government and commercial brand, are coming under increasing threat, with some being culled and others combined.

The move comes after the finance ministry last year ordered authorities nationwide to cut back on the use of life-size "yuru-kyara" ("laid-back characters"), saying many of them are a waste of public money.

In the major metropolis of Osaka, officials have stamped down on the wild proliferation of mascots, whose number had swelled to 92, including special creations for everything from tax payment campaigns to childcare support services.

"We have decided to select Mozuyan, our oldest one, following doubts about the public relations impact of having too many characters," an Osaka official told AFP.

"The number has now fallen to 69 and there is no plan to create any new ones," she said, in a move local media described as "virtual restructuring".

Their choice of mascot is perhaps emblematic of the brutal fate awaiting many yuru-kyara: Mozuyan's head is modelled on the shrike, a carnivorous bird known for impaling prey on thorns before consuming it, like a medieval monarch displaying the decapitated head of an enemy.

Meanwhile, in the remote district of Rumoi, on northernmost Hokkaido, a patchwork character made up of different elements of eight extant mascots was being rolled out.

"Ororon Robo Mebius", which resembles the gigantic humanoid robot from the "Mobile Suit Gundam" animation franchise, has legs, arms, a face and a body that all came from different yuru-kyara representing different communities.

"We have concluded that it's better to join forces rather than each of them working individually," said Rumoi official Mayuko Miyaji.

With a population of just 53,000, Rumoi had one mascot for every 6,500 people.

- National celebrities -

Japan has thousands of larger-than-life puppets with cutesy but improbable features, which are used to promote everything from regional attractions to public safety messages.

These include Kumamon, a pot-bellied bear who stumps for a lesser-visited part of southern Japan, and Asahikawa Prison's Katakkuri-chan, a square-faced humanoid with a purple flower for hair, who is intended to soften the jail's public image.

The most successful become national celebrities, spawning a huge range of merchandise that can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

But the vast majority languish in obscurity, wheeled out by local police forces or libraries at public events where the actor inside the suit must jig jauntily and pose for pictures with a stream of slightly baffled children.

The finance ministry said last year that many public bodies had put little thought into the reasons behind having a mascot, or whether having one would represent value for money.

On-going maintenance costs can be high, the ministry noted, with one mascot setting back its owners a million yen ($8,400) a year, despite only making five outings.

In a bid to dodge criticism that they are frittering away taxpayers' cash, the city of Otsu, central Japan, collected one million yen in donations after an Internet campaign to re-create their "Otsu Hikaru-kun" after the original one wore out.

"We also wanted to draw people's attention" as it's rare to use "crowd funding" for purchasing a character doll, a city official said.