In the U.S., most sports teams and many consumer products adopt mascots to give their brand a friendly, animate identity, but as far as we are aware, only Japan has mascots to represent prefectures, towns and public offices. Called Yuru-chara, which translates as “loose character,” the mascots generate millions of dollars in merchandise sales (keychains, mugs, t-shirts and plates, etc.) and the costumed characters make special appearances at promotional events and festivals. Without exception, the yuru-chara are cute (a la Hello Kitty), unsophisticated in design, and exhibit childlike manners. Yuru-chara proliferate throughout Japan, so much so that some prefectural governments worry that the number of little towns that have come up with their own yuru-chara are diluting the impact of the big city mascots and cutting into merchandise sales.
The best-known mascot in Japan is Kumamon (seen here) introduced by Kumamoto Prefecture in 2010 to draw tourists to the region’s Kyushu Shinkasen train line. Kumamon instantly shot to fame, and won the 2011 Yuru-chara Grand Prix, drawing more than 280,000 votes in a nationwide survey and crushing other yuru-chara competitors. The next year Kumamon single-handedly earned the prefecture more than $120 million in product sales and was even featured in a popular video game. As with most other yuru-chara, Kumamon doesn’t speak,has only one facial expression, and is of unknown gender and species. It merely dances around and makes spectators happy.