Cuddly mascots face the chop in Japanese cuteness cull
While some puppets become lucrative national celebrities, most are condemned to obscurity
Dozens of state-funded cuddly mascots could be culled in western Japan after a local authority found the public doesn't recognise many of them, as managers look to rein in an obsession with cuteness.
Thousands of yuru-kyara ("laid-back characters") have been created all over Japan by police, traffic safety officials, tax offices, libraries and even prisons in to try and press home various messages to a public particularly susceptible to oversized puppets.
The most successful go on to become national celebrities, playing their part in an industry worth tens of billions of dollars a year in merchandising alone.
Creations such as Kumamon - a tubby black bear used to promote a lesser-known part of southern Japan - are instantly-recognisable motifs that have become part of the country's cultural landscape. But the huge number of yuru-kyara condemns most to obscurity.
Now Osaka prefecture has decided it is time for a cull, and is looking to trim its stable of 45 yuru-kyara to concentrate its efforts on a few more-recognisable characters that can be used across departments.
"We have too many characters," Osaka governor Ichiro Matsui told reporters last month. Stung by the success of Funassyi, an unofficial pear-fairy mascot for the fruit-producing city of Funabashi near Tokyo, Matsui said many of Osaka's yuru-kyara barely registered on the public radar. "We are all being beaten by this character. We've got to do something," he said.
Osaka's own offering, Moppy, which is inspired by a native bird, ranked a lowly 1,072nd among more than 1,500 mascots that took part in a popularity vote.
Matsui has suggested they focus their efforts on Moppy, perhaps by letting him procreate and even learn to talk. "I think it is a good idea for Moppy to have a family - Moppy Jr could help promote child-rearing policies and Moppy's wife could assist with women's employment issues," he said.
But the Japan Local Character Association, a group that supports regional economies through the use of mascots, urged patience yesterday.
"Kumamon was not necessarily popular from the very beginning, and neither was Funassyi," said Noriko Nakano, who works at the association's headquarters in central Shiga.
"It is important to use social networking and blogging, but mascot characters must also go out and communicate with people directly. Low-key activities are important to gain popularity," she said.