Kumamon-Japanese-mascot

10 Famous Japanese Mascots and Why They’re So Popular

From adorable animals to quirky characters, Japanese mascots—or “yuru-kyara”—have captured the hearts of millions both locally and globally.

They play an integral role in Japanese culture and have become a prominent aspect of marketing and tourism across the nation.

In this article, you’ll meet 10 of the most popular mascots in Japan and learn about their significance in Japanese society.

Get ready to be charmed and amazed by the mascot obsession!

Contents


What Are Yuru-kyara?

Yuru-kyara (also spelled yuru-chara) are mascots that represent and promote various localities, events, businesses or products in Japan. Their name comes from the words yurui (loose or relaxed) and kyara (character).

These days, there are so many mascots that people often lose track of which is which and what entity they represent. They prance around street fairs, sporting events, community gatherings and tourist destinations.

They even had their own national competition called the Yuru-Chara Grand Prix where mascots competed for votes from the public. This event was held annually from 2010 to 2020 and ended because it was getting overly competitive!

Japanese mascots come with their own accessories and merchandise and have generated billions in revenue while attracting tourists to the various locations they represent. Many even have their own social media profiles and have gained international recognition through news sources, Japanese bloggers, popular movies and TV shows—and you can find clips on FluentU of them for additional Japanese learning assistance.

Popular Japanese Mascots

1. Domo-kun ( どーもくん )

Domo-kun-japanese-mascot

This well-loved character is the official mascot of NHK (Japan’s public broadcasting organization). He first appeared in short stop-motion sketches on NHK in 1998.

Over time, Domo-kun’s popularity expanded beyond Japan, and he became a symbol of Japanese pop culture worldwide.

He even starred in his own animated TV series produced by NHK and Nickelodeon which aired in 2008 in the U.S. and internationally.

The furry mascot has been a campaign icon for overseas companies such as Target and his merchandise often appears in popular stores like Urban Outfitters. 

2. Kumamon ( くまモン )

Kumamon-Japanese-mascot

Kumamon is one of the best examples of a mascot success story. This rosy-cheeked, bear-like mascot represents Kumamoto Prefecture in southern Japan.

Since its first appearance promoting the Kyushu Shinkansen (bullet train) in 2010, Kumamon has reeled in the big bucks. Between the years 2011 and 2019, Kumamon’s merchandise sales amounted to a staggering 875.8 billion yen.

If you’ve yet to see Kumamoto’s star, you can catch a glimpse at Kumamon-themed hotels and trains, on packages of cookies and even on Japan Airline’s special  “Air Kumamon” package on international flights.

3. Barii-san ( バリィさん )

Barii-san-Japanese-mascot

This adorable mascot represents Imabari city, Ehime Prefecture on the Shikoku island. Barii-San won first place in the 2012 Yuru-Chara Grand Prix and came in second place in 2011. 

Every aspect of his appearance references a characteristic of his homeland: their main food specialty is a type of yakitori (skewered chicken) and their main product is haramaki (a cloth that wraps around the stomach).

Barii-san’s crown is the Kurushima-Kaikyō Bridge (which connects Shikoku to the mainland) and the boat-shaped wallet in his hand represents the local shipping industry. 

4. Funassyi ( ふなっしー )

Funassyi-Japanese-mascot

Created by a resident of Funabashi, Chiba, Funassyi now serves as the city’s unofficial representative and has become one of the most popular yuru-kyara in Japan.

A few things contribute to Funassyi’s unique pear-inspired character. Unlike most mascots, who are silent and relaxed, Funassyi talks as fast as he moves. 

As a big fan of rock music, Funassyi even released a full album in 2014 and continues to appear at events and on TV, generating millions in revenue.

5. Hikonyan ( ひこにゃん )

Hikonyan-Japanese-mascot

Hikonyan represents the city of Hikone and was created in 2007 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Hikone Castle. He wears the same samurai helmet that can be seen at the castle’s museum. 

This feline character is based on a legend that says that the third Lord of Hikone was saved from a lightning strike when a white cat beckoned him to seek shelter in a temple

The beloved mascot (and the winner of the 2010 Yuru-Chara Grand Prix) has increased annual tourist visitation of Hikone by over 200,000 and has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

6. Sanomaru ( さのまる )

Sanomaru-Japanese-mascot

Sanomaru represents Sano City in Togichi Prefecture. He can’t get much cuter with his big, puppy eyes his pink paws and cheeks.

He wears a bowl of ramen spilled over his head and holds another famous local food: deep-fried potato skewers (imo-furai)

He won the 2013 Yuru-Chara Grand Prix and placed 4th in 2012. Sanomaru makes appearances all over his city and shows up on merchandise across Japan and beyond.

7. Okazaemon ( オカザえもん )

Okazaemon-Japanese-mascot

Representing Okazaki City in Aichi Prefecture, Okazaemon is a prime example of a trend of creepy-cute mascots in Japan.

Clad with helmet hair, oversized pupils and a white bodysuit, Okazemon’s strange appearance hasn’t stopped him from gaining popularity throughout Japan and generating substantial revenue. 

His facial features resemble the kanji of “oka 岡” (hill) and the kanji of “zaki 崎” (Saki) is written on his chest. He even got a female counterpart in 2013, but she hasn’t gained nearly as much popularity as Okazaemon. 

8. Reruhi-san ( レルヒさん )

Reruhi-san-Japanese-mascot

This mascot is based on Theodor Elder von Lerch, an Austrian Major General who’s credited for bringing skiing to Japan.

Reruhi-san is hard to miss as he towers over other mascots at 270cm and dons a bright yellow outfit that’s somewhere between a snowsuit and an old-fashioned pair of pajamas.

Reruhi-san represents Niigata Prefecture, an area known for its ski resorts, national parks and many hot springs. You can find him on packets of souvenirs, posters and tottering around festivals and other public events. 

9. Nishiko-kun ( にしこくん )

japans culture of cute and bizarre mascots

Nishiko-kun is another one of the slightly creepy but still somewhat cute Japanese mascots. The orb-shaped, spandex-wearing mascot won the hearts of many when he was awarded 3rd place in the 2011 Yuru-Chara Grand Prix.

Nishiko-kun represents the city of Nishi-Kokobunji on the outskirts of Tokyo. The character is based on kawara, a circular decorative roof tile you can find on buildings around the city.

He has no arms, but that doesn’t stop him from dancing and running around at public events.

10. Meron Kuma ( メロン熊 )

meron-kuma-Japanese-mascot

Meron Kuma is also called “Melon Bear” and is, basically, a bear with a melon for a head with some terrifying features.

He’s known for attacking other mascots and even tourists. His ferocious behavior makes him a standout at any gathering he attends.

The melon-bear combo might seem confusing, but it’s explained by the place he (unofficially) represents. Yubari City in Hokkaido is famous for its melons and its bears.

The creator of the mascot says that Meron Kuma ate some locally-grown melon and then transformed into the fantastical creature.

The Importance of Mascots in Japanese Culture

Some may argue that the significance of each mascot and what they represent has been diluted by the sheer number of mascots in existence and the frequency with which they appear. However, there’s no denying that these characters have had a huge impact on Japanese culture and continue to shape the country’s marketing and tourism industry

Beyond the economic impact, it’s been said that the popularity of mascots in Japan is partially due to the profound emotional connection that the Japanese have to “non-human” figures, with origins deeply rooted in ancient polytheistic beliefs.

Not only do mascots help promote regional tourism, but they also educate visitors about local culture and community. They’re used for public outreach by political parties, local museums, schools and even the military. And they don’t just promote products and tourist destinations—there are mascots who fight for solar power and tax reductions.

Why You’ll Love Yuru-kyara

If you’re a Japanese learner or just someone interested in Japanese culture, there are many good reasons to get to know some of the country’s most loved mascots.

Here are a few benefits of enjoying yuru-kyara:

  • Mascots swag makes for great souvenirs. If you’re visiting Japan, you may want to bring something special back. From key chains to gourmet sweets, you can find almost anything yuru-kyara themed to remember your time there or share with others back home. 
  • Connect with people. Mascots get people excited and are great conversation starters when in Japan. Learn a bit about the mascots that are relevant to where you’re living or traveling. Keep that information in your back pocket when you want to engage someone in conversation.
  • Keep track of Japanese current affairs. Mascots often represent government organizations on local and national scales. See what messages these groups are trying to send to the public by keeping track of the mascot’s Facebook, Twitter and other outreach mechanisms.
  • Learn Japanese through mascots. Pick your favorite mascots and search for them on YouTube and other websites. Most popular mascots can be found in commercials, kid’s shows, news programs, live events and more. Practice your Japanese listening skills while watching them in action!

 

Whether or not you’ve caught the mascot craze, you can now see why these characters are found almost everywhere you look in Japan. 

You can’t study Japanese culture without them. They’re silly, creative, energetic and provide a unique look into what makes the country tick.

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