On Friday afternoon, after a satisfying morning of running, reading, and writing, I had just settled in with Great Expectations running on Netflix, and a bowl of kimchi noodle soup for lunch, when Boyfriend called me on the phone. I normally don’t talk on the phone when I’m on my lunch break – most things and people can wait half an hour. But Boyfriend rarely calls from work, and when he does, it’s only right before he leaves in the evening. So I picked up the phone, expecting to hear something of great urgency and importance.
Maybe he forgot to post the rent check this morning.
Maybe he left his laptop at home.
Maybe he had food poisoning, and needs to go to the ER.
It was none of the above. Boyfriend was calling because he’d just discovered a shiny, sparkly nugget in the heap of news articles he reads in the afternoons. And obviously, he couldn’t wait to tell me.
“Did you know all the countries that have embassies in Japan are running mascot competitions, because in Japan it’s a thing to have mascots represent government bodies?”
Japan’s love for mascots is pretty well known and well-documented. Schools, hospitals, hotel chains, consumer goods manufacturers, cartoon characters, each have their own mascot. The “yuru-kyara” or “yuru-chara,” however, is a special type of mascot, one like no other. A term that translates into “loose characters,” yuru-kyara are soft, fluffy creatures that represent government bodies, starting from municipalities and going up to prisons and national political parties. And they have a simple, one-point agenda: to soften the images of these government bodies in the eyes of the public.
This agenda is what makes their unique characteristics so critical: yuru-kyara have to be plush, so they make you want to hug them. And unlike other prissy, highbrow, and elite mascots like Hello Kitty, they also have to be a little unrefined, so they seem approachable. Like Funasshi, the not-at-all creepy, jiggly, yellow pear, who is the official mascot of Funabashi City in Chiba Prefecture, and the winner of the local mascot contest.
It makes sense, if you think about it. I can’t be the only one who thinks “round,” “soft-bellied,” and “sometimes borderline creepy,” when I hear the word bureaucrat. And between a round, soft-bellied, sometimes-borderline-creepy bureaucrat and a white cat with a giant pink bow on her head, there are no prizes for guessing which one is more huggable. Kitty begone; my local municipal officer wants some snuggletimes.
Of course, some of these mascots are less imaginative than others. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party decided they needed a mascot too. Supporters of Mr. Abe, who have tried thus far to play up his good looks, have now decided that his alleged Adonis-on-Earth handsomeness (or the fact that he is kinda single-handedly pulling the Japanese economy out of debilitating stagnancy) is just not enough to cement his popularity. Nope. What Mr. Abe lacks is the “cute” factor, and right on top of the LDP’s list of priorities is to remedy that. The party is getting a cute and cuddly mascot modeled after – wait for it – Shinzo Abe. And if this is to be believed, it is essentially going to be a bobble-head model of the Prime Minister.
The most recent participants in the yuru-kyara furor are the embassies of various countries stationed in Tokyo. Peccary, a round, brown, human/boar/handmade-clay-toy plush giant which is modeled after a clay figurine which is modeled after a short-legged boar of some sort, now represents the embassy of Ecuador. The US embassy is represented by a nerdy, bespectacled jellybean named Tom, who wears a sash that says, “Hi, I’m Tom,” and looks like he hosts a pre-school science show, and is about to break into a rhyming, sing-song treatise about why we only see the moon at night.
But the country that seems to have taken this call for mascots most seriously is Israel. Ronen Medzini, of the embassy’s press and information section, thought the mascot was a fantastic idea because Israel has a “problem of branding,” and that the mascot would be a great way to “introduce the soft side or the real side of Israel (to Japan) as we see it.” So the Israeli embassy ran a long-drawn and elaborate contest for selecting their mascot, calling for entries from all over Japan. The competition had four rounds and ten finalists, from among which the embassy chose Shaloum Chan as the winner, an albino baby parrot who wears a blue headband featuring the Star of David.
Call me naive, but I think there may be a few other things Israel could do to remedy its “branding” problem. For starters, oh, I don’t know… elect a Prime Minister who is less of a hateful hardliner? Treat enemies with more humanity and dignity? Of course, given how Abenomics clearly did nothing for the Japanese Prime Minister’s “cute” appeal, maybe a change in leadership or policy isn’t the answer. Maybe Israel should pull a leaf out of the LDP’s book, and model a mascot after Binyamin Netanyahu. What? Come on! He smiles sometimes, doesn’t he?
In the meanwhile, I believe Funasshi, after enjoying a brief tenure of glamor, fame, and the high life, finally let it all get to his head, and developed a drinking problem. Today, as he lies unrecognized in the cold corners of municipal buildings, his erstwhile competitors Isa King, the permanently winking king from Kagoshima prefecture, and Okazaemon from Aichi prefecture, the colorless lurker with the kind of haircut and moustache that is the stuff of childhood nightmares, ended up getting all the pretty girls.