Before I knew anything about Japan, I knew about Hello Kitty. Only after my Japanese reading and writing class watched a mini-documentary about the iconic figure’s global appeal did I begin to consider the ways in which Japan has built a culture around characters. These characters are meant to transmit values and culture through their design and features. One of my classmates remarked that despite being familiar with the Hello Kitty, he had never associated the character with Japan until after our class reading. Hello Kitty as a character is powerful because of all that it can represent to people from different backgrounds and interests. Beyond this iconic pop culture figure, I was surprised to learn about the extent to which various groups, including cities and companies, compete with each other to develop the most memorable and lovable characters. These characters represent their hometowns and their brands.
Yuru-kyara comes from the word yurui meaning loose or relaxed and kyara, an abbreviation of the English word for character. In contrast to the commercial appeal of characters like Hello Kitty and their professional design, the design of yuru-kyara can be flawed and seem amateurish. These characteristics contribute to their appeal. Their popularity may seem like a natural extension of Japan’s obsession with cuteness. In actuality, yuru-kyara specifically represent the convergence of community ties and broader economic concerns, such as tourism promotion and profit generation.
These characters are effective means of highlighting lesser-known areas of Japan. In doing so, the characters bring importance to local culture and have even been used to promote causes. I was most surprised to read that even the Japanese Self-Defense Force developed their own mascot, Prince Pickles, to help change the public’s stance toward the military. This industry has expanded beyond local tourism promotion to the point where it is even considered a viable foreign policy tool to generate feelings of warmth.
Yuru-kyara represent something unique about Japanese culture. At a surface level, the immense domestic popularity is another example of the widespread appeal of Japan’s well-documented kawaii culture. Kawaii culture is the aesthetic of cuteness prevalent in everything from media to fashion. Yet, there is more than meets the eye with this mascot phenomenon. I got a sense of this firsthand this past weekend when I encountered a mascot at a festival in Toyota, Japan. In the midst of all the cultural festivities, there was a mascot for a transportation company posing for pictures. The character was at the center of an event aimed to promote the city of Toyota, so it was surrounded by traditional cultural activities.
In this way, mascots interact with the public and bring brands and ideas to life. Their creation, when it is for the purposes of tourism promotion, can represent a convergence of communal efforts to revive economically-depressed areas. Moreover, with the 2020 Olympics just around the corner, these characters will surely play an important role in continuing to promote Japan’s image on a global scale. Whatever purpose they are used for, these characters are brought to life by the personal attachment and loyalty people feel for their companies and hometowns.