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Mascots in Japan

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par Flora Mitsushima
ISCOM Paris - MA International Global Communications 2015

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II. The current status of mascots in Japan

Mascots represent everything in Japan : cities, companies or even Tokyo's Fire Department. With the licensed character industry, copyright and merchandising it represents 30 billion euros a year19. That is more than Japan, who is the most « books lovers » country, spends on books each year20.

As explained in the first part, mascot are not new but they have been deeply integrated into many facets of the local culture, that is what we will see through different case studies.

2.1 The three ways of using mascots

In Europe or in America, mascots are often used to represent schools or sport team. In Japan, there are three ways of using mascots : by companies, for tourism or by national public institutions.

2.1.1 Companies

a) Line

LINE is a messaging application which works like WHATSAPP or VIBER and is beloved in Japan, in Asia and little by little in Europe. What is the difference with the others free messaging app? The use of cute « stickers » which are kind of emoticons but truly funnier and more expressive.

1,8 billion out of more than 10 billion messages reportedly sent every day on LINE are only stickers messages.21

19 VINCENT, Alice. (March 5, 2015). «Meet Funassyi: the Japanese pear mascot who loves Aerosmith» in The Telegraph



France Livre, « Japon », 2011,

QUIGLEY, J.T. (November 27, 2014) «Line crowns Creators Market Award winners, reveals $30M revenue from user-created stickers» in Techinasia


In the survey I made 22 , 100% of people answered that they were using LINE to send messages to their colleagues, friends or relatives. They prefer LINE to SMS because the stamps are cute and allow people to express their feelings and emotions better than classical emoticons. Japanese are known for their politeness and their habit to never say « no », a Line stamp is a solution when people do not want to be rude. 23

It is also a good way to answer quickly when you do not have time to write texts messages


Line's conversation
Images: The New York Times

LINE is also used by brands such as DIOR, UNIQLO, MY LITTLE PARIS OR COCA-COLA to communicate amongst potential or actual customers but BURBERRY was the first fashion brand to create exclusive stickers that have featured LINE's official characters.24

BURBERRY wanted to expend itself in Japan and to connect more with its Asian's fans. So they contracted a partnership with LINE and especially with its two most popular characters : Brown and Cony. The couple made of a bear and a rabbit were BURBERRY's guests for the London's fashion week on February 2015. They created stickers and video where the couple were redressed with Burberry's famous trench coat and check umbrella. During this partnership, LINE x BURBERRY also created Cara Delevigne and Anna Wintour's stickers.

Line x Burberry

BURBERRY's CEO Christopher Bailey said; «I am delighted that we are working closely together with LINE - a company we have long admired for their innovation and creativity. This exciting collaboration will help us share our rich heritage and culture of design by building a very personal relationship with audiences in Japan.»

22 Cf. appendix 2 : Survey - Japanese Organizations's Communications - 2015

23 TABUCHI, Hiroko. (May 2015, 2014) «No Time to Text? Say It With Stickers » in The New York Times.

24 GHOSH, Shona. (February 18, 2015) « Burberry brings London Fashion Week to Tokyo with Line messaging app » in Marketing Magazine


According to Takuya TEJIMA from LINE, the success of stamps could be the result of the opening in 2014 of the LINE CREATORS MARKET which allowed any company or person to sell its own stamps on the « LINE STAMPS SHOP».25 It gives opportunities to promote anything through « cute stamps » made by brands for customers.

The 40-sticker sets cost 100 yen each (around €0.80) and creators keep the half of the sales.

Seven months after its launch, 270,000 creators from 145 different countries applied for LINE CREATORS MARKET service, it represents about 23,4 million euros. Currently, around 30,000 stickers are sold in the Creators Market.

Created only four years ago, on March 2011 (just after the tsunami) LINE is one of the biggest successes that Japan has ever met before.

Softbank Family

Two years after its launch, it became the archipelago's largest social network and on February 2015, it announced the 600 million users mark had been passed.

b) Softbank

In 2007, the mobile phone company SOFTBANK began using a white male dog in its commercial campaigns for their White Plan. In those ads he is the patriarch of the SHIRATO family whereas his wife and his two kids are human.

The commercial series won the 2008 ACC Grand Prix Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Award. The marketing team of SOFTBANK decided to use a dog after finding that they had to be different from other companies by using a non human but « family man » and that dog was the favorite pet amongst Japanese.26

In his book, Aoki SADASHIGE, professor of Social Sciences Department of Media and Communication Studies of Hosei University, 27 does a comparison between the

25 Cf appendix 3: Interview of Takuya TEJIMA - LINE's Application Developer

26 CORKILL, Edan. (April 29, 2012) «Otosan, Japan's top dog» in Japan Times

27 AOKI, Sadashige,\u12461ÉLp573'-- 1.'7-- (Kyarakutaa Pawaa), Tokyo, 2014, NHK Shuppan,


characteristics of each characters, if it had been a human or a dog : he writes that a dog as a dad has not that rude « paternal power », that it seems cuter and more able to communicate and to be listened by the audience than a human. As Japanese are not reticent with unserious things, SOFTBANK did it in a serious field of services that are telecommunication.

SOFTBANK's head of marketing, Tatsuro Kurisaka said that the use of the white dog brought dozens of million euros to the company. It is not only linked to the advertising but also with by-products. SOFTBANK has produced beers, books, mobile cases and bikes with the dog's face or speakers that have a dog shape.

2.1.2 Gotochi Kyara, the Place Branding

Everywhere, tourism is used to revitalize a region. But in the Land of the Rising Sun, in order to do so, mascots are used as part of Place Branding28. They are called gotouchi kyara \u12372²«-'nÉLÉÉ5 that means « place character mascots ».29

They represent cities or prefectures and their characteristics are that they highlight significant aspects of the place they belong to and these are often famous foods. As explained in the part 1 about Japanese souvenir, food is important for them especially when traveling. Also all those mascots have the goal to make their places look better towards visitors and to be more dynamic.

a) Kumamon, the bear who is worth millions

This black bear with red cheeks mascot born in Kyushu (south of Japan) met an unlikely marketing triumph in the island. His name is literally translated as « Bear Man » from « kuma » that means « bear » and « mon » that means «man » in the local dialect.30

Rivaling the success of Hello Kitty or Mickey Mouse in the country, the black bear brought a fortune to its rural region and became a marketing case study.31

28 Def : Use corporate branding techniques to village, cities, regions or nations

29 BARROWS Lisa, Planning with Character: Gotouchi Kyara and Place Branding in Japan, University of Columbia, 2014, 61 pages


31 DEROME, Jean, «Kumamon, a hairy bear », in Zoom Japan, 23, July-August 2014, pages 9-10


In 2014, two years after its launch, Kumamon has already generated 1 billion euros in economic benefits for his region, including tourism and by-products sales.32 Kumamon is so famous that it danced for the Emperor and his wife when they came in the Kumamoto prefecture.

When we watch the video33, it seems unbelievable that a mascot is vigorously dancing in front of the most important family in Japan, but it is normal for Japanese. Through that dance, Kumamon showed the dynamic part of its prefecture and illustrated local people's mind.

Since the first day of his launch, licenses are offered for free : companies only need to fill out a free application and obtain permission to use it. This decision has been taken in order to increase Kumamon's notoriety but keeping control of his image.

The prefecture has received more than 10,000 applications since December 2010, with an average of 700 a month. Thanks to this free of charge licensing, Kumamon's face can be found on everything from cookies to phone cases and noodles.

It allowed Kumamoto Prefecture and Kumamon to gain notoriety and in 2013, 87.4 percent of the Japanese population recognized his image.

«Definitely Kumamoto's prominence has increased in the eyes of the public,» said Masataka NARUO, brand officer for the prefectural government.34

The same year, JAPAN AIR LINE offered to its travelers to USA and several countries in Europe (such as France or Germany), a Kumamon in-flight meal called «Air Kumamon».35 Made by Kumamoto's

Air Kumamon

food companies and restaurants, the goal was to offer JAL's passengers an innovative meal by making them discover Kyushu's local food.

However, after months, the character Kumamon itself was promoted in

32 FUJII, Moeko. (June 28, 2013) «The Branding of Kumamon: The Bear That Stole Japan's Heart» in Japan Real Time

33 «Youtube : Emperor of Japan Akihito and Kumamon dance,» April 23, 2014

34 HIMAYA, Hiroshi (March 12, 2014) « Mascot Kumamon turns cute into bear market » in The Japan Times.

35 Japan Airline (22 May, 2014) «Popular [AIR KUMAMON] with New Package Onboard JAL International Flights».


national campaigns rather than the region Kumamoto. But according to Shogo TOYOTA from Osaka's Research Institute for Culture, Energy and Life, it does not matter as « Kumamon's true role is to be a medium for boosting Kumamoto's brand image ». So now Kumamon's goal is to stay efficient as a spokesman of Kumamoto in an era where place branding mascots challengers are everywhere, including Funassyi of Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture who defeated Kumamon in terms of popularity in August 2013.36

b) Funassyi, the anthropomorphic pear Created by an anonymous citizen of Funabashi in Chiba Prefecture, this vigorous dancing pear became one of the most famous mascots in Japan. He unofficially represents the city of Funabashi which is only known for the culture of delicious pears.

His name is a composition of « funa » in reference to the city and « nassyi/nashi » the name in Japanese language of the pears cultivated in this place.



Even if the city refuses to recognize him as its mascot, for image control issues, Funassyi has increased his nationwide notoriety with almost 1.3 million of followers on Twitter37 and has generated economic benefits of 50 million euros after a bit more than three years.38

He is considered as a celebrity in Japan.39 He has made over 10 commercials including for a local tea brand or Fuji Film. It won many awards such as the « Japan Department Store Association's Local Character General Election » in 2013 or « Voice Ringtone Category of Japan's RecoChoku Annual Ranking» the same year.

36 NAMIHEI, Odaihira, «Mascot Planet », in Zoom Japan, 23, July-August 2014, pages 6-7


38 ADELSTEIN Jack.(March 2015) «Funassyi: The Pacifist Pear Fairy Ready To Take On The World, 1.2 Million Japanese Already Love It» in Forbes

39 STUCKY, Nathalie-Kyoko. (March 9, 2015) «Japan's Peacenik Pear Fairy» in The Daily Beast.


He is also often guest on events or TV shows40. Such as « human » guests, he does some TV games and oral speeches. He is invited for interviews and is beloved by TV programs for his convulsive dances and its zany personality. When speaking, he often ends his sentences with the word « nashi » which not only refers to pears as we said before, but which also means « without » or « not alright » in Japanese. So his «interviews » are often nonsensical as we don't know if he answers positively or unfavorably. But « nashi » can also means « pear » in Japanese, so every time he speaks, he makes a reference to the prefecture of Funabashi and increase the place's notoriety indirectly.

On March 5, 2015, Funassyi was the first non-human invited by FOREIGN CORRESPONDENTS' CLUB OF JAPAN41 to show its support to the Japan's pacifist Constitution and he has been interviewed by many media from all around the world.42 Even celebrities endorsed him in shows, in magazines or in social medias. For example the model Cara DELAVIGNE (who has showed her love for Japanese's cute characters with the Burberry x Line stickers partnership ) or Miranda KERR appeared on photos with him.

The talking pear has generated so many licensed products, that on March 2015, Funassyi Land, a shop that sells only Funassyi branded goods, opened in Funabashi City and an anime called Funassyi no FunaFunaFuna Biyori has been launched on Nippon Television.43

Once again we can see how mascots are integrated in the Japanese culture. It will be unimaginable in western countries such as France or USA to see a speaking character acting like a real human in a TV show or in an official journalist's conference.

Those place branding mascots are really powerful, even more than brand mascots. In the survey44 we asked people « What are your top 3 favorite mascots? », and as

40 Cf. appendix 4 : Funassyi, the anthropomorphic pear

41 FCCJ : one of the world's oldest and most prestigious press clubs.

42 Youtube: «Superstar mascot Funassyi: "I'm a symbol of what perseverence can do"

43 WILLIAM, (March 10, 2015) «Funassyi TV anime series, starts March 30th» in Japan Trends.

44 Cf. appendix 2 : Survey - Japanese Organizations's Communications - 2015


expected Kumamon and Funassyi represented 48% of answers ahead of Line's characters.

Cities have to compete to attract visitors and the use of mascot characters is well integrated in their « city branding » strategies.

As they fit with the kawaii culture of contemporary Japanese society, using mascots can be a good opportunity to both promoting and making profits for the regions or cities by becoming, like Funassyi, brands by themselves.

2.1.3 How Japanese public institutions soften their powers? Mascots are not only used by companies and for tourism, they are also used by public institutions in order to soften their images in the eyes of their audiences. I have chosen three of them to talk about: the Tokyo Police, the Tokyo Fire brigade and more recently the Prison's mascots.

a) Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department : Pipo-kun


Pipo-kun has been created in 1987 and his name comes from the words « people » and « police » 45 . « Kun » is an honorific suffix often used for young males.

His body is a mix of big ears, to listen people's problems, big eyes, to see everything that can happen and an antenna to catch movements around him.

Through the use of his image on videos and posters, the Tokyo Police Department softens its institution's image. He is part of prevention campaigns in the subway transportation system, directly appealing to the population.46

As companies do, the Tokyo Police also created by-products that people may keep on them : on their phones, on their backpacks, etc.

It is a way for Tokyo Police authorities to promote itself directly through people without doing any special campaign.

45 HARRISON, Edward & John, Idle Idol, New-York, 2010, Jake Davis, 144 pages

46 Cf. appendix 5 : Tokyo Police Department's Mascot - Pipo-kun


Pipo-Kun is the most famous Police character, as Tokyo is the biggest and the most famous prefecture in Japan. But actually, every prefecture has its own official mascot. There are as much mascots as number of Prefectures in Japan with one extra for the city of Saga and in Yokohama. Each one is represented with the symbol of its own prefecture : food, flower, animal or local legends.47

b) Tokyo Metropolitan Fire Department : Kyuta-kun Kyuta-kun is found outside Tokyo's fire stations and his face is printed on leaflets, stickers and posters for the department such as Pipo-kun for the Police.

His name is a pun with the number 9 (in 119 which is the emergency number) and 2 kanji48 \u24613} and \u25937~, which mean «rapid» and «rescue»


are both pronounced « kyu » in Japanese Kyuta-kun

He has a red suit, which is a lucky color in the island, with the

number 119 printed on his chests, and wears a blue helmet that represents water. Like Pipo-kun, he has yellow antennas that are supposed to light up when there is a danger.

c) Asahikawa Prison : Katakkuri-chan


That mascot character was launched in 2013 in order to soften the Japan's far north Asahikawa city's prison's image and make it more acceptable by the wider society.49

Katakkuri-chan, who exists in male or female version, is dressed with a prison warden's uniform and wears a giant purple flower on his head.

Asahikawa's prison is known as one of the country's most forbidding jails. They created that mascot to change the prison's dark and isolated image, and to make nearby residents see this jail as a positive place,

47 Japan Police Mascots Official Website -

48 Def: a Japanese writing system - along with hiragana and katakana - that uses Chinese symbols

49 RAVEN, David. (September 2013) «Japan prison gets cuddly mascot» in Mirror.


as people often consider that kind of place unwelcome in their neighborhood.50 So Katakkuri-chan is here to be Asahikawa's spokesperson amongst the general audience and they hope that Katakkuri-chan will encourage nearby residents to support the jail rather than fear it.

In order to create link with their citizens and soften their power, Japanese institutions tend to use cute mascots. Some people believe that because of their culture and way of living, Japanese people are afraid of confronting humans, as explained in the part two about LINE Stickers and SOFTBANK's dog.

This could be why institutions use animal mascots as they are easier to talk with and increase easier people's trust.

2.2 When mascots are not enough to save a brand image: the TEPCO / Fukushima case

In 2012, one year after the Fukushima disasters, TEPCO, the electric utility servicing company who operated the Nuclear Power Plants at Fukushima Daiichi, decided to discharge its well famous known mascot in Japan: Denko-chan.51

Since 1987, the little girl's image was on TEPCO's leaflets and TV ads, giving some advices to use energy effectively in households. She was used as a spokesperson to humanize a field which was usually not appreciated. And she was effective because a survey showed that 80% of people associated advertising campaigns with Denko-chan to TEPCO. As all the mascots we talked about earlier, she was featured on many by-products : pens, mobile phone strap, lunchbox a pair of oven mitts52.

The company's spokesperson after the Fukushima's issues « We pulled out the character since the accident and we decided not to renew our contract with the Denko-chan's illustrator »

50 SPOTTISWOODE, Jocelyn. (September 2013) «Japanese prison adopts mascot» in The Telegraph.

51 SEKIGUCHI Tokyo. (March 15, 2012) «Sayonara Denko-Chan: Tepco Unplugs Cartoon Mascot» in Japan Real Time.

52 Cf. appendix 6 : TEPCO's Mascot - Denko-chan's by-products

TEPCO did it for several reasons. The first one was that they had to save money in order to compensate victims of the nuclear crisis. They also had to save money to deactivate the reactors and to decontaminate the affected area, as the costs of the operations were estimated to 44 billion euros.

Finally, they did it because Denko-chan's image was too affected. Some people started to do some caricatures that were directly linked with the accident. Her catch phrase used to be « Be careful with electricity », so it seemed a bit inappropriate to use her as a representative of a company who caused so many damages.

People were not able to believe her messages anymore, and to be forgotten TEPCO has chosen to keep the silence and to dismiss its mascot.


Original image vs caricatures of Denko-chan
« Be careful with electricity »

Few days after the accident, some people launched some unofficial characters related to the nuclear accident. Genpatsu-kun (Nuclear Boy in English) was drawn by an artist to illustrate the crisis situation with heartwarming words.

It shows that even in disasters, Japanese people continue to pay attention to mascots and that they have such an important role that they can be discharged such as human during a crisis.

It is hard to imagine BOUYGUES TELECOM, the St. Peter's Basilica or the Police of New-York with such mascot characters, but in Japan, according to the Gotouchi Kyara Catalogue53, there were 2,642 mascots registered in 2014 for places or institutions, such as cities, towns, police forces, jails, and more.

They are not only numerous but also influent amongst the population. Japanese companies, places and institutions found an efficient way to communicate efficiently with their audiences.

53 Japanese Mascots Official Online Catalogue -


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