Japanese mascotization, marketing, and imagined communities

by Deanne Walters

Mascots are everywhere in Japan. Often anthropomorphized and cute, they represent companies, cities, and even the Japanese Self Defense Force. They came about after the economic bubble crashed. The national government decided to decentralize, putting more responsibility on the prefectures and cities (Birkett, 2012). Because of the economic bubble, there had also been a mass migration out of the countryside and into the cities (Birkett, 2012). Smaller cities had shrinking populations, both from aging and emigration as well as the problems of the economic depression (Birkett, 2012). So a new way to promote cities and create city pride was made, mascots or characters that represented cities (Birkett, 2012). The mascots speak the local dialect and are often based off of a city’s historical legend or city’s industries (Occhi, 2012).

This marketing tool became very popular and now there are over 800 mascots in Japan (Kracker, 2013). Each prefecture has at least 2 mascots and some have over 50 (Tan, n.d.). These mascots help create the imagined community of the city and become the representation of the city. The characters participate in community events and some of these events become so popular they bring in tourism (Birkett, 2012). These characters have been shown to be very popular with children and the elderly (Tan, n.d.). Some mascots become popular even outside of their city. An example of the massive popularity of mascots can be shown with the mascot grand prix a national event in which people vote on their favorite mascot. The ideas that will be discussed in relation to the mascotization are mascots as soft power, creating imagined hometowns, mascots and their connection to the past, and mascots similarity to invented traditions.

Soft power as defined by Joseph Nye is the ability to influence events and people (2005). While Nye was looking specifically at countries, anything can have soft power. The soft power of the mascots is created in different ways from other organizations, with mascots it is often done through cuteness. Mascots are made to be marketing tools and cuteness is an important component of that marketing (Birkett, 2012). Cuteness is not unique to marketing mascots, it is quite widespread in Japan (Madge, 1997). During live events, the cuteness of the mascots helps create approachability and familiarity that is not possible between two people (Birkett, 2012). This familiarity helps foster the imagined community of the city and from that people feel pride in their cities. The public’s connection to the mascots did not start at events, but through contest were amateur artist create possible mascots and they are voted on by the public and there are also contests for mascots’ names (Occhi, 2012). This connection is then used, indirectly, when mascots are used in marketing that is aimed toward the public, similar to how celebrity endorsements are used (Occhi, 2012).

Mascots at events are played by people wearing costumes and are able to interact with the people around them (Occhi, 2012). These events are specifically working to promote the connection between the mascot and the people (Occhi, 2012). These events are aimed at children and families and used to reinforce the both the characters and the sponsors (Occhi, 2012). The sponsors are usually companies or branches of local government (Occhi, 2012). Many of the mascots also promote traits like kindness and cleanliness (Occhi, 2012). At these events there are also various group activities that promote the idea of togetherness (Occhi, 2012).

Part of the soft power that mascots have is the fact that they are not seen as marketing tools, but as a friendly character something between a mascot and a human (Birkett, 2012). Some of the popular characters get fan mail and talk with their fans over twitter (Birkett, 2012). One famous character, Kumamon, made over 2.5 million yen in merchandise sales (Birkett, 2012). These characters represent their city or prefecture and so are also popular with tourists (Tan, n.d.). Mascots have been successful marketing tools (Birkett, 2012). They can also fail, only some of the characters are popular, usually the more rounded and soft mascots and not the more human shaped mascots (Occhi, 2012). The soft power of mascots is created through their cuteness and approachability. They are aimed at children and families. They are used to market cities, local events, and the mascot’s sponsor.

Mascots were not the first thing to be tried to help revive towns. There was push before them for creating “hometowns” which were the idea of traditional Japan and were said to be the hometowns for urban people, profiting off of the nostalgia of urban people (Birkett, 2012). The connection to the past was not only for the tourists’ sake. The town’s reconnection to the past was also important for the townspeople to feel pride and connection to their town (Birkett, 2012). Towns would also promote some rare product, natural resource, or legends tied to the place and create merchandise of it (Birkett, 2012). Some attempts of merchandising failed because it was available everywhere, however some became successful because they could only be bought in one shop (Birkett, 2012).

Sento-kun

Mascots have been the most successful form of marketing for towns. The mascots share similar ideas to previous marketing schemes. Mascots are usually based on either the industries or the legends of the area (Birkett, 2012). When the mascots are using a figure from history or a legend, the connection is always to the ancient past. One of those mascots is Sento-kun. He was created for Nara’s 1300th anniversary as the embodiment of Nara (“Sento-kun’s profile,” n.d.). He is a young boy with deer antlers to represent the deer in Nara (Hashi, 2011). He is heavily connected to the past because they created him to be the new protector of Nara as other deities were before him (“Sento-kun’s profile,” n.d.). The mascots that are based off legends and traditional creatures vary from Yoichi-kun based off of the archer Nasu no Yoichi from the Tales of Heike to demons and the kappa (Birkett, 2012). All of them have been redesigned to be cute. They are a reinterpretation of the past not completely disconnected from it, but clearly changed (Occhi, 2012). The mascots have been the latest and most successful form of marketing for the towns. The mascots are similar to the previous marketing schemes in promoting the towns with their unique products and connection with the past.

Mascots share attributes to invented traditions. Invented traditions are traditions that have been created recently, but are made to seem as if they are a tradition from the past (Vlastos, 1998). The purpose of the traditions is often to support the status quo. Instead of being from the past, mascots inherit the past. Their purpose is to promote the community similar to some invented traditions that also support group identities. Mascots also promote the status quo, promoting only positive ideas and parts of the past.

Representations of the community, connections to the past, invented traditions, imagined hometowns, and soft power are all discussed in the paragraphs before are also present in national imagined communities. The first parallel is with banal nationalism. Banal nationalism is when an imagined community has objects that make the community feel connected, like flags (Billig, 1995). For cities, the mascots become those representations for the community, while the ties to the cities are not are strong as with the nation there is still the imagined community and the reinforcement of it through the mascots.

Another parallel is with the connection to the past. Nation-states often connect themselves with the past and use the past to support their positions with invented traditions (Vlastos, 1998). In this same way mascots and cities are also using the past for their own ends, which are creating pride in the city.

The next parallel is imagined hometowns and imagined pasts. Imagined hometowns do not have any direct parallel to national imagined communities, but when looking at the ideas that make up imagined hometowns there are parallels. When making imagined hometowns recreates a romanticized Japanese past (Birkett, 2012). Recreating an imagined past is also something that national imagined communities will do as well (Anderson, 2006).

The final parallel, soft power, is one of the more obvious parallels. Both imagined communities have goals that they wanted accomplished through their citizens, the difference is the goals they have. Mascots and the imagined city communities share more resemblance to national imagined communities than would first be assumed.

Created to foster city pride and market the city, mascots have become successful in those goals and beyond. The creation of city pride has had the inadvertent effect of creating imagined city communities around these mascots with various parallels with national imagined communities. The mascots also now have power themselves that is used to market the city, local government branches and companies. The mascots and Japanese city pride show another variation of imagined communities and how marketing can be intermixed with that.

References

  1. Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. New York, NY: Verso.
  2. Billig, M. (1995). Banal nationalism. London, UK: SAGE Publications Ltd.
  3. Birkett, M. (2012). “Amateur” mascots on the loose: The pragmatics of kawaii (cute). (Master’s thesis, University of Michigan).
  4. Hashi. (2011). Japan’s wackiest town mascots. Retrieved from http://www.tofugu.com/2011/08/31/japans-wackiest-town-mascots/
  5. Kracker, D. (2013, May 20). Get loose with japan’s yuru-chara. Retrieved from http://www.mtv81.com/features/specials/get-loose-with-japans-yuru-chara/ 
  6. Madge, L. (1997). Capitalizing on “cuteness”: The aesthetics of social relations in a new postwar Japanese order. The Journal of the German Institute for Japanese Studies, 9, 155-174.
  7. Nye, J. S., Jr. (2005). Soft power: The means to success in world politics. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.
  8. Occhi, D. J. (2012). Wobbly aesthetics, performance, and message. Asian Ethnology, 71(1), 109–132.
  9. Sento-kun’s profile. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.japantravelinfo.com/anime/pdf/sento_kun_profile.pdf 
  10. Tan, C. S. L. (n.d.). ご当地キャラ (gotochikyara) & ゆるキャラ (yurukyara) – the fusion of pop culture in place branding in japan. Retrieved from http://www.ijbts-journal.com/images/main_1366796758/0006-Caroline.pdf 
  11. Vlastos, S. (1998). Mirror of modernity: Invented traditions of modern japan. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
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