Japan is home to an astounding number of promotional mascots, or yuru kyara, cute (and sometimes not-so-cute) costumed characters created to promote everything from prefectures and cities to products and services. Since 2010, the top dog (or other creature) of the yuru kyara world has been determined each year at the annual Yuru Kyara Grand Prix, of which the inaugural champion was Shiga Prefecture’s feline warlord, and the first yuru kyara superstar, Hikonyan. Here we introduce other winners past, present, and—dare we say it?—future.
Kumamon (Kumamoto Prefecture, 2011 Champion)
Overall winner at the second Grand Prix in 2011, and one of the first yuru kyara to become a huge merchandising success, Kumamon proved a worthy heir to Hikonyan’s title. Taking his name and form from the character 熊 (kuma), meaning “bear,” Kumamon was created in 2010 in a bid to attract tourism to the prefecture when the Kyūshū Shinkansen service was extended to Kumamoto in 2011. By no means conventionally adorable, his intense, staring eyes have prompted some to dub him kowa-kawa, or “scary-cute.”
Barysan (Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, 2012 Champion)
This chick-like character of indeterminate gender wears a crown intended to symbolize the nearby Kurushima-Kaikyō Bridge and has a fine Imabari towel wrapped around its waist. Barysan is described as being kind, yet sometimes overly enthusiastic when it comes to extolling the virtues of its home. Talk of a pleasant disposition, however, is undermined somewhat by Barysan’s cannibalistic tendencies (a favorite dish is local specialty yakitori), and signature baryattack, which has been used on TV to upend rival mascot Kumamon, along with various other human celebrities.
Sanomaru (Sano, Tochigi Prefecture, 2013 Champion)
A rambunctious young samurai from the town at the foot of Sano Castle (abandoned in 1615). In his earnest desire to promote his locale, Sanomaru wears a Sano ramen (the local specialty) bowl instead of a conical sedge hat, with a noodle fringe peeping forth from beneath the brim, and two potato tempura swords thrust into the belt of his pleated hakama. But despite his unchecked gourmandizing, he is athletic and a born leader, with twinkling eyes that carry an almost hypnotic power to win new devotees to the city he loves so much.
Gunma-chan (Gunma Prefecture, 2014 Champion)
After twice placing third in the Grand Prix, Gunma-chan finally finished top of the pile at this year’s event, with possible astrological reasons: The characters used to write “Gunma” are 群 (gun, herd) and 馬 (ma, horse)—hence Gunma-chan’s equine physique—and, conceivably, his triumph in the year of the horse. Originally unveiled in 1994 as the mascot of a disability sports event, Gunma-chan received his present appellation in 2008, is eternally seven years old, and has the ability to transform his appearance (which tends to mean his costume, which is still pretty impressive for a pony) to suit his particular promotional responsibilities.
Funassyi (Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, ???)
The Murakami Haruki of the Yuru Kyara Grand Prix, Funassyi—a shrieking, leaping, headbanging, androgynous pear—has yet to even feature at the competition, despite a popularity and earning power that outstrips many of the other mascots combined. Indeed, Funassyi is not actually the official representative of Funabashi (that accolade goes to bespectacled, kimono-clad Funaemon). Created by an anonymous independent designer and initially gaining notoriety through madcap videos posted on a dedicated YouTube channel, Funassyi has become a standard-bearer for a recent wave of “indie” mascots. Will Funassyi’s face be permanently pressed longingly at the window of the official yuru kyara banquet, or will this character one day get the recognition its place in the public consciousness seems to warrant?
(Banner photo: An assortment of yuru kyara gather in Aichi Prefecture. Courtesy Flickr user Nishimura Takashi. Originally published on our Facebook page. If you liked it here, why not go and like us there?)
The translation and editorial team at Nippon.com. Get in touch with the contact page on this site or through our social media accounts linked at the top and bottom of each page.