Yuru-chara (ゆるキャラ) are mascot characters which are used to promote pretty much everything in Japan. These mascots are all over the place, promoting everything from cities and regions to products, chains and restaurants. Even the Immigration Bureau of Japan has its own cute character. Since 2010, there has been a yearly Yuru-chara Grand Prix to find out which mascot is the most popular in Japan.
There are thousands of characters around and you’d be surprised by how many you recognise after spending just a short time in Japan. However, these cute mascots are not always met with a positive reception, as was the case with the controversial Sento-kun of Nara, Kansai. However, Nara has another character which is as cute and popular as the Sento-kun is creepy and unpopular. Let’s take a look at these two Yuru-Chara of Nara.
Created in 2010 for the 1300th Anniversary of the Nara-Heijyokyo Capital, Sento-kun was designed by Satoshi Yabuuchi, a professor and sculptor at the Tokyo University of the Arts. However, many would argue that there is little artistic detail about the creepy, baby-faced character which can be seen all over Nara.
The young boy is dressed in religious garb, and with the mark on his forehead (Nikkeishū) and elongated ears typical of Buddhist statues, this mascot has caused much controversy amongst religious groups who have even claimed that the mascot is blasphemous. Coming from Nara – a city famous for it’s Shika Deer – Sento-kun also has a pair of twiggy antlers protruding from his bulbous head, giving a Frankenstein-like appearance to the already grotesque character. One word that is commonly used to describe Sento-kun is kimo-kawaii – cute but grotesque.
The Association of Commemorative Events spent over 5,000,000 yen on this creepy little guy, and as you can imagine were pretty shocked by the reception he received. Neither the Association nor the Government of Nara Prefecture has made any noises about changing or altering the mascot, and the association even issued a statement urging the public to accept the character and support the commemorative event which he represented.
Shika Deer (also known as Sika Deer) are a type of deer that is particularly famous in Nara, where hundreds of them roam freely in Nara Park. The Shikamaro-kun mascot is a cute, cuddly version of these deer and is the mascot of the Nara City Tourist Association.
This mascot hits the nail right on the head – he is the symbol of what people like best about Nara (the deer) embodied in an adorable, cartoon style character that makes the perfect soft toy for any young child. Shikamaro-kun is super kawaii, and all sorts of merchandise can be bought with his lovable face on it. The same items are available for Sento-kun but, seriously, who wants a keyring or postcard with that creepy face on it?
Mascots (yuru-chara) are a great marketing tool, and remembering that any publicity is good publicity, even a horrific failure of a mascot like Sento-kun can help with company or product promotion. Of these funny little mascots, Shikamaro-kun is a definite favourite of mine – and during my recent trip to Nara, I couldn’t help purchasing a handful of postcards, stickers and keyrings of my new favourite mascot. So what about you – which mascots are your favourites and which, like Sento-kun, do you wish had never been designed in the first place?