Cute Tokyo 2020 Olympic mascots are plastered all over the host city, but they have a competition in mascot-crazy Japan, where cuddly characters promote everything from prisons to health checks.
In the land of Hello Kitty and Pokemon, adorable creatures give friendly faces to private businesses and public institutions, and the most successful have full celebrity status.
One of the cult favorites is punk-rock “pear fairy” Funassyi, who rose to prominence a decade ago as the unofficial representative of Funabashi, a city east of Tokyo famous for its juicy pears.
Of an unspecified gender and known for his hyperactive TV stunts and good-natured bad manners, Funassyi has amassed nearly 1.4 million Twitter followers and is so popular that walking the streets risks attracting hordes of fans.
“It’s normal for adults to adore mascots” in Japan, tweeted the bright yellow character in an interview with AFP.
“Looks like we’re friends,” added the pear-shaped personality, who wore a fancy blue romper and red bow tie, and famously adored Aerosmith and Ozzy Osbourne.
Experts often suggest Japan’s love of mascots is linked to animist religious traditions and beliefs in which inanimate objects can acquire souls.
“Japanese people often anthropomorphize,” says Funassyi, whose founder remains a mystery.
And mascots can make a lot of money.
Take Kumamon, the potbellied red-cheeked bear who promotes the southern Kumamoto region. The wildly popular mascot made 170 billion yen ($1.5 billion) last year for local businesses selling branded goods.
Funassyi won’t divulge merchandise sales figures, but crowds of fans flock daily to the Funassyi Land store in Funabashi to buy branded products.
The feeling of ‘healing’
The tradition of Olympic mascots dates back to Munich in 1972, when a dachshund named Waldi became the first official Olympic mascot.
Since then, each host country has created its own character that epitomizes Olympic values and aspects of cultural heritage, with a futuristic-looking version of Tokyo Miraitowa, a blue checkered character with wide comic book eyes and pointed ears.
The mascot is so big in Japan that Choko Ohira, 62, runs a school in Tokyo that trains people to come across as cuddly characters.
“(The mascot) has the power to attract people,” said Ohira, who has run the school for 17 years.
“Kids come in with smiles on their faces. They held hands and hugged (characters),” added Ohira, who spent years appearing as a famous mouse on children’s shows on NHK.
And impossible players give people a chance to break away in a society that is sometimes rigid.
“With mascots, you can do things that you don’t (with other people) in Japan,” Ohira said.
His students, dressed casually, first practiced the waves and exaggerated steps commonly used by mascots, before climbing into full-size panda, cat and squirrel outfits to test their new skills.
Student Nobuko Fujiki, 61, said she saw a “different side” of herself when dressed as a mascot.
“In costume, I can be friendlier and more active,” he said.
It’s not the easiest job: only a handful of mascots make a lot of money, and mascot costumes can be heavy, hard to see, and very hot in a sweltering Japanese summer.
But the former kindergarten teacher said the joy she felt overcame any discomfort.
“I was very happy when I saw the mascot. So I wanted to be on the other side, giving that feeling to other people,” he said.
Funassyi said fans often see the mascot as someone they can safely trust.
“They ask me for advice on life and work… how to be friendly with a boss they hate, or what to do with a husband who doesn’t throw laundry properly in the basket,” the cult character says.
“They want someone who acknowledges their efforts. I think they’re looking for that in the mascot.”
Asako Iwatate, a 33-year-old office worker, said the mascot had a “healing” effect on her.
“When I work, I panic and get stressed,” he told AFP.
“But when I see the cute mascot, I feel like ‘Oh, forget all that’.”