Whimsical mascots have become a virtual obsession in Japan, and seemingly every town, business and arm of government has one.
MIYAZAKI, Japan — For some of Japan’s most adored celebrities, the journey to fame starts in a converted Internet cafe above a bowling alley in Miyazaki.
This is where Hiromi Kano runs her unlikely star factory, an enterprise whose most successful creations are recognized by millions. Some have huge followings on Twitter and earn billions of yen in revenue. At least one has met the emperor.
The idols churned out by Kano, 55, are mascots: the smiling, dancing animals, mutated foodstuffs and saucer-eyed humanoids that promote every conceivable thing in Japan, from out-of-the-way tourist spots to careers in the military.
Kano is a costume maker, though no one in her industry would describe the job so bluntly.
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“We have a motto, which is that there’s no human inside,” said Kano, a mother of two with a warm smile who oversees the workshop and its roughly 40 employees, almost all women.
Whimsical mascots have become almost as closely associated with Japan as Mount Fuji and sushi. Popular for decades, they have become a virtual obsession in recent years, and seemingly every town, business and arm of government has one.
So ubiquitous are mascots that last year, Japan’s Finance Ministry suggested that public agencies think twice before creating more, fearing taxpayer money was being wasted. Osaka prefecture alone was found to be supporting 92 of them, including two dogs for separate tax departments and a caped, flying hot-water bottle representing pharmaceutical regulation. The governor ordered a cull.
Kano said business was still booming, though.
“Japanese people have this desire to take the sharp edges off things, to take hard things and make them soft,” she said. “If you want to explain, say, industrial waste, adding a character softens the message and helps it get through to people.”
There are dozens of mascot-outfit makers in Japan, but the Kano family’s company, Kigurumi.biz, stands out in the crowd. Its suits, which cost $4,000 to $6,500, are the Cadillacs of the mascot world, with features like motorized fans to keep their occupants cool during Japan’s humid summers. Most are based on existing images, but Kano employs artists who can create characters from scratch or who can refine customers’ designs.
Kano’s biggest claim to fame is creating the wearable version of Kumamon, a red-cheeked bear that has become one of the most popular fantasy creatures in Japan.
The mascot for rural Kumamoto prefecture, Kumamon won a nationwide popularity contest in 2011. His image adorns bags, T-shirts, key chains, plastic chopsticks, liquor bottles and countless other items. According to the local branch of the Japanese central bank, which studied Kumamon’s economic impact, the bear earned Kumamoto 124 billion yen, or about $1 billion, in tourism and merchandising revenue in the two years after the contest win.
Kumamon has 427,000 Twitter followers and greeted Emperor Akihito on a royal visit in 2013.
Success stories like Kumamoto’s have kept the mascot addiction going.
Kano was born in Miyazaki, a rural area on Japan’s southwestern Kyushu island known for golf courses and citrus farming. (Official mascots: three dogs, one of which is in turn dressed as a chicken — a mascot playing a mascot.)
She did not set out to create a cuteness empire. After a stint in New York in her early 20s, where she worked for a travel agency, she returned to Miyazaki to marry, but she later divorced. She moved to Tokyo with her children and then to rural Fukushima prefecture, before going back to Miyazaki after she met her current husband, a designer of theater sets and commercial displays.
“When we got our first orders for mascots, we made them ourselves, by trial and error,” she recalled. Demand for flashy trade-show displays and other large, expensive items dried up as Japan’s economy stagnated. “Eventually, mascots were all that was left.”
Today, the company produces 20 to 25 costumes a month. International orders are growing: It has done Malaysian cartoon characters and a cuddly bear for Feiler, a German linen maker. An Italian fashion brand recently ordered a pair of mascots — design “top secret, but very edgy,” Kano said — for a promotional event in the upscale Ginza shopping district in Tokyo.
“Foreign companies are starting to understand that you need a cute mascot to sell anything to Japanese people,” she said.
Recently, some of Kano’s creations gathered in Hanyu, a semirural Tokyo suburb that hosts an annual two-day mascot fair, now in its sixth year, which draws about 40,000 visitors.
Hundreds of mascots wandered the crowd, dispensing hugs and waves. (Mascots may tweet, but as a rule they do not talk.) Three uniformed rhinoceroses from the Self-Defense Forces, as the Japanese military is known, marched in formation around a field.
It was a place to spot mascot trends and check out up-and-coming stars. Fukka-chan, a rabbit with two spring onions sticking out of its hat like antennas, was drawing crowds. So was Sanomaru, a white dog with an upturned ramen bowl on its head who won the national popularity title in 2013.
Naomi Meguro, 37, and Tomoko Miyakawa, 40, wore ramen-bowl hats as they waited in a long line for photographs with Sanomaru. They described themselves as “kyara-tomo,” or “character friends,” who met online through a shared love of mascots. Their favorites are in constant virtual contact.
“They post photographs and messages like ‘Good morning’ or ‘I’m coming down with a cold,’ ” Meguro said. “They’re more than just stuffed toys.”
Kano said she believed one reason for mascots’ popularity was that they provided an outlet for physical contact and gushing expressions of affection in an otherwise reserved society.
“Japanese people don’t really hug, even husbands and wives,” she said. “I would never hug my employees, but as soon as they put on a mascot suit, I want to cuddle them.”
Still, Kano says she often wonders how long Japan’s mascot obsession can go on.
“There are times when even I think, ‘Really? Is this necessary?’ ” she said.