What You Need to know all about Japanese Yuru Characters
Japan has a reputation as a country full of weird and wonderful things. People from all over the world come to see the serene beauty of the ancient temples in Kyoto or an exquisitely presented bento box packed delicately with delightful Japanese ingredients.
Amongst such a rich cultural heritage, there also exists kawaii culture (cuteness culture), unique to Japan and now synonymous with the country. Kawaii culture has been firmly embedded into Japanese society irrespective of gender, generation, or region. Kawaii things are everywhere in Japan; on posters in local government buildings full of serious looking men and women in dark suits, on mobile phone cases displayed in shop fronts, or even amongst the historical buildings in Kyoto.
Some of the kawaii characters are known as yuru characters and are loved and cherished by people all over Japan. Some of you may have seen them or heard of them; others may have not. There is more to yuru characters than just looking kawaii and lovable. This article will teach you all about yuru characters.
What is a Yuru character?
The name yuru character is short for yurui mascot character (ゆるいますこっとキャラクター) and usually called yuru chara. Yuru is short for a Japanese word yurui (ゆるい), which means, “relaxed”, “loose”, or “imprecise”. They are mascots that represent local regions (also called Gotoji Chara) or organizations in Japan.
Some say, not all mascots are Japanese. You are right! You see these mascots outside Japan also!
So what are yuru characters? How are they different from other mascots? Why are they so popular and why do Japanese people love them so much?
Mascot characters have been around a long time – you might be surprised to know that “mascots” existed as long ago as the 17th century, however, it was in the 1970s when the present day mascots were born.
The first such mascot began its life as a 2D chicken in San Diego, in the United States of America. It was for a series of commercials and became very successful. Following this big hit, they took the character to the next level and turned him into a 3D character; this became the famous San Diego Chicken. He was seen at various events; including sports matches, dancing, and entertaining the crowds. Following his success, many sports teams started to create their own mascot – this was the beginning of the modern-day mascot!
In Japan, the mascots were also seen at various public spaces, at baseball stadiums, cheering on the team from the edge of the field with the fans, or in a shopping center, promoting a particular product or a service to passers-by.
But it was in the last half of the 1980s when Japan was experiencing what is known as a “regional exhibition boom”, a certain mascot was spotted by the comic writer and essayist, Jun Miura. He was watching the TV broadcast of the National Cultural Festival in Hiroshima when its official mascot Bunkakki (ブンカッキー) grabbed his attention. This became the inspiration for a yuru character.
Jun came up with the name yuru chara (ユルキャラ) and begun writing articles about them in his column in Hyper Hobby, which is a monthly magazine. At this point, the name “yuru character” was expressed in Katakana, “ユルキャラ”. When he realized that there were too many characters in the country to introduce them in a monthly magazine, he took the idea to a weekly magazine but he was met with rejection.
He then took it to the production company of his own show called The Slide Show and the idea was accepted. In 2002, they hosted the first yuru character show, selling out the tickets despite the fact that yuru characters were still relatively unknown.
With the new serial, articles started in a weekly magazine, yuru characters were gaining a reputation, however, the real break materialized when a mascot Hikonyan (ひこにゃん) emerged in 2007. It was created by the local government in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture and it became so popular, he won the 2010 Yuru Chara Grand Prix.
Before this, some local authorities were reluctant about their mascots being called “yuru characters” as their mascots had a serious purpose in their existence, whereas yuru characters have a sense of playfulness and humor about them. However, when they saw how the whole country reacted to Hikonyan, their perception was changed and many followed suit.
As the name yuru suggests, they are relaxed and not so strict, included in its definition. There is such a thing as Yuru chara sannkajyou (3 rules of yuru character) which defines what a yuru character is but it’s not strictly followed.
So why have yuru characters become so popular? Some say it is due to the timing of their creation. When yuru characters first emerged, Japanese society was experiencing the aftermath of a major natural disaster as well as economic uncertainty. People started to seek an emotional connection with each other and they found comfort in yuru characters that were designed beyond practicality and rationality.
Different regions and Their Own Yuru Character
Kumamoto Prefecture – Kumamon (くまモン)
This character is probably the most recognized and most popular yuru character in Japan. It is a “he” and was created by Kumamoto Kencyo (Kumamoto Prefectural Government) as a regional mascot, for their Kumamoto surprise campaign in 2010, to celebrate the opening of the Kagoshima section of the Kyushu bullet train.
The name Kumamon (くまもん) was chosen because it sounds like Kumamoto (くまもと) – there is only one letter difference in Japanese letters – so people would easily recognize the association with Kumamoto Prefecture. Kuma (くま) means “bear” in Japanese, and as the name suggests, this yuru character is a bear.
The word mon (モン) means “person” in the local dialect, and to signify this, it is written in Katakana. Also, a name that ends with mon (門) is a very traditional Japanese name. It is said to originate from Emonfu (衛門府), which was a division responsible for guarding the gate of the Imperial Court in Heian Era (794 AD – 1185). The guards were divided into two groups, Uemonfu (右衛門府) and Saemonfu (左衛門府), and when they retired from their positions, they often used the part of their title uemon (右衛門) and saemon (左衛門) in their names to identify themselves. Eventually, people with no connection to Emonfu started to use these names and these names became very common. Not many people have these names anymore but they are still used in product names or character names because it creates a traditional and sophisticated image. Japanese people also associate these emon names with something cute, perhaps because of the most famous cartoon cat, Doraemon, who is cute and cuddly. It is a perfect name for a yuru character.
He was the winner of 2011 Yuru Chara Grand Prix, with 287,315 votes.
He is a local civil servant and his official title is Business Manager. He has his own office, which is based at Kumamon Square in Turuya Department store. He also appears at various events all over the country.
Funabashi City, Chiba Prefecture – Funassyi (ふなっしー)
Unlike other yuru characters, Funassyi is a creation of an individual who is based in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture. After the Great East Japan Earthquake on 11th March 2011, like many of the businesses in Japan, his shop was suffering from the drop in sales figure and Funassyi was created to promote his business. It is an unofficial yuru character of Funabashi City.
The name Funassyi derived from “Funabashi” and nashi means “pear” in Japanese, as it is Funabashi’s famous produce. Funassyi is a “pear fairy” and was born on 4th July 138 (making him 1880 years old), which is also “Pear day” in Japan. His parents are pear trees and he has 274 pear siblings.
In spite of not being officially recognized by the local government, Funassyi is very popular amongst Japanese people, winning the top place at the Gotouji Chara General Election 2013, and it became the official character of LaLaport TOKYO-BAY, the largest shopping center in Japan. He appears on TV and at various events and festivals throughout Japan.
He has never won the Yuru Chara Grand Prix though. Some say this is due to his unofficial status as a regional mascot.
There are four Funassyiland in Japan, where you can buy Funassyi merchandise. They are in Funabashi, Chiba; Umeda, Osaka, Harajuku, Tokyo, and Nagoya,
Hikone City, Shiga Prefecture – Hikonyan (ひこにゃん)
This yuru character is an official mascot of Hikone City, Shiga Prefecture. It was created in 2007 to mark the 400th anniversary of Hikone Castle, a national treasure. Hikonyan is a white cat wearing a red kabuto, which is a type of helmet, worn by the warriors and was part of the armor used during the battle in Japan. The red color of the helmet comes from when the local army painted all the armor in red.
Hikonyan is based on a white cat that is said to have protected the second Dimyo (Lord), Ii Naotaka, who ruled this area in the 15th century when it was an independent state. The legend goes that when the Dimyo was taking shelter from a sudden downpour under a large tree, he saw a white cat beckoning him to come over. When he moved closer to the cat, the tree was struck by the thunder and he escaped his death. This is one of many tales, said to be behind the famous Maneki Neko.
He was the winner of the very first Yuru Chara Grand Prix in 2010.
He is at Hikone Castle every day, enjoying his walk and greeting the visitors.
Imabari City, Ehime Prefecture – Bari-san (バリィさん)
This yuru character represents Imabari City in Ehime Prefecture. Bari-san, or “Mr. Bari”, was created in 2009, by a local graphic design company, requested by the local tourism board who were looking for a mascot for their website.
The name bari comes from the last part of “Imabari”. He looks like a bird and is carrying a boat because Imabari is famous for yakitori, which is a grilled chicken on a skewer, and for the shipping industry. He also wears a tiara as an object on his head; the tiara represents a famous bridge, Kurushimakaikyo Oobashi. It looms over the Kurushima channel, connecting Ooshima, where Imabari City is, and Shikoku. It was built in the late 80s and it consists of 3 suspension bridges, which were the first of their kind in the world. It stretches over 4,105m in total.
Since his creation, Bari-san has been busy writing his own blog, tweeting on Twitter and appearing at various events.
He was the winner of 2012 Yuru Chara Grand Prix.
Japanese Yuru Character Competition
Each year, many yuru characters gather together to compete for the first place at the Yuru Chara Grand Prix. They come from all over Japan, representing the region or organization they promote. Votes are cast by phone or using voting papers that come with the official guidebook.
This annual event was first held in 2010, organized by Jun Miura, in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture. There were only 169 yuru characters participating but this number doubled in the following Grand Prix. The characters can enter one of two categories Gotoji (regional) and Kigyo (corporate). Any yuru characters can enter the competition as long as they belong to an organization, such as a local government, a local tourism board or a local business who has a strong connection to the region they represent.
The last Grand Prix, in 2018, was held in Hanazono, Osaka Prefecture, with 909 yuru characters competing. The winner from the regional division was Kaparu who is kappa or water goblin, attracting 889,346 votes. The character was created in 2000 as a 2D character. Kaparu is an official yuru character of Shiki Culture and Sports promotion.
Although the details of this year’s competition have not been announced yet, it is possible that it will be held somewhere in Kanto area, which is around Tokyo, as quite a few Grand Prix in the past were held in Kansai area, Western part of Japan.
Merits of Yuru Characters
Yuru characters might look cute and innocuous but they have a powerful influence on Japanese society. Here are some areas where their effect is most felt.
When a regional organization creates a yuru character to represent their area, essentially they are creating their own brand. This helps to promote their region as well as the sale of various items. They also have a unique way of creating income. Traditionally, characters earned their money from their royalties. In the yuru character’s case, their name or image can be used by anyone for free, as long as it is authorized by the organization the character belongs to. This allows more businesses to create and sell items, including the local producers and manufacturers; the more they sell the more visible the character becomes. Also by producing products locally, it generates money and helps revitalize the local economy.
Creating a new image
Traditionally, many regional organizations suffered from their stiff image. By using a cute and friendly yuru character, they are able to create a more approachable image amongst their local residents as well as people outside the region, making their presence known and leaving a stronger impression in people’s minds. This helps to lessen the gap between the organization and the local residents, making it easier to send the message across. It also creates fans and attracts more people to the events.
Increased media exposure
By using the name “yuru character”, they benefit from increased media coverage and exposure to the wider audiences. This helps to gain national scale recognition and generates interests amongst many people, who then visit the area and find out the local culture and history.
Stronger regional unification and appreciation
Yuru characters also have an effect which was most unexpected. They were created to promote the region to people who are not yet familiar with the area, however, the presence of yuru characters representing the region creates a stronger bond within the local residents and their love of their own culture and history grows even more.
Do You Now Know all About Japanese Yuru characters?
In Japan, people were experiencing recession after recession, job insecurity and salary cuts. Japanese people endured many decades of uncertainty and they were tired of the struggle. They wanted a break. Yuru characters provided them with exactly what they needed. Perhaps that is why they are so popular with Japanese people.
Some of the most popular yuru characters have no facial expression. You cannot tell if they are happy or sad, which coincides with the faces of famous characters in Western countries. Some say Japanese people prefer someone or something that is affirmative and characters with no strong expressions on their faces can be that. They can give the tired modern Japanese society some sort of healing effect.
So yuru characters aren’t just pretty faces. They don’t just bring fun to the region, they have an important presence in Japanese society.
If you have never heard of yuru characters before, what do you think of them? If you are already familiar with them, did you know any of the characters mentioned here? In any case, I hope you all enjoyed this article and are inspired to go and see these adorable yuru characters!
Izzy / Japan