As Japan’s population continues to decline, we see more and more non-human characters pop out and come to life on a daily basis. The yuru-kyara boom which started less than a decade ago is now gaining momentum and dominating our everyday lives.
Yuru-kyara refers to a character or a mascot representative of a city or a prefecture, whose primary mission is to promote and vitalize its local culture and community. The name yuru-kyara is an abbreviation of two words: yurui which means “loose”, and kyara – character.
They are not meant to be lovable in the obvious way that facilitates money-making like other commercial figures (Mickey Mouse, Hello Kitty, Snoopy etc) or anime characters — at least not when they were first introduced to the scene. This notion obviously is starting to change as we see more and more people see monetary value in the popularity of their promotional mascot characters, which is completely understandable.
For example, the very popular Kumamon mascot, Kumamoto’s yuru-kyara, is estimated to have generated around 640 million yen for the prefecture, and the sales of Kumamon merchandise totaled over 2,500 million yen in 2011.
While many of these characters are now becoming more like commercial figures, here I would like to introduce a lesser-known newbie, a native of Funabashi City, Chiba, and one which is not even approved or supported by the local government. This unofficial mascot called Funassyi is a “pear” fairy (the word for pear in Japanese is nashi) and looks like, well, a yellow pear with a face.
Despite its unofficial status and supposedly low publicity, Funassyi ranked 506th in the 2012 yuru-kyara “grand prix” popularity contest, out of 865 entries, which I guess isn’t too shabby. Now Funassyi is everywhere.
Incidentally, the winner of the 2012 Grand Prix was Barii-san, the simple but huggable character for Imabari in Ehime, and who jumped up from being second place last time. That’s him below.
Perhaps what makes Funassyi quite different from many others is that he is a talking mascot (and he talks a LOT) and appears to be a bit wacky as well. In this clip, his talk starts around 1:00 in (after a spot of dancing). Notice the enthusiastic waves and responses he gets from the crowd.
So why hasn’t Funabashi City adopted him? The answer is rather obvious – because they don’t want to. Instead, they recently announced their own “official” city mascot named Funaemon, who has no resemblance whatsoever to Funassyi.
This is Funaemon below, a more conservative and “human” yuru-kyara than the pear that is Funassyi. But which is the better mascot?
Will this move be enough to kick the unofficial yet one-and-only Funassyi out of the game? It seems like the odds are against the bureaucrats!
If Kabukicho had a theme park starring Akihabara chika aidoru (“underground” idols), this might be it…
It is located in the heart of Shinjuku’s world of the erotica. The entrance is a garish, bright open plaza manned by cold beefy bouncers who are if not quite rude, certainly very unwelcoming and unhelpful (don’t expect any kind of guidance). In other words, just like a sex club or strip club.
Anyway, then you go over to the main building on the other side of the street to a horrifically bright waiting room. Seriously, it’s so bright that your eyes hurt. There you are surrounded mirrors and flashing lights, and constant sound.
After waiting for the audience to leave from the previous show, you then go down the stairs to the basement performance area where you are given a bento lunchbox and asked to take a seat on one of the two audience areas. It is a kind of traverse stage, with the “show” happening in the hallway between the two blocks of seats.
This means you spend as much time watching the giant walls of screens showing cheap CGI battles and images of female warriors on horseback, and, naturally, the faces of the other audience members.
We were expecting an audience of sleazy guys or otakus, but actually it was mostly just curious Japanese and foreigners. Considering that the club has advertised itself on its mammoth budget (10 billion yen or $130 million!), the handful of empty seats are not a good sign, though. (Saying that, we can’t really see where the money went but anyway…)
Now to the show itself. Words fail me. It features essentially about 20 dancers who play instruments and, well, dance. Stylistically it’s the biggest smorgasbord of kitsch and the burlesque you are likely to see outside of a Takarazuka performance, only with Kabukicho strip culture and Akihabara chika aidoru motifs thrown in for good measure. It is also erotic; all the girls are scantily clad, plus some had busts we hadn’t seen in Japan except in a porn film.
But more than being aroused, we were most of just simply befuddled by the swirling vortext of influences and elements poured into the mix here. A fighting panda. Drumming girls. A dinosaur. A tank. Sci-fi. Robots. Sex. Sexism. Cheesy smiling idol subculture with genuinely alluring sexuality (well, actually, that’s quite common in Japan so we’re at least used to that).
It is around an hour long, though structured as a series of numbers, so there are quite frequent pauses. Considering it now costs ¥5,000 (with a bento lunchbox meal and drink included), it is a little expensive then, though the kitsch is priceless. For the record, I went with a group of gay Americans and they all seemed to have a whale of a time.
The style of the dancing and music was more Gekidan Shinkansen than genuine strip club, and the finale with the carnival float robots (you have to wait quite a while for the robots to appear!) and a neon tank, followed by dancers who hang from the ceiling, is utterly impossible to define.
Here’s the video we made!
For a country with a declining birthrate (and by extension, the population as a whole), Japan’s toy manufacturers are not showing any signs of giving up.
Granted it hasn’t been plain sailing for Takara Tomy, which was formed from the merger of two troubled toy-makers, but every year they continue to release fun and inventive products.
Now comes this Chupa Chups Ice Candy Maker, which combines the Japanese love for creative cuisine and their innate silliness (don’t let the austerity of some of the classical arts fool you!).
The subtitle for the product is “okashina”, which is a pun, since it can be mean “strange” or “sweets”. And that’s about right: you can create all manner of bizarre but sugary delights with this candy maker.
Just stick your Chupa Chups lollipop (or similar lollipop) into the Ice Candy Maker and use the funnel to add a warm flavored liquid (examples include juices, cola, milk, melted chocolate, cocoa etc).
Then rotate using the handle and the candy will melt off your lollipop in a few minutes, spinning and making a ginormous blob of sweetness. The last thing to do is store it overnight in the fridge and be patient. The next day you will you very own customized ice treat.
With its emphasis on “spinning” fun and making your own customized summer treats, the Chupa Chups Ice Candy Maker also reminds us of Takara Tomy’s hit from last year, the Gurefure Chuchu.
In Japan, April is the month of new starts. The new school year. New company employees join their firms. And we see an increasing number of TV commercials promoting the message of “It’s now or never!” — and eikaiwa (conversational English) schools are no exception for that.
As Japan adapts itself to become a more globalized nation, we can’t avoid the question of just how important English education really is. English is now taught at all elementary schools as part of their mandatory curriculum. In the business world, some companies like Rakuten and UNIQLO have officially announced the “Englishization” of their workplace.
I myself learned English as a second language in middle school and high school. In addition to this “official” English education, I was also taking a thirty-minute eikaiwa lesson once a week when I was in the fifth grade. Although I don’t recall anything I learned from my personal English teacher, I do remember that she was always late to class and asked me the same question (“How was your weekend?”) every time at the beginning of each lesson.
OK, I’m not trying to criticize the way she opened conversation so much — but just that it was only a twenty-five minute lesson (because she was always late), anyway, and this “warm-up” would take up the first ten minutes! I want to point out two things here. One: as an ordinary citizen trying to live a peaceful life, one weekend cannot be that different from another. Two: knowing that she would always ask me the same question somehow made me feel like I HAD TO do something special every weekend. I was forced to come up with an answer — sometimes even make up one — to that dreadful question which I’m not sure, to this day, whether it came from her sincere, pure curiosity to find out what her student did over the weekend or was simply written in her teaching manual. I’m leaning towards the latter.
But there is no question about eikaiwa schools being the most profitable enterprise in the English-learning industry. One of the most notable schools in the history of eikaiwa business was Nova. Some of the readers might remember it from the famous school mascot, the pink Nova rabbit, or Nova Usagi. Nova’s biggest appeal was ekimae-ryugaku — which basically meant that people no longer needed to go overseas to study English, thanks to Nova’s attempt to have a school near every major train station.
While Nova succeeded in making English schools more accessible to anyone, other competitors found their own marketing strategies to lure the students away from the old school. Gaba, for example, is known for its luxurious facilities, more personalized one-on-one lessons and much longer business hours, from 7 am to 10:40 pm. In 2011, Gaba was acquired by Nichii Gakkan, the company which recently launched their own eikaiwa brand called COCO Jyuku.
COCO Jyuku takes a somewhat different approach to millions of prospective customers out there. The first time I saw their commercial on TV, I was struck by the elegance of their message. There was no classroom, obedient students or happy-looking teachers in business suits.
They made English-learning seem like a higher-level, more sophisticated activity, when in reality it is a process of sweating while trying to memorize twenty words a day and remembering only a few a week later at best. (Or maybe this was just me.) Or feeling like a six-year-old again due to having limited vocabulary and grammar when we know we can say the exact same thing much more “elegantly” in our native language.
The point I’m trying to make here is this: we the consumers already know that advertisements or marketing phrases are all manipulative in one way or another. Yet COCO Jyuku doesn’t even give us a chance to see what their teachers are like. They skip all the learning process and instead show us a perfect movie scene. How realistic is it?
Raising kids is indeed one of the toughest jobs out there. While parenting entails balancing when to treat and when to reprimand your child (of which I’m sure the latter is much harder), Media Active is now offering a helping hand to parents who just can’t get their kids to behave.
The free smartphone app is called Oni kara denwa (literally, “the call from a demon” — though oni can also be translated as “troll” or “ogre”) and the name alone would surely scare your child enough! The idea is that you get the call and then pass the phone to them, making them listen and stop whining.
Simply choose one from the six most typical child discipline situations — not going to bed, not taking medicine, not tidying up etc — and you’ll then get a call from a variety of scary or authoritarian figures, the most popular of which will surely be the “red demon” (Akaoni).
The only “work” required on your side is to pretend that the call is real by responding. Here’s how the conversation might go.
“Hello? Yes. Oh, it’s the Akaoni. Yes, my child is being very naughty again. Here, you can speak to him.” Cue passing the phone to terrified child!
Actually, we think the visual effect of the Akaoni’s face appearing on the screen is probably more than sufficient to produce total obedience.
There are some other, more benign characters too, such as a doctor and even Santa Claus, though Akaoni will surely be the most popular with parents at a loss with rebellious brats.
The idea of using an ogre, according to the CEO, originated from the character of Namahage, where a man dressed up as an ogre walks into people’s houses on New Year’s Eve to see if there’s any naughty kid around, a traditional ritual in some parts of the Akita prefecture.
While the nature of this practice somewhat reminds me of Father Christmas checking his list every year to see who should get a present (or even European figures like Krampus), Namahage does not reward good kids: their job is simply to punish naughty kids by giving them what could be the most traumatic experience of their childhood. Here’s what namahage looks like in “real life”.
In addition to the red ogre, other scary figures are also on call. You can see the latest versions here.
While some people would definitely argue against the use of non-human beings or even the latest technology in parenting, sometimes one’s goodness comes from the fear of greater forces — after all, that’s how the world works, right?
The Japanese have one of these effortless and inimitable attitudes towards religion.
It is both part of their lives, sort of, in the form of Shinto customs, visiting shrines, animistic “power spots”, good luck charms on mobile phones and local matsuri festivals. But these are essentially communal customs or acts that border more on superstition than “belief”.
Of course there are genuine believers too, especially in Buddhism — and even people who follow cults that carry out sarin gas attacks.
But for the most part religion is there to be charmingly indulged in, rather than frightened of, like in so much of the Judaeo-Christian world.
Could you, say, ever imagine an American comic book writer coming up with Saint Young Men and getting away with it? For the uninitiated, it’s the story of the amusing adventures of the Buddha and Jesus in modern day Tokyo, irreverent but also respectful in a charming way. The very fact that the religious figures have been elevated to such entertaining characters is an act of esteem.
Such a comic (and now feature length anime) would be enough to get you killed in certain parts of the west.
Here’s another great example of what I mean.
The Buddha Hair Salon Flower Pot is a series of Buddha heads in a variety of poses and in which you can grow a plant.
There are three types of facial expressions (laughing, angry, meditating) and two colors (red or white), and after a little bit of watering, the result is visually striking “hair” that sprouts up straight.
Can you imagine selling a plant pot of Jesus or even a Hindu god — and not drawing the ire of an institution or the fire and brimstone of fanatics?
In Japan, whether you’re religious or not, you’re allowed to cultivate the Buddha’s locks in order to make your home greener.
It’s a common perception among foreigners that the Japanese are polite and respectful. They say that the Japanese show, if not innately have, good manners in public and seem to act orderly even under the most chaotic circumstances. While these comments sound like a great compliment, showing how disciplined and trained the Japanese are, sometimes I see ironic signs in public which make me wonder what “real” politeness entails.
I’ve been commuting in Tokyo since I was fifteen. An-hour-and-a-half commute to school wasn’t really a hassle for me partly because I was young enough to be able to switch my mental modes quickly from being in a daze to insanity while crushed on a deadly crowded train, and back to the my-brain-is-still-not-working mode. At least I knew there would always be something to look forward to at my destination. As cliched as it might sound, high school indeed was one of the best times of my life (though I should probably mention that I went to four different high schools, and I’m referring to only ONE of them here).
Now that I’m grown up, every morning I have to force myself to get on a train and ensure the same craziness that I somehow almost effortlessly managed to maneuver back when I was still a teenager.
The only “politeness” I can see here is people standing in line before getting on the train. Respect for others? Forget about it.
Another example is a sign of courtesy (or priority) seats.
Source: Tokyo Metro
Some people might think that the sign is intended for the younger generation who, supposedly don’t even know the meaning of the word “courtesy” yet. However, what I have seen in my years of commuting life is the opposite of this assumption. When a space opens, the first group to start up a competition is often middle-aged, tired-looking salarymen.
If one’s fatigue could be accurately measured on the basis of facial expressions or simple gestures, I would not make a single complaint about who should take open seats on trains. I would be more than happy to give my seat to whoever gets on the train in business suits. Salarymen indeed are the most tired-looking people you encounter on trains.
But do we really need to see that reminder or hear the automated announcement on the use of courtesy seats every time we get on a train? In fact, because of its sign and different color they chose for courtesy seats, now even the tiniest thought of occupying one of the seats makes me feel guilty. And if someone ever has to feel guilty to be courteous, then her act only comes from the fear and shame of not being courteous enough.
Does this even make sense?
Yokohama once removed all signs on its subway trains in an attempt to promote the message of “all seats designated for courtesy manners”. However, the great majority of elderly people answered when asked if they had been offered seats on trains after the change that the effect of the new policy was almost marginal. Now the signs are back, once again to remind all passengers to avoid the designated area if they want to secure their seats.
In contrast, New York City Transit made the act of refusing to offer a seat (on request) punishable by up to a $50 fine. While we definitely have to consider both sides of the story, my 84-year-old grandma would probably choose to receive that $50 instead of getting a seat on a train. (She once told me not to treat her like an elder — go grandma!)
The popular anime franchise Evangelion is well know for creating all kind of Evangelion-themed products. To promote the DVD and Blu-Ray release of the latest movie Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo on April 24th, another collaboration campaign started one month ago.
On March 25th the cosmetics brand Creer Beaute released a new line of three special scented sprays which are based on three main characters Ayanami Rei, Ikari Shinji and Asuka Langley. The EVANGELION 2WAY fragrance mist for men is said to make them irresistible to the ladies.
The perfume comes in a stylish 110ml bottle for ¥1,280. Even if you are not a fan of Evangelion this amazing product is worth a try.
Each scent has three elements, a “top”, “middle” and “last”.
TYPE-R (fragrance of the aqua citrus) is the fragrance reflecting the image of Ayanami Rei, erasing her her sadness and painfulness by this refreshing perfume
The top: grapefruit, raspberry, coconut
A middle: jasmine, a ylang-ylang, rose and oceanaut
The last: musk, vanilla
TYPE-01 (fragrance of the fresh musk) is a spicy fragrance inspired by Ikari Shinji
The top: bergamot, lemon, green
A middle: nutmeg, spice of the paper, lilac
The last: woody, umber, musk
TYPE-A (fragrance of the red citrus) is the fragrance of Asuka Langley. Just like her character the perfume fuses passion and sweetness
The top: orange, lychee, apple
A middle: rose, jasmine, cyclamen
The last: musk, umber
Residents in Japan may have spotted that recently Kirin has been featuring Disney characters on its Gogo no Kocha (Afternoon Tea) drink bottle labels.
Just another gratuitous and forgettable ploy to lure youngsters to buy the drink, right?
Yet the really keen-eyed among you — or those who drink a lot of tea — may even have spotted that there are numbers on the labels.
Well, some people at any rate did spot the numbers and were curious. What could it mean?
But after drinking and collecting a few bottles with different numbers, you can line them up and then the answer starts to reveal itself.
A flip book!
Some enterprising Japanese writers went and bought 32 bottles of the tea, which come in three Disney characters (one for each flavor) and each have three different illustrations (on the different sides of the bottle).
Then they lined up the illustrations in numerical order, taking a shot each time.
The results are rather charming.
Here’s Mickey Mouse and his packaging flip book.
And here’s a musical Donald Duck and lackadaisical Winnie the Pooh…
There are lot of superfluous uses of famous characters on packaging and advertising in Japan (and elsewhere), but this is one genuinely innovative ruse of which we think even Walt Disney would have approved.