Police forces use them; shops cannot do without them; power companies have them — and fire them when they become unpopular. No marketing or public information campaign is complete without them. Cute, cuddly — or startling — characters are everywhere in Japan.
While marketers the world over have long understood the value of an oversized cartoon animal who can persuade children to part with their pocket money, those in Japan know it is also an effective way to reach their parents.
And despite the tepid economy, there is money to be made.
The licensed character industry, including copyrights and merchandising, is worth a whopping US$30 billion a year — more than Japanese people spend on books annually.
However, it is not just the big names — Hello Kitty or Pokemon — that draw the crowds and their cash.
A two-day “grand assembly” in the central Japan city of Gifu attracted about 120,000 visitors who were entertained by 47 adult-sized mascots, one from each prefecture, who treated visitors to songs, dances and endless photo opportunities.
The yuru-kyara (suggesting “laid back character”) often represent regions or towns, taking their inspiration from locally famous foods, personalities, animals, industries or occasionally a combination.
Characters roamed shopping arcades, chased by children holding balloons — and adults with cellphones — who were eager to shake hands and take pictures.
They also had a tug of war, pitting the east of the country against the west, and got together for a tightly co-ordinated song and dance extravaganza.
Among their number were Meron-kuma (“Melon-bear”) from Yubari in Hokkaido, land of eye-poppingly expensive melons and home to wild bears, and Hamburger Boy, a giant walking patty in a sailor’s uniform representing the southwestern city of Sasebo, the seat of a large US naval base.
One of the few human shapes included Lerch-san, a long-faced European with a moustache, based on Theodor Edler von Lerch, who mountainous Niigata claims was Japan’s first ski instructor.
Kumamon, a bear from Kumamoto, a place whose name appears to indicate the presence of the large carnivores, despite their not being found that far south, was one of the more popular characters.
Like many of those present, Kumamon has his own official Web site, which carries snapshots taken by fans and lists daily appearance schedules.
Many visitors said growing up surrounded by characters like these meant they could continue to appreciate them into middle age.
“Even in adulthood, we find no mental block to them and think they are cute,” said Aki Kamikara, 38. “I’ll do Internet searches when I get home as I found some new characters I like.”
Her husband, Yuichi, 42, said it had been worth the trip.
“There are a lot of characters I don’t see usually, ranging from interesting ones to good ones,” he said. “It’s fun.”
Yano Research Institute estimates Japan’s character market was worth ￥2,389.5 billion (US$30 billion) in the year to March last year, down 1.7 percent from the previous year.
“The market size is on a gradual declining path over the long term as drops in population and ageing of society continue,” the Tokyo-based institute said in a report late last year.
However, continued innovation, from stamp rallies and card game competitions that involve the whole family, continue to draw in the punters, it said.