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Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Nothing beats a good mascot for promotion

Staff writer

Last year, Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture drew more than 849,000 visitors, a 61 percent jump from 2006 and the largest number of tourists to visit the castle in a decade.

Marimokkori, originally created as a character representing round green algae in 
Hokkaido, has gained popularity
Mascot statement: Marimokkori, originally created as a character representing round green algae in Hokkaido, has gained popularity. COURTESY OF KYOWA CO.

The increase was partly attributed to the castle's mascot, a big, chubby white cat named Hikonyan.

Hikonyan, wearing a red warrior's helmet and a green scarf with a big yellow bell around its neck, was originally created to mark the castle's 400th anniversary last year.

Many visitors have come to the castle just to see the mascot. Hikonyan engages in walks around the castle, often drawing a crowd of visitors young and old alike, a spokesman for the city of Hikone said.

"A lot of children follow Hikonyan around," the spokesman said, adding that it seemed the mascot's popularity started on the Internet.

"At the beginning of the anniversary event in March (2007), there were already a lot of people coming to buy Hikonyan items," he said, voicing surprise at the mascot's popularity.

A contest was held among design companies to depict Hikonyan. Its helmet represents the Ii family, which governed the area of Hikone from around the beginning of the 17th century to the late 19th century. The family wore red armor in battle.

There is also a cat story regarding Naotaka Ii, the second lord of Hikone. According to legend, Ii was one day sheltering from a storm under a tree at Gotokuji Temple when he saw a cat's paw beckoning him.

Just as he walked toward the cat, lightening struck the tree he had been standing under. The cat had saved him.

Elsewhere, a mascot created for the 1,300th anniversary of the relocation of the old capital to Nara has triggered local controversy but in the process has drawn a lot of attention.

The character, developed for the anniversary event in 2010, is a boy resembling a young Buddha in swaddling clothes, with deer antlers sticking out of his head.

The design was selected from 21 entries submitted in a competition among 12 designers.

When the winning design was announced in February, it received 1,000 inquiries, including many unfavorable ones, according to the Association for Commemorative Events.

Some claimed the antlers — presumably representing Nara Park's famed deer — are disrespectful of the image of Buddha. Others pointed out that the mascot simply isn't cute.

On the other hand, there are many who do find the character cute and think it does a good job of representing the Nara area.

Despite the mixed reactions, about 14,000 people submitted suggestions when the committee began accepting public proposals for the mascot's name.

Sento-kun was designed to celebrate the 1,300th anniversary of the ancient capital of Nara in 2010 COURTESY OF HIKONE CITY AND ASSOCIATION FOR COMMEMORATIVE EVENTS FOR THE 1,300TH ANNIVERSARY OF NARA HEIJYO-KYO CAPITAL

The name eventually selected, Sento-kun, was chosen after the name of the event itself — Sento means relocation of the capital.

"It seems the mascot has gone on to become known to the public. . . . Now, we have to make efforts to promote the event itself more widely," an association spokesman said.

Mascots are not restricted to event and sightseeing promotions. Marimokkori from Hokkaido, created by Kyowa Co., a souvenir wholesaler in Hokkaido, has helped boost local business as the popular character has spread nationwide.

The character represents the round green algae called "marimo" that can be seen in the prefecture, and is especially famous in Lake Akan.

Takuo Shimizu, a manager at the company, said the name originated from a joke made by the company's president, combining the words marimo and "mokkori," which means a swelling of a male's groin.

Starting from the name, the company then worked to develop a design, which turned out to be a green, round-headed man with a smiling face and a noticeable node below the waist.

Shimizu said some shops refused to put Marimokkori products on their shelves when the character first came out in 2005, possibly because they found it somewhat offensive and lacking charm.

But its popularity started to take off when it caught the attention of local radio stations. Noted entertainers even introduced the character on TV.

The original version of Marimokkori can only be purchased in Hokkaido or via the Internet. But local versions of Marimokkori that combine the character with famous local sightseeing spots or products are now available in many other places.

For instance, Marimokkori was combined with Tokyo Tower to became Tokyo Tower Mokkori, while Hakata Mentaiko Mokkori was created for Hakata to promote the city's well-known "mentaiko" (salted cod roe spiced with red pepper).

Shimizu said there are now probably more than 500 such Marimokkori-modeled characters around Japan. Related CDs and DVDs have also hit the market.

Among the many Marimokkori goods on offer, a cell phone strap is the most popular. More than 7 million have been sold in the past three years, Shimizu said.

Now there are very few souvenir shops in Hokkaido that don't have Marimokkori, Shimizu said, adding that the company never expected the character to grow this popular.

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