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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Young women finding themselves suited to mascot costumes


Once considered the domain of young men, public performance in the guise of TV characters or mascots — involving the donning of bulky, sweaty and often smelly costumes — has become an increasingly popular pursuit among young women.

News photo
It's not just a job: More and more young women are learning to perform in mascot costumes, such as Hikonyan, shown here, the mascot of Hikone, Shiga Prefecture. KYODO

The trend has become more pronounced with the advent of lighter weight, better-ventilated costumes that are suited to slightly built performers.

"Wow! It's a cat!" "Look over here!" Children shouted at a mascot event at a shopping center in the western Tokyo suburb of Tama on a Sunday in April.

The monthly event, organized by a local mascot performance training school called CHOKO.group, gives its students and other participants the opportunity to entertain visitors by performing in mascot suits.

One participant, 21-year-old university student Shizue Ito from Chiba Prefecture, said, "I didn't like children before, but I almost burst into tears when kids approached me with big smiles on their faces. They were all so cute," she said, while dressed as a white cat.

At the event, not just children but also adult visitors looked thrilled with squirrel, panda and many other animal mascots, with one elderly visitor trying to chase them backstage.

"It is always surprising to even see adults wave and smile at us," said Rina Naruwa, 21, also from Chiba Prefecture, who was taking part in the event for the second time.

"Mascot performing is interesting to learn," said Naruwa, a student at CHOKO.group. "We need to develop different personalities and different gestures depending on what mascot suits we are in."

Choko Ohira, head of the school, explained that the number of female students in their 20s to 30s has been increasing since around last year and women now account for about 70 percent of all students.

She said students used to enter the school with the hope of becoming professional mascots but recently many come just for fun.

Ohira had acted as the rat character Porori on the popular Japanese children's TV program "Okasan to Issho" ("With Mothers") until about 20 years ago.

"The costumes were quite heavy," she recalled.

But mascot suits have improved so much compared with 20 years ago.

KIGURUMI.BIZ Inc., a aker of mascot suits based in the city of Miyazaki, produces costumes using lightweight materials that reduce odors and with structures that do not come in close contact with performers' bodies, allowing more air to pass through the costumes.

The company, whose manufacturing staff are all female, has also developed a costume equipped with an air ventilation fan on its top, which was the first of its kind in the industry, according to Hiromi Kano, the 52-year-old head of the company's factory.

There are also costumes that can be pumped up with air, which makes the suits lighter and cooler and gives added mobility to performers.

Critics say that the growing interest in mascot performing among women is in tandem with the popularity of "yuru-kyara" characters that many local governments have created in recent years to promote their locales.

Kazuko Nimiya, a 48-year-old commentator who follows cultural trends related to women and children, said yuru-kyara have helped change people's ideas about mascot performing.

"Like Hikonyan (a character from Hikone, Shiga Prefecture), many yuru-kyara aspire to not just look cute but also act cute," she said. "People used to think that mascot performing was a demanding part-time job for young men, but they now think it is something fun to do."

Nimiya said, "There may be things you may not like if it becomes a job, but if it is a one-time experience, you can appreciate making people happy," adding that she predicts that even more women may come to wish to experience mascot performing.

With more and more yuru-kyara being created, the Japan Local Character Association organized an online mascot popularity contest last year and 348 yuru-kyara, literally meaning "loose characters," were entered.

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