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Saturday, July 14, 2012

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Ubiquitous: Characters perform on stage during the two-day "Grand Assembly" held in the city of Gifu from June 30. The event attracted around 120,000 visitors who were entertained by 47 adult-sized mascots, one from each prefecture. AFP-JIJI

Pursuit of cute spawns ¥2.4 trillion industry

Cuddly characters said to appeal to mindset, soul of Japanese public


Police forces use them, shops can't do without them and even power companies have them — and sack them when they become unpopular: No marketing or public information campaign in Japan is complete without a cast of cute, cuddly characters.

While marketers the world over have long understood the value of an oversized cartoon animal that 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 character industry, including copyrights and merchandising, is worth a whopping ¥2.4 trillion a year — more than most people spend on books annually.

But it's not just the big names like Hello Kitty or Pokemon that draw the crowds and their cash.

A two-day "Grand Assembly" in the city of Gifu on June 30 and July 1 attracted around 120,000 visitors who were entertained by 47 adult-sized mascots, one from each prefecture, and treated to songs, dances and endless photo opportunities.

"Yuru-kyara" ("laid back") characters often represent regions or towns, taking their inspiration from famous local foods, personalities, animals, industries or occasionally a combination of the above.

At the Gifu event, they 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 coordinated song and dance extravaganza.

Among their number were Meron-Kuma (Melon Bear) from Yubari in Hokkaido, land of wild bears and eye-poppingly expensive melons, and Hamburger Boy, a giant walking patty in a sailor's uniform representing the city of Sasebo, home to a large U.S. naval base in Nagasaki Prefecture.

The few human shapes on show included Lerch-san, a long-faced European with a moustache based on Theodor Edler von Lerch, Japan's first ski instructor, according to mountainous Niigata Prefecture.

Kumamon, a bear from Kumamoto, a place whose name appears to indicate the presence of large bears despite the fact that they are not being found that far south, was one of the more popular characters.

Like many of the characters present, Kumamon has his own official website, 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 42-year-old husband, Yuichi, said it was 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 Ltd., a market research firm, estimates Japan's character market was worth ¥2.389 trillion in fiscal 2010, 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 the aging of society continue," the Tokyo-based company said in a report issued late last year.

But continued innovation, ranging from stamp rallies to card game competitions that involve the whole family, continue to draw crowds, it said.

Fans also visit places and facilities linked to their favorite characters in what is known as "pilgrimages" and "content tourism," the report noted.

But a character's fortune can swiftly turn.

Denko-chan, the pony-tailed girl who instructed the public in energy saving and safety campaigns for more than two decades on behalf of Tokyo Electric Power Co., found herself on the scrap heap in March.

The utility, struggling to cope with the public relations disaster from the Fukushima nuclear crisis, has donned sackcloth and ashes and is currently without a cute representative.

Noriaki Sato, president of Radetzky, the event-planning company that organized the Gifu get-together, said characters appeal to the Japanese mindset.

" 'Anime' and manga have taken deep root and people are familiar with many characters from a young age," he said as Yanana, a svelte female character with a large square head posed for pictures a few steps away.

The yuru-kyara do not speak, but they easily evoke the features of the region they represent, he said.

"Some people prefer the strategy of sending messages that edge their way into people's minds" in this way, he said.

Those inside the suits agreed they were part of something that chimes with the nation's collective soul.

"Japanese people like characters a lot," said a man wearing a red mask from the city of Tsu in Mie Prefecture. "From children to elderly people, they are pleased when characters appear at events. . . . This is a culture peculiar to Japan that we should take pride in."

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