How to Create a Japanese Mascot

Author's Notes
Mascots are pretty much ubiquitous around Japan, so if you're looking to start a business, it's not a bad idea to have one. In this post, I break down the elements of a good mascot to encourage people to create their own.

This is the second section of a two-part series in which we discuss the benefits of having a Japanese mascot and how to create your own. The first part was published last week and is here.

Last week, we discussed how mascots can help to promote a brand’s image in Japan and how they can be used to build a better relationship with your customers and clients. However, in order to start doing that, you’ll need to bunch together some cute pixels first. If you’re at a bit of a loss about what a good mascot should look like, don’t worry — that’s what we're here to help with.

Putting the Pieces Together

There are two main things you must do when brainstorming to create a mascot for your company:

  • Conceptualize it.
  • Name it.

Your new mascot may be the means through which a potential customer learns about your company, so ensuring that its appearance is appealing and acceptable is key.

Conceptualize It

Ameblo's bloblike amoeba mascot Unless you’re Ameba, a widely used Japanese blogging platform that has a name that sounds like a single-celled organism, you probably won’t be able to get away with just drawing a squishy cloud, slapping eyes on it and calling it a day. So where do you begin?

Ed Harrison, co-author of Idle Idol: The Japanese Mascot, suggested a couple ways to go about designing an appropriate character for your company:

The traditional approach, which is tried and tested, is basically to take an element from your company or product, or to play on the words of the company name to help you generate your mascot’s form, and slap on some cute features.

In the interest of adhering to those tried and true methods, we opted for the next best thing when creating our mascot: Our mascot Gengo-chan is an animated speech bubble, designed to remind our users that we deal not only in translation but also in communication. Choosing a name for our newly birthed mascot was pretty easy — we took the Gengo from myGengo — 言語 (gengo) in Japanese means “language.”

If your product’s name isn’t as self-explanatory though, you’ve got a few options.

Name It

As Harrison suggested, you can name your mascot after your business. A few famous examples include mobile provider Docomo and their mushroom Docomodake (J), which roughly translates to “only Docomo” and has inspired everything from stuffed characters to themed videogames, and Hikone Castle’s pet cat Hikonyan — a compound of Hikone, the castle’s name, and “nyan" — the Japanese sound for a cat’s meow.

Though it’s possible to name your mascot something that isn’t at all relevant to your product, you run the risk of people recognizing your mascot but not your product. Depending on what you are marketing, this could ultimately prove detrimental to your brand's image. Domo-kun (the brown creature at the top of this post) is one such character. Though he was originally marketed as the official mascot of NHK, a Japanese TV channel, he became so popular overseas that American brands 7-11 and Target began selling products with his image, without the NHK logo attached to it.

Some Good Examples

We’ve picked out a few foreign companies that we think did a great job localizing in Japan through using a Japanese mascot.

Mister Donut's mascot family

Mister Donut

The popular donut chain Mister Donut (J) is a great example of a company that managed to concoct a character with a unique name and an easily recognizable appearance: They created Pon de Lion in 1983 — you may remember him from last week.

In addition to making cameos wherever the Mister Donut name appears, Pon de Lion is also the centerpiece of the MisDo club (J), which encourages people to buy donuts and earn points that can be used to purchase items from a Pon de Lion-themed merchandise line.

So why is Pon de Lion an ideal mascot for Mister Donut?

  • Creative product placement — his mane is a donut.
  • Child appeal — his form is simple and animal-like.
  • Immediate association — he's named after the Pon de Ringu donut.

Mister Donut is an American-born company that understands the significance of using both working mascots and promotional ones — the company also has a partnership with Snoopy (J), the dog from Charles Schultz's bestselling comic strip Peanuts

Firefox

For a more recent example, we need only look at Mozilla Japan and their pet kit, Foxkeh (pictured left).

The Japanese branch of this popular company adopted the fox in 2009, as a way to and promote their Firefox web browser in Japan. Foxkeh’s name and form are a clear play on the browser’s title — and with its flaming tail, Foxkeh has shown potential users how much it cares about localizing and entering the Japanese sphere. Mozilla's Foxkeh

With its own website and downloadable wallpapers, Foxkeh’s character found enormous popularity as people created themes and icons inspired by this cute fire-toting fox. Mozilla eventually translated Foxkeh’s site into English, after its English-speaking audience began praising the character and requesting Foxkeh-branded downloadables in their own tongue. Foxkeh has since been discontinued, but you can still check out his site here.

WordPress

Following in Foxkeh’s footsteps, the Japanese versions of blogging platforms WordPress and TypePad also introduced mascots of their own. WordPress, faced with the same problem that many language-related sites have when brainstorming their mascot, opted to use a honey-colored dog named Wapuu to represent its company — a foolproof method in a country where the word cute is heard at least 10 times daily. In order to remind people what it represents, however, WordPress got creative, giving their pet a round WordPress logo to clutch in its paws.

The platform then reached out to the audience that knew them best — their Japanese users — in order to find a fitting name for their character. After holding a contest, bloggers eventually came up with the name Wapuu — a shortened version of ワードプレッス (waadopuressu) — Wordpress’s Japanese name.

TypePad’s bouncy raccoon mascot, Toph (J), is also derived from the name of the service, and used to have a blog dedicated to its adventures. Though the blog is no longer updated, Toph is still used for promotional purposes by SixApart (J).

What We Can Learn From This

If you just can’t think of any good puns that play on your product’s name, have no fear — there’s another solution.

WordPress's mascot Wapuu>
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        <p class= If you sell a tangible product, you can always sketch it, animate it by adding some eyes to it, and then reach out to your users to name it. It may not be as cool as Ameba’s amoeba, or WordPress's Wapuu (right), which is based on each venture’s name, but if you do this, you’ll have created a yuru-kyara (weak character).

Yuru-kyara are mascots that are incredibly simple and require less than a little creativity to dream up. Examples include a slew of generic grocery store brands and Pizza Hut Japan’s Cheese-kun, named such because he is a blob of cheese with a face — it was featured in an anime sponsored by Pizza Hut and continues to adorn pages on the Pizza Hut Japan website.

But be wary of attempting to adopt a yuru-kyara too hastily. Hello, Please! Very Super Helpful Characters from Japan author Matt Alt reminds us:

There is a thin line between cute and stupid and skirting it in a charming way is the work of a character designer.

The Other Path

It’s a difficult line to walk, but if you are for some inexplicable reason opposed to the idea of creating an anthropomorphic mascot out of one of your products, you can always opt to go the kimo-kawaii way. Nara's mascot Sento-kun

Kimo-kawaii is a Japanese compound word created out of the adjectives kimoi (repulsive/ugly/disgusting) and kawaii (cute), and literally means “so ugly it’s cute.” One of the most famous examples of this is Sento-kun (pictured left), a mascot that the Nara prefectural government created to promote the tourism industry and economy in the Nara area. Shortly after the new Nara mascot was unveiled, people began talking about how ugly Sento-kun was, deriding the government’s decision to spend more than 5 million yen on drafting the character. Competitors eventually introduced the lumpy Manto-kun as an answer to Sento-kun’s ugliness.

However, this publicity only pushed Sento-kun to receive even more attention, describes Alt:

It was so ugly and weird looking that there was actually a boomerang effect and it turned into a huge positive.

While Sento-kun enjoyed increased success due to its harsh appearance, this probably isn’t the best idea for a company that cannot afford to hire a professional character designer, and thus should be taken with a grain of salt: Though Sento-kun has become famous for its repulsive looks, this isn’t likely to happen with all mascots that go for the kimo-kawaii look.

Go On, Create Something

The subheader says it all. Now that we’ve given you a quick rundown of the ground rules, you’re ready to set out and craft a creature all your own. And when you're ready, you can even take your mascot to the annual Mascots Summit.