The Benefits of a Japanese Mascot

Author's Notes
In Japan, a country that is known for its love of cuteness, mascots play a unique role. In this post, I discuss the different ways that a mascot can improve a company's reputation and pave the way to success in Japan.

Have you seen a mascot today? If you’re in Japan, chances are you have — be it the SUICA penguin and PASMO robot (pictured left) or the Softbank dog, you’re surrounded by them, because they're everywhere. In front of stores, on bus seats, on your food packaging. But why does every company seem to have one?

Some, like Matt Alt, the co-author of Hello, Please! Very Super Helpful Characters from Japan, theorize that the abundance of cute characters (kawaii-kyarakutaa) in Japan has to do with the country's roots:

Mascots in Japan, particularly anthropomorphic ones (products with faces on them) are an offshoot of Japan's polytheistic, animistic roots. Locals are very receptive to it because it's part and parcel of Japanese culture — many yokai, which are creatures from Japanese folklore, take the form of animate inanimate objects (tools and everyday objects with faces, arms, legs, etc.)

Regardless of the hows and whys, past instances have demonstrated that having a mascot for your business can help you achieve success in Japan. Hikone-jo in Shiga Prefecture — just one of Japan’s many castles — put itself back on the map with its introduction of Hikonyan, a samurai cat mascot (pictured right) that quickly became famous nationwide and spawned copycats and admirers alike.

The Power of Kawaii Kyara

Hikone Castle's mascot Hikonyan Ed Harrison, the co-author of Idle Idol: The Japanese Mascot, elaborated more about the ways that mascots help companies.

The main job a mascot does is add personality to a company. Something boring like the Fisheries research agency might find it very difficult to engage with people and promote their organization. Using a couple of cute fish — two blowfish called Fuk-kun and Fu-chan — they can catch the attention of people not normally interested in their message. They also make products (or places and organizations) more friendly and help to sell products.

There are three main things that mascots can do for a company:

  1. Lower the intimidation factor.
  2. Personalize the product.
  3. Market more merchandise.

Let's take a look at a few of these cuddly pixels and the roles they play.

1. Lower the Intimidation Factor

Having a mascot can make your service seem a lot more user-friendly and shows people that you’re easy to work with. The Japanese police provide a perfect example of this: Their elf-like Pipo-kun stands alert at police stations Tokyo-wide.

Alt also introduced Prince Pickles, the Japan Self Defense Force’s mascot:

Prince Pickles serves a similar role as Pipo-kun does for the police force; it’s a friendly face for what might otherwise be seen as a scary organization (by virtue of being soldiers).

Sometimes it's more about showing your users that you are approachable and understand their needs and preferences. Just a couple months ago, blogging platform WordPress announced that it had decided on a name for its doglike mascot Wapuu, whose name is similar to the Japanese word for word processor (wappuro). This follows SixApart/TypePad’s decision to adopt Toph, a bouncy raccoon-like creature, and Mozilla Japan's integration of Foxkeh, the orange fox mascot of… you guessed it… the Firefox web browser, created just for its Japanese audience. Foxkeh grew so popular that Mozilla Japan produced plush versions of him and users even created their own browser skins featuring the flaming creature.

And we can’t forget our very own Gengo-chan — who makes a cameo below — designed to make the translation process feel a bit more familiar and friendly. myGengo mascot Gengo-chan

2. Personalize the Product

Microsoft’s anime personalities help to give their product a much friendlier face and give the impression that using their platform will be like working with a warm human, rather than a cold machine.

Alt also reminds us that,

Sato-chan and Satoko-chan are probably some of the best examples of how a mascot can make an otherwise embarrassing instance completely tolerable. Standing outside of a slew of pharmacies in Tokyo, this pair of elephants serves both to indicate shops selling medicine and make purchasing remedies — a sometimes painful and awkward task — that much more bearable.

3. Market More Merchandise

We need only to look at major cellphone providers in Japan to see how a mascot can attract new customers. All three operations have representative mascots, which are plastered every which where: Softbank’s ubiquitous white dog Otousan (father in Japanese) has its own family and makes appearances on Softbank-branded merchandise — on fans, mugs and blankets and Docomo's Docomodake has its own website and stuffed versions of it can be found in stores. AU KDDI's Lismo Squirrel adorns a wide variety of promotional goods, and users of AU's mobile music service are treated to images that encourage them to purchase tunes.

Why It Matters

Mister Donut Lion Having a mascot for the Japanese branch of your company can help to improve your company’s image and ensure that your brand is memorable. The American donut chain Mister Donut — now more popularly known as Dunkin’ Donuts stateside — bred Pon de Lion (pictured right), a yellow lion character wearing one of Mister Donut’s Pon de Ringu signature donuts around its head.

Boxes from the shop come emblazoned with Pon de Lion illustrations, and customers can rack up points by buying donuts — kept track of on a Pon de Lion card — in order to earn Pon de Lion merchandise.

And if the non-Japanese side of your company already has a mascot, then you’re good to go. The popular fried chicken chain KFC simply took their Colonel Sanders and placed him outside a number of their Japanese locations to welcome customers.

But if you don’t have a mascot yet, stay tuned for the second part of this article where we’ll discuss three characteristics a good Japanese mascot should have so you can create your own.