The popularity of yurukyara mascot characters, used to publicize such features as local specialties and tourist attractions, remains sky-high in all parts of the country, with the characters now numbering more than 1,500 throughout Japan.
Introduced here are how three regions that won the Yurukyara Grand Prix, an annual popularity contest, have linked their winning of the prize to invigorating their local economies such as by increasing in the number of sightseers and sales of local specialty products.
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The 2011 prizewinner in the grand prix was Kumamon of Kumamoto Prefecture.
Following Kumamon's victory, sales of a range of goods featuring the bear mascot in 2014 stood at about ¥64.3 billion (S$711.9 m), up 43 per cent from a year ago, according to an estimate by the Kumamoto prefectural government. Marketing of Kumamon goods abroad began in June last year, while in May this year, KUMA Cafe was launched in Taipei.
Kumamon was born in 2010 - with the opening of the entire Kyushu Shinkansen bullet train line scheduled for the following year - with the aim of enhancing Kumamoto Prefecture's image.
By employing the trick of suddenly appearing here and there on the streets in Osaka, Kumamon captured public interest. Holding the title of "Kumamoto prefectural government's public relations department chief," Kumamon appears at about 2,400 festive events annually.
According to Yuji Uchida, 60, director of the First Research Department of the District Economics Research Institute of the Kumamoto Area, "Our analysis has shown that the name recognition of Kumamoto has been considerably enhanced [after the debut of Kumamon], helping diversify sightseeing alternatives of our prefecture."
In December 2013, the Kumamoto branch of the Bank of Japan announced its findings that Kumamon-triggered ripple effects for the economy of the prefecture during the two-year period before the bank's announcement were worth an estimated ¥124.4 billion.
Masaki Naruo, 56, chief of the prefectural government's Kumamoto Brand Promotion Section said, "We earnestly hope to see Kumamon enjoy further name recognition overseas, becoming a widely known yurukyara for a long time."
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Bary-san, the yurukyara born in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, the city globally known for its high-quality towels as well as its shipbuilding industry, won the Yurukyara Grand Prix in 2012.
The character is shaped like a baby chick, after the local specialty of char-broiled chicken, wearing a crown designed according to a bridge across the West Seto Expressway (also known as Setouchi Shimanami Kaido), which is widely known as a section of one of Japan's best cycling courses. Bary-san is popular especially because of its belly warmer, which is supposed to be representative of Imabari-made towels.
The character is the brainchild of a female employee of Daiichi Printing Co., based in Imabari.
The number of goods using a Bary-san brand license currently totals about 300, including towels, stationery, foodstuffs and sundries, and the character took part in about 130 festive events across the country last year.
Bary-san also has obtained the status as a special supporter for the FC Imabari football team, whose owner is former Japan national football team coach Takeshi Okada. The character often watches the team's home games to cheer for FC Imabari and meet with Imabari citizens on that occasion.
Ryoji Mori, 56, deputy director of the character development department of the printing company's marketing bureau, said, "We want to continue our efforts to enhance the charms of Bary-san as our city's ambassador and send a message that emphasizes the attractive features of our community."
Used for snack packages
Gunma-chan, the winner of the 2014 Yurukyara Grand Prix, is eagerly sought after, as shown by its omnipresence in Gunma Prefecture, including its design carved on manhole covers.
A large number of private companies have adopted Gunma-chan as a feature on packages for their products, such as snacks and instant noodles.
The popularity of the pony-like mascot is said to derive from its heartwarming look. The number of applications for permission to use the designs stood at 2,697 in fiscal 2014, more than an eightfold increase from fiscal 2011.
The Gunma Economic Research Institute in Maebashi estimates that the economic ripple effect in the prefecture totaled at least ¥3.3 billion in fiscal 2013 and 2014. However, Kumamon of Kumamoto Prefecture has a great lead over Gunma-chan. The prefecture's Gunma Image Enhancement Office is considering increasing the variety of designs to about 100, up from 63.
Nobuo Miyazaki, 58, the manager of the prefecture's Gunma General Information Center Gunma-chan-chi in Ginza, Tokyo, says: "Gunma-chan satisfies the conditions to be a mascot character that is loved by everyone, regardless of age and sex. We are going to increase opportunities to have it make appearances."