Japanese mascots get the chop

CULL OF CUTIES: Life-size yuru-kyara (laid-back characters) at the Yanagase shopping district in June 2012. Last year, the Finance Ministry ordered a nationwide cut on such mascots, saying many are a waste of public money.

TOKYO - Japan's swollen ranks of cuddly mascots, once de rigueur for every local government and commercial brand, are coming under increasing threat, with some being culled and others combined.

The move comes after the Finance Ministry last year ordered a nationwide cut on the use of life-size yuru-kyara (laid-back characters), saying many of them are a waste of public money.

In the major metropolis of Osaka, officials have clamped down on the wild proliferation of mascots, whose number had swelled to 92, including special creations for everything from tax payment campaigns to childcare support services.

"We have decided to select Mozuyan, our oldest one, following doubts over the public-relations impact of having too many characters," an Osaka official said.

"The number has now fallen to 69 and there is no plan to create any new ones," she said, in a move the local media described as "virtual restructuring".

Mozuyan's head is modelled on the shrike, a carnivorous bird known for impaling prey on thorns before consuming it.

Meanwhile, in the remote district of Rumoi, in northernmost Hokkaido, a patchwork character made up of different elements of eight extant mascots is being rolled out.

Ororon Robo Mebius, which resembles the gigantic humanoid robot from the Mobile Suit Gundam animation franchise, has legs, arms, a face and body that all come from different yuru-kyara representing different communities.

"We have concluded that it's better to join forces rather than each of them working individually," said Rumoi official Mayuko Miyaji.

With a population of just 53,000, Rumoi had one mascot for every 6,500 people.

Japan has thousands of larger-than-life puppets with cutesy but improbable features, which are used to promote everything from regional attractions to public safety messages.

These include Kumamon, a potbellied bear who stumps for a less-visited part of southern Japan, and Asahikawa Prison's Katakkuri-chan, a square-faced humanoid with a purple flower for hair, who is intended to soften the jail's public image.

The most successful become national celebrities, spawning a huge range of merchandise that can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

But the vast majority languish in obscurity, wheeled out by local police forces or libraries at public events where the actor inside the suit must jig jauntily and pose for pictures with a stream of slightly baffled children.

The Finance Ministry said last year that many public bodies had put little thought into the reasons behind having a mascot, or whether having one would represent value for money.

Ongoing maintenance costs can be high, the ministry noted, with one mascot setting back its owners a million yen (S$11,360) a year, despite making only five outings.

In a bid to dodge criticism that it is frittering away taxpayers' cash, the city of Otsu in central Japan resorted to crowdfunding and collected one million yen in donations in an Internet campaign to re-create its mascot, Otsu Hikaru-kun.