Last year, the southern Japanese city of Susaki created a position — honorary tourism ambassador — for a real-life otter with a large social media following.
So far, so cute.
Then Chiitan, an unsanctioned mascot based on the otter, began staging dangerous and non-child-friendly stunts around town, like swinging a weed whacker and tipping over a car. And some residents began confusing Chiitan with the city’s official mascot, Shinjokun, who is also modeled on an otter but is considerably more risk-averse.
Chiitan’s darkest moment may be a video titled “Chiitan going to visit your house,” in which the mascot silently removes a baseball bat from a locker, slips it into its costume and walks off camera.
After receiving more than 100 calls from around Japan about Chiitan’s behavior, the city declined last week to renew the real otter’s honorary tourism ambassador contract. But posts about Chiitan being “fired” (the mascot and the real otter have the same name) have since gone viral on social media, incorrectly implying that the city had officially sanctioned the rogue mascot’s cheeky antics.
Susaki’s public relations dilemma highlights a trend that may be unique to Japan: As more municipalities sponsor official mascots, unsanctioned spinoffs are proliferating — with mixed results.
“I suppose it illustrates how the world of mascots is constantly evolving in fun and unpredictable ways,” said Chris Carlier, a British writer in Tokyo who runs the website and Twitter feed Mondo Mascots.
“Also, it shows the contrast between government-approved city mascots like Shinjokun, who are expected to behave themselves, and independent characters like Chiitan, who can be as anarchic and outrageous as they want,” he added.
Mascots, or “yuru-chara,” are sponsored by municipalities and companies in Japan and tend to promote specific cities or regions. Compared with American mascots, the Kanagawa University sociologist Jillian Rae Suter wrote in a 2016 study, “these characters are cuter, more popular and more abundant.”
In one sign of their popularity, Ms. Suter wrote, the number of entrants in Japan’s annual Yuru-Chara Grand Prix rose to 1,727 in 2015 from 348 in 2011, the event’s inaugural year.
Mr. Carlier said unofficial mascots have been around for about a decade in Japan and that many cities and towns welcome the attention. He said Funassyi, the unofficial mascot of Funabashi City, for example, has been a “big tourism draw.”
Unofficial mascots don’t always make their city governments proud, however.
In 2014, for example, the city of Tottori disowned an official yuru-chara, Katsue-san — a teenage girl in threadbare clothes, holding a frog — three days after her debut, amid complaints that she was too depressing. But a Japanese cartoonist later gave Katsue-san a second life by making her the star of a comic strip.
“I could have become like Funassyi,” the unsanctioned Katsue-san says at one point in the strip, according to The Japan Times. “But I’m not as cheerful as Funassyi.”
As for Chiitan, the rogue yuru-chara in Susaki, Mr. Carlier described it in a post last summer as “Japan’s fastest rising costumed character” and “an anarchic, accident-prone otter with a turtle for a hat.” He noted that Chiitan and Shinjokun, the city’s official mascot, share a designer but are based on different breeds of otter.
A spokesman for Charando, the design company that owns Chiitan, expressed remorse that it had caused problems for its hometown.
The spokesman, who declined to give his name, said the company had only wanted to promote Susaki, including by raising money for the city through a program that lets Japanese citizens donate tax payments to the municipalities of their choice. He added that the company had received no compensation for Chiitan’s activities.
Takashi Moritoki, a Susaki city official, said Shinjokun and other authorized city mascots were doing just fine at fund-raising. Shinjokun, for which the city owns a copyright, was created in 2013; Mr. Moritoki said Susaki’s tax donations rose to the equivalent of nearly $11 million in 2018 from around $18,000 in 2015.
Mr. Moritoki said Susaki officials had initially turned a “blind eye” to Chiitan because they hoped the rogue mascot would help improve the city’s image. But the city is now consulting a lawyer, he said, because it worries that Charando, the design company — which still owns a copyright for Chiitan — is earning money from its viral antics that might otherwise have gone to city coffers.
Orignially published in NYT.