“The students turned away from politics, a trend which continues to this day … The students turned inward, and that’s when the kawaii boom started, primarily among young women.”
Many Japanese mascots began as symbols for small towns or lesser-visited regions of the country as a way to encourage tourism.
Funassyi is the unofficial mascot of the city of Funabashi.
KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images
Chris Carlier is a British freelance illustrator who has been living in Tokyo for more than a decade. He started Mondo Mascots purely because he was interested in the culture and enjoyed taking photos of mascots he saw.
“A few years ago I saw the costumed mascots walking around and started taking pictures and looking them up,” he tells CNN Travel. “It’s like birdwatching or collecting stamps.”
He, too, cautions against taking mascots at face value and seeing them only as cutesy and innocent. “Bad things have mascots, too. Nuclear plants, large corporations with bad practices. Cults have mascots.”
Not only is mascot culture massive, it even has its own event — the Yuru-chara Grand Prix.
This annual event is like a beauty pageant crossed with a fan con. Over several days, fans can come and get their photos taken with their favorite mascots as well as learn about new ones, and a winner is crowned.
As mascots become more and more popular, characters have to work harder to stand out — now, some of them will have a special trademark dance move or gesture.
Whether it’s mascots, manga or maid cafes, travelers come from all over the world to experience what Japan does best. Dale says that the spirit of “kawaii” is one thing tourists often want to learn more about and experience for themselves.
“When you walk around in Japan, you are not surrounded by cuteness at every turn — but it does show up in unexpected places.”
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