Pipo-kun is very cute. He’s fuzzy and orange and sort of a mouse. He has antennae that keep him alert to the goings-on of his metropolis, big eyes that help him spot trouble, and oversized ears that make him attuned to cries for help. Since 1987, he has served as the kindly mascot of the Toyko Metropolitan Police Department.
Mascots like Pipo-kun—known in Japan as yuru-kyara—are abundant throughout Japan. Each year, cuddly creatures representing the country’s cities and prefectures compete in a kind of beauty pageant called the Yuru Chara Grand Prix, attended by over 23,000 people in 2017. This year’s winners were Unari-kun—a mascot that looks like an eel with jet engines under its fins, representing the city of Narita—and, in the corporate category, Risonya, a white cat in a green smoking jacket representing Resona Bank.
It’s easy enough to see why a town or a bank might opt for an adorable brand ambassador. As one mascot fan told the BBC, the creatures “give an identity and a friendly face to otherwise anonymous or unremarkable towns or companies.” For those outside Japan, it might seem a bit more surprising that law enforcement—often associated with authority and the prospect of violence—would choose a representative as small, smiley, and, well, mousey as Pipo-kun.
But according to Sabine Frühstück, a professor of modern Japanese cultural studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Pipo-kun is entirely in keeping with the Japanese approach to kawaii mascots—which involves using cute figures not only to push products or invite tourism, but to communicate a softer image of state authorities.
The role of Pipo-kun “is to make an organization that is, at least in certain cases, charged with exercising state violence look unthreatening, warm, and fuzzy,” Frühstück writes via email. While Pipo-kun is particularly appealing for children, he’s effective PR for adults as well. “In Japanese everyday life, violence is abhorred and, thus, organizations like the police need to handle their potential for violent acts very carefully.”
Pipo-kun is in good company among state authorities. All 47 of the prefectural police departments in Japan have their own mascot, including owls, horses, ducks, and deer—each of them less intimidating than the last. An infamous prison called Asahikwa debuted a sweet-faced mascot named Katakkuri-chan in 2013, complete with a flower hat. Meanwhile, the Japanese military unveiled Prince Pickles in 2007, a wide-eyed, apple-cheeked, child-like mascot. Even if he’s wearing a military uniform, it’s nearly impossible to imagine Pickles firing a gun; he looks less like protector than a kid in need of protection.
The innocence of the mascots is central to their appeal, according to Hiroshi Nittono, director of the cognitive psychophysiology lab at Osaka University, whose research focuses on cuteness. “One of the key characteristics of objects that are called kawaii is ‘not harmful or threatening,’” he writes via email.
This unthreatening quality doesn’t just attract people—it also promotes socialization, according to his research. In a 2016 paper published in the East Asian Journal of Popular Culture, Nittono explains that people want to interact with things that are kawaii. Because their appearance signals that they pose no danger, we’re more likely to engage. And so perhaps the cuteness of Pipo-kun, Prince Pickles, and crew serves to encourage people to interact and cooperate with state authorities. “They are glamorizing peace, which emerges as a fuzzy notion roughly equivalent to the status quo,” Fruhstuck writes of the mascots in her book Uneasy Warriors: Gender, Memory, and Popular Culture in the Japanese Army.
When it comes to crime in Japan, the status quo is pretty good. The crime rate in the country is very low, though some argue that this is less the result of police efficiency than it is the public’s conscientiousness and self-policing. Richard Lloyd Parry describes the benevolent image that the police have cultivated in his 2010 true-crime book People Who Eat Darkness:
Japan has the cuddliest police in the world. To many Japanese, the mere sight of omawari-san (literally, “Honourable Mr. Go Around,” the expression for the cop on the beat) provokes feelings of tender pride more conventionally aroused by children or small, appealing animals. To the foreigner, too, there is something touchingly nostalgic about their neat navy blue uniforms and clunky, old-fashioned bikes. It is hard to believe that the handguns they carry at their hips contain real bullets and impossible to imagine them ever being fired (prudently, they are attached to their uniforms by a cord, like a child’s mittens).
Japan residents generally perceive the police as helpful and easily accessible. Thanks to the miniature stations (koban) that dot city street corners, they’re omnipresent, and can easily offer directions to lost tourists and passersby. “They are polite, have good rapport with the neighborhood, and overall look like the helpers they fashion themselves as,” Frühstück says. Sounds pretty Pipo-kun-like, all right.
But the police have also been criticized for use of force in attempting to extract confessions from suspects, as well as for their lengthy detention periods, which allow them to hold a suspect for up to 23 days without bringing charges. And so Pipo-kun and his ilk serve to direct attention away from some of the darker realities of the police force. Speaking with the Associated Press in 2007 about the debut of Prince Pickles, psychiatrist and author Rika Kayama noted, “Authorities here feel it’s easier and less threatening to use characters to get the public to accept them, rather than explain the facts.”
It is inherently contradictory for a state authority like the police or the military—which by definition wield power over the public—to adopt an image that is adorable precisely because of its powerlessness. But as Bryan McVeigh writes in a 1996 paper on the commodification of cuteness, in Japan, “cuteness communicates power relations and power play, effectively combining weakness, submissiveness and humility with influence, domination and control.” Cute things—whether a baby, a dog, or a cartoon character—are fundamentally disarming. That’s a powerful tool for armed bodies to have at their disposal.
That said, Nittono is skeptical of how much influence mascots like Pipo-kun have over the public’s behavior.
“I don’t think that this strategy directly makes people more obedient to the authority that produces the mascot,” he writes. “However, it is plausible that people have a better impression about the authority and become more interested in their activities. Because people usually prefer a familiar group to strangers, it may increase the likelihood of obedience.”