Chris Carlier started seeing the creatures almost immediately after moving to Japan in 2002. They were adorable and blindingly colorful, each with an origin story more confounding than the last.
Carlier had arrived in Japan at the dawn of a golden age of yuru-kyara: the winsome, fantastical mascots that represents regions and institutions in Japan. An illustrator by trade, Carlier’s informal work as an English-speaker’s guide to yuru-kyara has become a colorful side hustle.
His Twitter account Mondo Mascots functions as an English-language bestiary of fantastical characters, from Abeno Bear (the cloud-eating ursine representative of an Osaka skyscraper) to Zag-chan (the mascot of the Zagzag pharmacy chain).
On his blog of the same name, Carlier, 41, delves deeper into mascot taxonomy. One worthwhile 2017 post highlights the phylum of Japanese prison mascots, which include Waka-Pi, a cuddly mandarin orange from Wakayama Women’s Prison, and Katakkuri-chan, the official mascot of Asahikawa Prison, whose placid expression brings to mind the humanoid figure assembling furniture in Ikea instruction manuals.
According to Noriko Nakano of the Japan Local Character Association, a mascot trade association representative interviewed by CNN, there’s a direct link between the polytheistic traditions of ancient Japan and the country’s enthusiasm today for characters like Ecopon, a “karaoke-singing bath mat fairy” from Saitama city, and Mr. Carrasco, the daredevil biker crow who reps the Rakuten Golden Eagles. A quality mascot can bring in marketing dollars—tourism-promoting bear Kumamon has brought more than $1 billion to the Kumamoto region—but they also have civic value. Early detection rates of colon cancer around Miyoko City have risen since the debut of Colon-chan, who promotes colon cancer screenings. Higgs-kun is an anthropomorphic Higgs Boson particle who teaches schoolchildren about the International Linear Collider (while advocating that the site be built in northeast Japan’s Iwate prefecture). The stakes for a crowd-pleasing mascot are so high that the annual national mascot competition, the Yuru-Kyara Grand Prix, has been plagued by vote-fixing scandals.
Carlier’s favorite mascots include Chiitan, an unsanctioned otter-like character (paywall) with a turtle for a hat featured in April on John Oliver’s show “Last Week Tonight.” Carlier says he spoke to a researcher for the show by phone, but isn’t sure if his information was helpful.
“I should also give a shout-out to my local mascot, Sanchawan, a dog with a tea bowl for a head,” he told Quartz via email.
To Sanchawan, and to all the humans inside what must be suffocatingly adorable mascot costumes: We salute you.