Idle Idol: The Japanese Mascot -- a Boing Boing exclusive preview

Edward & John Harrison kindly provided us with a preview of their remarkable photo book about the large 3D mascots that stand outside stores in Japan. It's called Idle Idol: The Japanese Mascot.
201009221457 The Japanese have long been infatuated with the three-dimensional characters used to represent products, companies, civic organizations, towns and just about anything else you can imagine. Idle Idol: The Japanese Mascot examines this fascinating cultural history, documenting the evolution of the character statues that are ubiquitous throughout the country today. 

The mascot trend began during the Edo period with the pot-bellied raccoon-dog Tanuki. These ceramic statues were first used as good luck charms (and they are still used as such today) but starting in the 19th century a noodle shop appropriated the character in an effort to create a link between Tanuki's fortuitous status and bowls of soup. It worked, and since then confectioners, pharmaceutical companies, television networks, food companies, police forces and fire departments have all created mascots. 

The mascots represent a brand or a certain shop but they also exist as stand-alone characters that people adore. Idle Idol's photographs and written explanations vivify these unique mascots that are artful, audacious and wholly Japanese!

1. Sato-chan & Satoko-chan サトちゃん サト子ちゃん
Two of the most commonly found mascots in Japan are Sato-chan (left) and his sister Satoko-chan (right). They are the mascots for Sato Pharmaceuticals and are modelled on an Indian elephant which are known to live long lives (presumably the drugs will help customers achieve this too). Sato-chan first started appearing outside pharmacies in the 1960's so he's an early example of this form of advertising. Mark spotted a version from the 1970's in the Showa museum in Takayama. To see more photos and find out where a museum dedicated to the pair is, click here.

2. Satoko-chan サト子ちゃん
Satoko-chan can be seen in a variety of different costumes which change depending on the season and preference of the pharmacy owner. She can be found dressed in a Santa suit at Christmas time, a Hawaiian shirt during the summer and a kimono at festival time. Other characters like Peko-chan and Colonel Sanders are often dressed up too.

3. Pyon-chan ピョンちゃん
Pyon-chan is the mascot for another pharmaceutical company, this time SSP Corporation (Science and Society Pharmacuticals). Created in 1952 he only received a name in 1963 after the company held a competition to choose him one. The winning entry is a common name for pet rabbits as "pyon" is the onomatopoeia for the sound rabbits (and frogs) make when they hop. Pyon-chan is modeled on the hare in the legend "The White Hare of Inaba," which comes from the Kojiki, one of Japan's oldest books. The story sees the hare skinned alive by sharks and then tricked by deities who suggest bathing in seawater to alleviate his pain, but the hare ends up in even more agony.

4. Masumasu-kun ますますくん
Masumasu-kun is found in post offices all over Japan where he promotes an investment trust fund. Masumasu means "more and more" and the kanji for masu means a wooden measuring box. The mascot represents making more and more money and keeping it safe in a box. He's portrayed as being curious, thrifty and very neat.

05.Sawayaka Oyaji-1
5. Sawayaka Oyaji さわやか親父
Sawayaka Oyaji or the "Fresh Old Man," proudly greets customers to the discount store called Japan. Modelled on the company president Kanji Kirima I admire the bold and unflattering design. Around his neck is a sash that reads, "If you're in need come to Japan".

06.Daruma Daijin-1
6. Daruma Daijin だるま大臣
A chain of kushikatsu restaurants in Osaka called Daruma has a mascot based on the owner who stands outside each one of its restaurants. Kushikatsu is mostly meat on sticks coated in bread and egg. In the restaurants you usually sit at a counter and have a container of communal sauce. The sophisticated mascot has bulging eyes and a chin which extends outwards. The constant scowl is there for a reason as he often shouts "Sosu no nidozuke kinshiyade" (DON'T DOUBLE DIP) from a speaker on his chest.

7. Higuchi-san ヒグチさん
The final and perhaps my favourite boss mascot is modelled on Higuchi Toshio the founder of Higuchi Pharmacy. In an early commercial Higuchi-san rides an elephant and declares his goal of opening 1,327 stores. I've no idea why he chose that particualar number but unfortunately he's still yet to reach his target, I suspect its because not all his stores have this awesome awesome mascot.

8. Sukare-chan スカレーちゃん
Sukare-chan is the mascot for Yokosuka Navy Curry and stands outside the Yokosuka train station and in other places throughout the city. When Japan opened its doors to trade in the Meiji era the first ships came to the port of Yokosuka, the city adopted the curry brought by British sailors and created a Japanese version. His name comes from a combination of Suka from "Yokosuka" and kare from "curry."

9. Pipo-kun ピーポくん
Outside the police museum in Ginza stands Pipo-kun the mascot for the Tokyo police force. The first two sounds pi and po come from the English words people and police. He has big ears to hear people in trouble, an antennae to catch quick movement and according to his website big eyes to watch every corner of society. To see more of Pipo-kun click here.

10. Pompa-kun ポンパ君
The colourful pelican promoted Hitachi's color television called Pompa, released in 1968 and touted for how quickly it turned on. The name comes from Hitachi's slogan: "press the switch--pom--and it turns on--pa". Hitachi had a steam train called Hitachi Pompago, which had Pompa-kun on the front, it traveled around Japan for eight months showcasing the new television.

11. Kappa 河童
In Japanese folklore, kappa, or river children, are sprites thought to live in marshes and rivers. Legends say that kappa are mischievous, eat cucumbers and children, but are often very polite. Kappa appear in various forms on Kappabashi-dori, a street otherwise known as kitchen town. The street and surrounding area have hundreds of specialist shops that supply restaurant owners with everything they need from pots, pans, uniforms and cash tills to store-front mascots and plastic food. It was named after a prominent merchant called Kihachi Kappaya who, legend has it, had the help of many kappa in building an embankment and bridge. Not far from the street is the only temple in Japan to honor the creatures and one which claims to have a mummified hand of a kappa. With its strong association to kappa, the street adopted the creatures as its mascot.

12. Sento-kun せんとくん
Sento-kun is the official mascot created for the 1300th anniversary of the city of Nara, celebrated in 2010. Sento can be translated as "moving the capital," which is what happened when Nara replaced Fujiwara-kyo as Japan's capital. Sento-kun combines the image of a young Buddha with deer antlers. The mascot celebrates Nara's Buddhist history and the deer who roam the city. In February 2008, Sento-Kun was unveiled to the public and immediately drew criticism. Some religious groups thought Sento-kun was insulting to Buddhists and local citizens expressed anger at the amount of public money spent on the mascot. The biggest concern, however, was that the character simply wasn't cute enough. In response, local residents campaigned for a new mascot and set up a contest where the public voted for their favourite. Find out more on the mascot rivalry in Nara here.

13. VIC
I don't know the official name of this mascot and he doesn't appear in Idle Idol: The Japanese Mascot book but he's one of my favorites. He can be found in Kichijoji on top of a video and electronics shop. The retro video camera, his worrying expression and the fact he's only wearing a small pair of red pants make him one of the most unusual mascots I've discovered in Japan.

Find out about more mascots | look inside | buy on Amazon


        1. Yes, clearly the Astro Boy manga about a robot in space was a ripoff of a completely unrelated hamburger mascot. Other than the pose of that particular statue, they don’t even look similar.

  1. There’s a similar custom outside of towns out on the Canadian prairies. Most of them have a huge iconic statue on the turn-off road from the main highway. There’s a giant Easter Egg, a big Canadian goose and so on. Flin Flon Manitoba has a statue of the pulp science fiction character that the town is named after.

  2. Loved this.

    I thought the idol on the cover was either Astro Boy or a very close to trademark infringing knockoff.

  3. I am Mister Sparkle! I am disrespectful to dirt. Can you see that I am serious? Join me, or die! Can you do any less?

    *gasp* What a brave corporate logo! I accept the challenge of Mister Sparkle.


  4. The best mascot statue in Japan is hands down, by far,
    Col. Sanders for KFC.

    Every KFC has one- and they are all with the creepiest expression. It’s hilarious, though- much like that Burger King King.

    I wish there was a place I could buy one. I’d put it on my porch for halloween, and hide him behind the door, so people close the door and see him with his arms sticking out and freak out.

    I have thought at length about all the things I could do if I just had one of the Sanders san statues.. ahahaha

    1. I was 16 years old and had been in Japan for about 4 days. My host brother sits down with me to show me some Japanese comedy: Un-chan Nan-chan. Not speaking Japanese made it a little hard to understand, but the skit that had two people dressed in chicken outfits kidnapping a Col. Sanders from outside KFC, taking it to the park, and beating it senseless, remains one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. And showed to me that comedy can transcend language.

  5. I wonder if Mappy, a lesser-known but still famous Namco game character, is Pipo-kun’s cousin? Mappy features a white police mouse that recovers stolen goods while evading kitty criminals, a few years after Pac-Man.

  6. When visiting Japan, I found the most hilarious mascot. As it was at Narita airport, it ended up being the first picture I took in Japan. It was a giant hot dog, wearing an American flag as a cape, with legs and feet that had on Nikes, and it was squirting ketchup on its head.

    When going through my pictures, everyone, matter what their country of origin goes “What the heck is that?”

  7. i’m amazed people don’t know who Astro Boy is. i knew of him when i was a little kid in the midwest in the 80s. he’s well known enough to be mentioned by name in Calvin and Hobbes, which made very few specific cultural references.

  8. Just a note on the name “Pipo-kun”: that’s Japanese for how police car sirens sound–“pipo-pipo”.

  9. In 1985, Baseball Fans in Osaka celebrating the Hanshin Tigers win threw a Colonel Sanders mascot into the Dontonbori river. (Some say this was from anti-American feeling against one of the players on the opposing team). In 2009, the statue was found, and this is how it looked:

    Of course, people in L.A. were kidnapping Bob’s Big Boy mascots and leaving them gagged and blindfolded in the desert long before this. Mascots rule!

  10. Doesn’t Tsukishima have it’s own 3D mascot(s)? I always wondered about the ones I saw there. Thanks.
    PS- fantastic book and post.

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