By Agence France-Presse
They’re wide-eyed, brightly colored, and completely adorable. But can Japan’s Olympic mascots bring in the cash, in a country where cuddly icons promote everything from regional tourism to local prisons?
Japan unveiled three sets of prospective mascots for the 2020 games last year. The winning duo will be announced in February, graduating into a landscape packed with cute and quirky characters.
Known locally as “yuru-kyara” or “laid-back characters”, mascots can be major money spinners.
The pot-bellied, red-cheeked bear known as Kumamon — created in 2010 to promote Japan’s southern Kumamoto region — raked in $8.8 million last year for local businesses selling branded products.
Mascots capitalize on a local love of all things adorable, including characters that have gained international fame like the perky-eared yellow Pokemon, and the demure Hello Kitty with her signature hair bow.
“Japan has a tradition of creating personalized characters out of nature — mountains, rivers, animals and plants,” said Sadashige Aoki, professor of advertisement theory at Hosei University.
“It has a tradition of animism, a belief that every natural thing has a soul.”
Now the hope is that the Tokyo Olympics mascots can serve as both ambassadors for Japan’s expanding tourism industry, and a way to recoup some of the billions spent on staging the Games.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Japan to promote its tradition, culture and how its society looks,” said Aoki.
“The question is how to make them globally popular, like Mickey Mouse.”
In the past, Olympic mascots have been anything but a sure bet in terms of revenue.
Brazil netted $300 million in profits from licensing intellectual property from the 2016 Games, according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Merchandise featuring Rio’s feline mascot Vinicius was the top-selling item.
But Wenlock and Mandeville, the widely mocked mascots of the 2012 London Games, proved far from Olympic gold.
The one-eyed characters were dubbed “bizarre” and “creepy” by some, reportedly sending shares in their manufacturer down by more than a third.
Without the cute factor, mascots are unlikely to have much success, said Munehiko Harada, professor of sports business at Waseda University.
“It’s important that mascots are popular among children,” he told AFP.
But even if the mascots have mass appeal, they may not be long-term money-makers for Japan because of licensing issues.
“Olympic mascots in the past have been forgotten after the Games were over,” said Harada.
“But there is a chance they remain alive and remembered as a legacy of the Tokyo Olympics, depending on how they operate the business.”