Football Mascots: Big In Japan

The Xerox Super Cup, contested between the winners of the J.League and Emperor’s Cup, is considered the traditional “kickoff” to the Japanese football season.

The Xerox Super Cup, contested between the winners of the J.League and Emperor’s Cup, is considered the traditional “kickoff” to the Japanese football season.

But although this year’s card features a tantalizing matchup between reigning league champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima and runners-up Gamba Osaka, hype for the match itself has paled in comparison to interest in the annual J.League Mascot Election, in which fans choose the oversized character who will stand in the center of the league’s annual mascot group photo.

To understand why Japan is bullish on mascots, known locally as yuru-kyara, one need look no further than Kumamon, the pear-shaped bear representing the southern Kyushu prefecture of Kumamoto. His 2011 victory at the Yuru-kyara Grand Prix, an annual gathering of mascots which draws attendances that could fill a World Cup Final, saw his popularity skyrocket to the tune of billions of dollars in merchandise sales. Kumamon has since become a cultural diplomat, flying to Paris and New York to promote the Cool Japan movement.

Kumamon’s popularity resulted in a mascot glut, with organisations across the country looking to cash in. Over 1,700 characters participated in the 2015 Grand Prix, and some local governments have threatened to retire chronic under-performers.

There is no such fear of a mascot bust in the J.League, however: they are wildly popular not only with children, but also with adult fans of both genders, much to the delight of merchandise stands across the country. In many stadiums, mascots can often be seen taking photos with visiting supporters - a sight few sports fans in the West could comprehend. They are frequent fixtures at local festivals and community events, and some clubs have even created extended mascot families.

The Mascot Election, which began in 2013, draws inspiration from another local cultural phenomenon: J-Pop superstars AKB48, who regularly hold elections amongst their rabid fan base to determine which of the group’s 100+ members will feature on their latest single. With ballots tied to individual CDs, the tactic has resulted in tens of millions of album sales, with some fans buying thousands of discs to support their favorite idol.

With the Twitter-based balloting period approaching its conclusion, one potential winner is Tokyo Dorompa, the red-and-blue-masked tanuki who represents FC Tokyo. A relative newcomer who only made his debut in 2009, Dorompa has nonetheless earned the respect of fans across the league with his acrobatic feats, including bouts of breakdancing and frequent unicycle rides.

He’ll be looking to upstage 2013 winner Vegatta of Vegalta Sendai, reigning champion Sanche of Sanfrecce Hiroshima, and Consadole Sapporo mascot Dole-kun, all of whom are neck-and-neck. One also can’t rule out a comeback by V-Varen Nagasaki’s Vivi-kun, a deer/duck hybrid who captured hearts and minds with his surprise 2014 victory.

They will be among 39 official mascots lining up for meet-and-greets at Nissan Stadium ahead of the Super Cup, with thousands of fans expected to line up for a rare chance to take photos with mascots from across the league’s top two divisions. With the election results set to be announced at halftime, the event is guaranteed to have fans of all clubs, not just Sanfrecce and Gamba, tuning in.

Dan Orlowitz is a Tokyo-based photographer and translator for Football Channel (@foot_ch) and the English-language Football Channel Asia (@fcdotasia). For more writing on things you didn't know mattered in Japanese football, follow him @aishiterutokyo.