What are Mascots?
In the United States we typically think of the character that represents our favorite sports team. They’re usually running around on a field or court and entertaining the crowd with their antics. They might be a cartoon version of a bird or a caricature of a person. Heck, they may even start a nationwide controversy. Regardless, mascots are generally beloved fixtures of our sports culture. It’s not uncommon to see fans sporting clothing or even team jerseys that prominently feature their chosen mascot.
A mascot symbolizes goodwill and acts as an ambassador for the organization it represents. The term “mascot” originates from an opera title derived from the meaning for good luck dating back to the 1880’s. Mascots became what we know them as today beginning in the 1950’s.
From Olympic Games to high school jerseys, patriotism to attitude, these symbols can encompass an entire organization’s branding and ethos. Through their commonality they have the ability to evoke a vision, voice, and mission through the character’s personality, story, and appearance.
Mascot Culture in Japan
However, in Japan, the idea of a mascot has been expanded beyond sports to include everything. Since the early 2000’s, thousands of mascot characters have inundated Japanese society. They promote everything from products, organizations and social movements to museums, schools and even the military. Mascot culture has become so popular that at one point, the Japanese government had to step in and begin enforcing mascot population control just to avoid losing track of which mascot is which and who or what they represent.
Getting rid of mascots has proven difficult in more ways than one. Beyond social backlash, there are genuine economic, social and political benefits that are tied directly to mascot culture. They can represent political parties and institutions without fear of scandal. They have helped revitalize industries like museums and local tourism that were otherwise in decline, and have helped gather support for social and environmental causes such as solar power and tax reductions. One of the most popular mascots is Kumamon, a bear-like mascot that represents Kumamoto prefecture in southern Japan. His first appearance in 2010 was promoting the new Shinkansen (bullet train) to huge success. Subsequently, he has appeared in a variety of marketing campaigns ranging from snack packaging to entirely Kumamon-themed hotels and trains. The bank of Japan estimates his economic effect on the prefecture has amounted to nearly 125 billion yen (USD1.1B) over the past two years!
Nakamoto Forestry’s “Shokunin Taro”
As a company with deep roots in Japan, we naturally began developing our own mascot a few years ago. Even though we rarely use him for marketing or branding, he has become an internal fixture of the company and culture. We began by choosing an animal – the tanuki, or raccoon dog – for the playful and mischievous nature they exude, being active at night and having a “shadow aesthetic” reflected in our dark siding. Tanuki have long been symbols of prosperity and mischief, which we love. We gave him an outfit and tools that are reminiscent of traditional Japanese carpenters, another piece of our inspiration. The final piece he needed was a name, something that would embody his crafty nature. We settled on something simple and relatable – Shokunin Taro; Shokunin meaning tradesman, Taro being a common Japanese name. He is effectively “Tradesman John.”
Tradesman John has gone through many iterations. Our Graphic Design lead is currently fixing his headband before he makes another appearance on our next run of company t-shirts. As design trends change, so do mascots’ appearances. But one thing remains consistent: Light-hearted, upbeat imagery with the intention to connect with a simpler, colorful part of the past. Keep an eye out for our Shokunin Taro in the future, because if one thing is for certain, mascots aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.