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If you went to your town council meeting in your country and told them you wanted to make a cutesy mascot to represent your city, you’d probably get a few smirks from the council members. If you further told them that the character would be androgynous and hardly recognizable as any particular animal, you’d get a few laughs. Then, if you told them it didn’t even need to have a mouth, that it could be frumpy and clutsy, and that this could be a main draw to your town, you’d have been laughed out of the town hall right then and there.

But this is Japan, where characters are biiiig business. The Japanese have taken the concept of Mickey Mouse, Snoopy and The Muppets to a whole new level. With huge success. And now, one junior high school student is hoping to tap into the power of the mascot character to achieve something far more noble trying to get rich: reviving her community and bringing much-needed tourism to the tiny island on which she lives. But she needs your help.

This, RocketNews24 reader, is your chance to get involved in Japan’s mascot frenzy! Submit a character idea to represent this small Japanese island–and who knows, maybe your idea will be chosen! Interested? Read on!

Meet Saya Amano, a third-year junior high school student living on a small island in the Seto Inland Sea off Okayama Prefecture. She is one of just eight students at the Shiraishi Junior High School. With only three students in her entire grade, she represents one third of the graduating class of 2015. Her island is suffering from the dual scourges of an aging community and a shrinking population. As a matter of fact, there are only 563 people left on this small touristy island where people come to hike, kayak and enjoy the quiet seaside.

What’s an island to do? Saya has an idea that she thinks will help revive her community and bring more tourism to her hometown. And she has asked our RocketNews24 readers for their help!

If you’ve ever wondered how Japanese characters get started and how they progress to being nationally and even world famous, this article will give you some clues. At the end, we’ll give you all the information you need to submit your own character idea.

But first, you need to know a little bit about Saya Amano, who is no ordinary student. (Find out how she got her name here).

Saya was born on Shiraishi Island and her hobbies are taking photos, sewing, and studying. She also likes speaking English.

She especially likes taking photos of her cat as well as her favorite spots on and around Shiraishi Island.

Here are some of her photos:

Benten Island,

▼The island home of the sea goddess, Benzaiten.

Benten Island

the Shiraishi Island beach,

Shiraishi Island Beach

and the Bussharito Thai-style temple.

▼In addition to a Japanese temple is this Thai-style temple, said to hold some of the ashes of Buddha.

Bussharito Thai-style temple

As a matter of fact, last year Saya put her photos together to make a photo-brochure for Japanese visitors to Shiraishi. She labeled her brochure: 白石愛ランド。She used the Japanese kanji for Shiraishi (白石), followed by the kanji for love 愛 pronounced ai, and used it as the first syllable in English word ‘is-land.” She paired that with ランド the katakana for the English word “land” in the second syllable. Thus she created a hybrid word by combining Japanese and English sounds to form the word “island.” This is how Saya’s creative mind works.

But this is not the first time Saya has made news. Remember I said one of her hobbies was sewing? Two years ago she sewed a jimbei (Japanese lounge-around-the-house-wear) and donated it to one of the victims of the Tohoku earthquake. Her efforts were recognized by the local newspaper.

▼Saya-san with the hand-made jinbei she donated.

Japanese jinbei

When I asked Saya how she spent her most recent summer vacation, she said she helped take care of elderly people at the old person’s home on the island. Saya has a heart of gold!

▼The talented Saya (front right) taking part in the Shiraishi Bon Dance, a designated National Treasure that has been performed for over 700 years. The precocious child started learning the dance at three years old and has taken part in the annual ritual ever since.

Shiraishi Bon Dance

So how did Saya come up with the idea of creating a mascot? “Our island has many problems now with the aging and falling population,” said the 15-year-old who has a grandmother in her 90s. “Our community may be dying but I want the spirit of the island to remain alive.”

But first, this enterprising student did her research. She went to a local rest area located off the highway on the mainland where she approached complete strangers asking them if they had ever heard of Shirashi Island. She also asked these unsuspecting vehicular travelers if they thought having a mascot character would be a good way to bring more attention to the tourist-oriented destination. The answer was a resounding yes!

▼When was the last time you surveyed complete strangers asking if they’d heard of your hometown?


Next, our entrepreneurial student compiled her results and presented her idea to her school.

▼Saya gives a speech to her school about her Shiraishi Island character idea.


Saya’s favorite characters are Snoopy and Bari-san. The latter represents Ehime, a Japanese prefecture known for its chicken dishes.

▼Though perhaps not immediately recognizable, Bari-san is a baby chicken.  The sash around his waist is terrycloth, a local product, and the boat he is holding represents the shipbuilding industry in Ehime.



But just because a character isn’t widely known doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely effective. I doubt you’d ever forget that Yamagata has a fireworks festival now that you’ve seen Hanapon, their mascot who represents the event:

▼In addition to looking like a firework, the red appendages are representations of cherries, thus combining a promotion of Yamagata’s local product (cherries) and their annual fireworks festival.


Characters are usually created by ordinary citizens as opposed to professional artists, which gives them an unrefined, uncomplicated, and down-to-earth demeanor. “Simplicity is key,” says Saya. “The final product should be something anyone can draw.” After all, being easily replicated is one sure way to help propel a character to popularity.

Let’s take a look at three of Japan’s most popular characters to see what makes them so adorable and irresistible!

1. Funasshi

Funasshi (or Funassyi) is an unofficial mascot of Funabashi City in Chiba Prefecture. He’s a pear! His parents are pear trees who rocked the orchard by bearing 274 children. Funasshi is the fourth child. He turned 1,876 years old on July 4, 2014. The unstoppable, unrottable pear just keeps getting more and more popular, recently opening his own cafe in Tokyo and soon due make an appearance in a movie produced by Toei Animation. Funasshi is endearing not just because of his little jumps and kicks. His positive attitude in any situation and his mission to spread joy have helped make his personality magnetic. Funasshi reportedly earned over 200 million yen in 2013! Not bad for a pear.

▼Funasshi, winner of the 2012 Mascot Grand Prix.


2. Hikonyan

Hikonyan is truly the cat’s meow. This mascot was created in 2007 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture. Hikonyan’s samurai helmet is based on one on display inside the castle’s museum. Hikonyan’s popularity has increased tourist visitation to Hikone by over 200,000 annually. Not bad for a studly, sword-bearing mascot created by the Hikone municipal government.


▼Hikonyan, shown here as a yurukyara, has his very own blog!


3. Kumamon

 ▼Kumamon, winner of 2011 Mascot Grand Prix.


Although Kumamon started out not so popular (and even reportedly scared children so much the ran away from him!), a make-over trimmed his roundness and stretched him into more of a pear-shape, which successfully cutified him enough for people to start liking him. Kumamon is said to be a city employee of the Kumamoto Prefectural government, who hands out free licenses to those who apply to use the character to promote the prefecture’s goods and services.

Kumamon brought in ¥2.56 billion for the prefecture in 2011 after his facelift. He then made ¥11.8 billion in the first half of 2012 after his Grand Prix victory.

So, there are some of the secrets to creating a great character! Got some talent? Got some creativity? Got a character idea so cute, it’ll make people swoon and scream kawaii!? Okay! Here’s how to submit your entry:

There are three areas you can submit to. Each submission can include all or just one of the three areas.

1. A sketch of your character idea.

This is where your artistic talent goes to work, creating something you think would be appealing. Remember KISS: Keep it Simple Stupid.

2. An explanation (just a few sentences) as to why you think your character idea is the so supercalafragalistic.

Does your character represent something special to Shiraishi Island? Saya gave you a few ideas already with her photos of special spots on the island, but you can find out more by reading previous RN24 articles about Shriaishi Island. Tip from Saya: “Even a rock is okay as long as it’s cute!

3. A character name.

Many successful character names use word-play. The name Hanapon uses the word hana from the word hanabi (fireworks). Hikonyan is a combination of the city name Hikone and nyan, the sound of a cat meow in Japanese. Likewise, Funasshi is a combination of Funabashi City and the Japanese word for pear: nashi. On the other hand, Kumamon plays on the word kuma, bear, which is also the beginning of the prefecture’s name Kumamoto.

If you can’t come up with a Japanese word-play, that’s okay. Your name doesn’t even have to be Japanese. After all, Bari-san seems to be just a name.

A few words of caution regarding names: make sure your name makes sense in both English and Japanese.

Refrigerator and freezer manufacturer Fukushima Industries last year came up with this egg character, which was intended to alleviate the fears of food and safety. Unfortunately, as well as sharing a name with the prefecture which shot to infamy in 2011, the character’s name (pronounced foo-koo-pee) when translated into the English alphabet becomes Fukuppy, reminding English speakers of a term to describe, shall we say, “messing up”?


Can one junior high school student bring about change to a declining community? Of course she can! With your help, that is.

Start your search for the perfect Shiraishi Island character by getting ideas from previous articles about the island on our site. You can read about Shiraishi island products, including mulberries and seaweed here, about the island’s sacred rocks here, the octopus fishing industry here, specialty foods such as octopus, sea urchin, namako, and sazae here, and Shiraishi Island’s beach activities here.

Mail your submission to:

Character Boshu, Shiraishi Junior High School, 2482-1 Shiraishi Island, Kasaoka-shi, Okayama Prefecture 714-0036.



岡山県笠岡市白石島 2482-1 白石中学校


Deadline is September 25, 2014

You only have three weeks to get your entry in, so if you’re sending it from overseas, send it in at least a week ahead, or since this is Japan, fax it to: (+81) 865-68-4389 (international) or 086-68-4389 (domestic).

Good luck!

Feature Image: Sean Clarke
All Photos Amy Chavez/RocketNews24 unless otherwise noted.