Savvy business practices helped the once-unsettling chimera win over hearts in the end.

Although not as prominent as its neighbor Kyoto, Nara is a hotbed of Japanese history, dating back even farther in time from its successor as the country’s capital, but still struggles to get the same level of fame. So, on 12 February 2008, the prefecture unveiled a new mascot to help drum up tourism: Sento-kun!

Oh, here he comes now!

The concept was a combination of two of Nara’s most notable features: the courteous deer which roam freely in the city streets and the giant bronze statue of Buddha, both with a sprinkle of kawaii thrown in for good measure. However, what resulted was the abomination of half-measures seen above.

▼ Sento-kun (right) and a couple of deer (left)

Now, you might be thinking, “He…It’s not so bad looking,” and you’d be right, but you have to remember that this was back in 2008.

Times were a lot simpler then and people were demanded only the cutesiest in their regional mascots. The kimo-kawaii (disgusting-but-cute) wave of mascots, which Sento-kun’s notoriety likely helped trigger, wasn’t set to hit until a few years later. At the time of his debut, the Buddha-deer’s relative ugliness among its peers made headlines across the country.

At the same time, for many people Sento-kun was a breath of fresh air in the mascot world and it developed a cult following. So, Nara held onto him for various appearances and merchandising alongside other characters such as Shikamaro and Manto-kun that appealed to mainstream tastes. At its peak popularity in 2010, Sento-kun earned the city 49 million yen (US$450,000) in licensing revenue.

▼ And anyone would agree, “Sento-kun Dance” is one kickin’ ska tune

However, that well has since been gradually running drier. Sento-kun’s once unique style was overtaken by even more extreme mascots like Melon Guma and Floor Plan Boy. So, in August of 2018, Nara made the decision to make Sento-kun royalty free.

Following the policy of Kumamon, in which his likeness is free to use on the condition that it promotes his region of Kumamoto, this has been the Kumamon way since his beginning and has helped him become the undisputed king of mascots in Japan ever since.

It appears to be working for Sento-kun as well. Since adopting a looser copyright scheme, the number of groups applying for use of the mutant Buddha’s likeness spiked by 50 percent. In addition, according to a study by the Nihon Research Center last October, Sento-kun’s popularity among citizens aged 15 to 79 jumped by four points, putting it in third place behind stalwarts Kumamon and Funassyi. 

It’s very strong evidence towards the benefits of a more relaxed copyright system, but that alone doesn’t equate guaranteed success. It takes the right set of circumstances and a well-oiled PR machine to make it work — just take my own copyright-free mascot Hananana-chan…

▼  …please.

While it doesn’t work for ever character, it’s nice to see Sento-kun get its due. Nara is a lovey place and well worth a visit. So, if you get a chance, stop by and check out all the historic sites and culture it has to offer. If you’re lucky you might even bump into Sento-kun in the felt. Just follow the sound of crying children.

Source: Sankei News
Top image: YouTube/manyufetty05

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