In the new book Idle Idol, Edward and John Harrison catalogue Japan's obsession with public mascots. These ubiquitous street idols greet passers-by and run the gamut from kaiju to manga characters to the tanuki, a sake-swilling raccoon-dog with giant testicles.
In Idle Idol, the authors explain how these mascots are more than simply product spokesmen. Rather, they possess a distinct interpersonal cultural capital:
Japan's gift giving tradition is the reason why mascots are so inextricably linked with merchandizing. When they come back from vacation, people in Japan bring souvenirs called omiyage for their family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. The characters often identify where people have been and, since they are small, they are easy to pack. Sanrio, the company behind Hello Kitty, describes its merchandise as "social communication gifts." Its products are mainly small items that are given to strengthen the bond between friends. The Character Databank, Inc., which tracks the Japanese character-goods market, stated that in 2008 the market for mascot related goods was about ¥1.54 trillion ($17.9 billion USD). Mascots are big business. They're so popular there's a street under Tokyo station with nothing but mascot shops.
The book is full of quirky characters, but the craziest story is from the history of Ronald McDonald, a.k.a "Donald McDonald" in Japan:
[T]his mascot first arrived in Ginza, Tokyo, in 1971. Den Fujita, founder of McDonald's Japan, declared, "The reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skin is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for two thousand years." Going further, he said, "If we eat McDonald's hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years we will become taller, our skin become white, and our hair blonde."
Eat McDonald's, become a Nordic übermensch! I'm not sure that campaign would really fly these days. Idle Idol is available May 2010 from Mark Batty Publisher. You can read more about the book at the Idle Idol main page.