Intro to Image Characters, Part 1: Japan and America’s Image (Character) Problems

Japan’s infamous penchant for cutesy corporate and government mascots not necessarily aimed at children are well known and have been covered on this blog in various capacities before. These mascots are often called “image characters” in Japan (though the term can also apply to live human and animal mascots). Some examples (translations liberal and loose, just the way I like it):

  • Masumasu-kun – “Mr. Grow-and-grow” the mascot for Japan Post’s mutual fund products:
  • Gambaru Bear – “Do-your-best Bear,” representing the Japan Self-Defense Force Sapporo Regional Liaison:
  • And who can forget the national mascots for the Self Defense Forces, Prince Pickles and Parsley-chan!

  • Quiz time! Why are they called Pickles and Parsley? No cheating!

    Apparently, the SDF holds overnight tours for groups of children hosted by the mascots. Imagine spending a weekend doing semaphore and knife training with that!

    (other fun pictures of SDF largesse can be found here)

  • Ayumi and Mamoru, cartoon human rights activists brought to you by Japan’s Ministry of Justice:

  • They’re so cute they I’m sure they could even get Kim Jong Il to dance to the human rights anthem (too bad Mamoru can’t sing!).

    I could, of course, go on but I will hold off until later posts). If you love lame mascots in Japan as much as I do, be sure check out the wonderful “YuruKyara” (Dumb Characters), a mini coffeetable book with full-color photos of dozens of the things. Don’t spend too long reading it though, or their hollow eyes may eat your soul (try having a staring contest with Mamoru to see what I mean).

    Now, before you start chortling about how wacky those Japanese are, America has pretty much the same problem. This excellent report from a now-defunct blog catalogs some of America’s own lame mascots to be found on the kids sections of various government websites. Some of these things are amazingly lame, so do follow the links and check it out (article reproduced in full for your convenience and entertainment, click the headline for a cached Google link):

    Feb 13, 2006
    Why the Feds shouldn’t advertise to our kids, either.

    By Constantine von Hoffman

    There is only one thing creepier than corporations marketing to kids: The government marketing to kids. Now, I hear you say, what’s wrong with NASA teaming up with Pokemon to get our kids interested in science? Or the Centers for Disease Control creating something called The Immune Platoon of superheroes to show how your body defends itself? Or FEMA’s Herman the Spokescrab teaching children to care for themselves in the event of an emergency because you sure as heck shouldn’t rely on the government to do it? Why, nothing of course.

    Where it gets eerie is when the cops and the spy agencies start to do it. Yeah, yeah, McGruff the Crime Dog was cute … but this goes way beyond that. Were talking the National Security Agency doing anthropomorphic animals with names like Crypto Cat, Decipher Dog and Rosetta Stone (who appears to be a fox). With them the NSA hopes to entice “America’s future codemakers and codebreakers!” … but remember: Only with a warrant kids. Unless Mr. Prez says otherwise.

    Truly troubling – from a marketing standpoint – is the National Reconnaissance Office’s kids page. The NRO, in case you didn’t know, is an agency considered so important that you and I and everyone else aren’t even allowed to know the size of its budget. Suffice to say that budget must be big and it looks like they spent about $2.50 on their website. Littered (and I do mean littered) with characters named Corey Corona, Earth Watch, Whirly Lizard and Dana Drop (who? what?), it has all the aesthetic value of a not-very-talented 2nd graders rejected heroes. It is quite clear the site, like the agency, is designed not to attract attention.

    Over at the FBI they are trying to be cool which – if you know anything about the FBI – is always a mistake. Their page for the grades 6 through 12 crowd uses an incredibly up-to-the-minute-if-that-minute-is-in-1987 Star Trek: The Next Generation font. Also, there’s a game which lets you help “Bobby Bureau” go undercover by giving him such things as a goatee and beret — presumably to investigate the ACLU. No turban, however.

    The Department of Justice carries on the attempt to be cool by having characters that look like they were designed by the people who brought us School House Rocks, which is so retro that it almost is cool. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ site for kids is odd because well it isn’t really for kids. It’s just a bunch of their usual info sometimes put in “kid friendly” fonts.

    The piece de resistance of weirdness is The CIA’s site which includes “Ginger’s CIA Adventure.”* This is a slideshow of a badly photoshopped teddy bear escaping from the desk of a CIA employee and then puttering around the grounds of spook central to its heart’s delight. The bear’s owner is Marta.

    “Marta’s my friend and she’s an analyst at the CIA. This is a very important job because what she writes may be seen by the President and other important people in the government. What she does helps them make important decisions about our country.”

    Or it may be ignored entirely.

    The slide show is an indictment of the CIA’s security efforts as the only time the bear gets challenged by security is when after having wandered the halls and gone outside, it tries to get back in. Then what happens to it?

    “Lucky the guard knows Marta and me. He said I could get a badge just like Marta. The officer said he would take me to the office to do that.”

    Good to know that just as Aldrich Ames got by thanks to the CIA’s good-ol’-boy culture, so will our cute little stuffed friend.

    In addition to prowling the halls and grounds, the bear spends a lot of time looking at memorials to the dead: Frolicking in the memorial garden, looking at the memorial wall and reading the Book of Honor. But all is not doom and gloom for our feckless bear, she also gets to see fun sites like the lobby, the Wild Bill Donovan statue, the directors’ gallery, the cafeteria and the special building where all the paper garbage is taken to be burned.

    All that running around leaves our little bear exhausted – but not so exhausted that the toy isn’t willing to deceive it’s bestest buddy in the whole wide world:

    “Just in time, here comes Marta! If only I could tell her about my adventure, but that will be our little secret! Bye, boys and girls!”

    So the takeaway from this little lesson. Security is not that good. You can get healthy food at the cafeteria and even if you don’t, just lie about it.

    Impressions from Adamu: The American collection is less treacly and much more aggressively half-assed and ugly. Something tells me these design contracts went to the lowest bidder (who happened to be 12 years old). The NRO site even kind of rips off Homestar Runner!

    Also, far less emphasis on costumed mascots on the American side – a sign that they haven’t the budget to turn they’re ill-conceived web pages into real-life child-traumatizers.

    All in all, I have to say that in the Japanese side, the things might be mediocre and unnecessary, but gosh darnit at least they put their heart into it!

    5 thoughts on “Intro to Image Characters, Part 1: Japan and America’s Image (Character) Problems”

    1. No takers on my quiz?? Aw, come on!

      Why are the Self Defense Force mascots called Parsley and Pickles?

    2. Nope, this is an “Army” not Aum Shinrikyo!

      I expected you, of all people, to get it on the first go.

      I am now officially allowing cheating. Search on!

    3. :sigh:

      Well, the first search on google for “parsley pickles sdf” came to this post. And I frankly can’t be bothered to search any farther than that.

    4. Hehe, fair enough. Here it is:

      Parsley and pickles will never be main dishes, but they are healthy and make up an important part of a balanced meal… JUST LIKE THE SDF IN THE WORLD!!!

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