Are gods, monsters and mascots equal? Part 2, Mascots
On the evolution of folklore beliefs in Japan — and its new forms.
Part 2 of 2 —Are mascots the new kami?
On the previous article, I discussed the mixed origins and forms of Japanese kami. Shinto, Japan’s animistic religion, has taken the duty to enshrine those millions of kami and worship them. Nowadays however, animistic spirituality goes beyond faith in Shinto which is on decline, and Shinto goes beyond believing in those kami, as it enters people’s daily life rather as a perpetration of traditional rituals.
And then, there are the mascots.
When folklore meets consumerism
Mascots are all around Japan: every town, every company, every event have their mascot(s), called ゆるキャラ yuru kyara, “loose character.” As any other mascot in the world, they are used for promotion, for tourism advertising, for building up a brand’s image… Behind their cute appearance, mascots are a big business in Japan. In 2012 mascot-driver sales amounted to nearly 2 trillion yen according to CNN. The most popular ones, like Funabashi’s Funassyi or Kumamoto’s Kumamon, allegedly generate billions of yen every year in product sales and tourism.
In Japanese history of folk culture, mascots are definitely the descendants of the yōkai (folk monsters), just as Pokémon or Ghibli’s creatures are. But contrarily to the yōkai, they do not possess a spiritual aura.
Mascots are a vivid example of the overall secularization of Japanese society along with the attention it pays to keeping its traditions alive. Just like a minority of the people who go to a shrine declare not having faith in Shinto gods or being familiar to their stories, mascots lovers might develop affection for yōkai-like mascots, without feeling the need for awe and fear that yōkai, and most generally kami, would inspire. The wonder is gone.
Or is it?
Let me introduce you to Kamirin. He or she, it is unclear, is the official mascot of Kamijima, an archipelago in the Seto inland sea (between Hiroshima and Ehime prefectures). Their Instagram profile mentions that they are not a sporty type but still very kawaii, while their official website states that kamirin loves fishing and biking — who doesn’t in those islands right next to the breath-taking Shimanami Kaido bike lane? They have a wave-like mane, wear a cherry flower and algae hair ornament and a lime handbag, a mix of symbols from Japan, from the seashore, and from the Seto region.
What is interesting is that Kamirin is described as a kami on Kamimachi’s website:
“Kamirin has been living since old times in Kamijima town, [they are] a kami of the sea, protecting the islanders and the townspeople for generations and generations.”
More than a mascot, the Kamijima Town Commerce and Industry Assembly has created a god from nothing for branding purpose. Kamirin was indeed created only 3 years ago, and does not originate from any actual legend but from a design contest. Their creator has built up legends, borrowed elements from nature and their local culture and put it into a physical form: this adorable fatty mascot with their blushing cheeks and innocent smile.
Only a few other mascots claim to be kami like Kamirin. There are the ones directly inspired from famous yōkai like Kaparu, Saitama city’s kappa-like mascot who won the national mascot contest last year. Others originate from local legends such as Aizu’s Akabeko, inspired from an actual cow that allegedly lived 1200 years ago. She is described as the kami protecting the children from illness because of some legends surrounding not only her but also the toys that were made at her effigy after her actual time on Earth. Hidden among the ranks of Japan’s thousands of mascots, there is a handful of kami with very different lineages.
So why are some mascots claiming to be kami? There are two ways to look at it: first as a business strategy, second as a new spiritual need.
The branding of mascots as kami in Japan is a peculiar manifestation of a global phenomenon: the blending of religion and capitalism. On one side, religious institutions generate profit through their community of believers; on the other companies apply strategies inspired from religion to hook their customers; that is the principle of brand religion. Such patterns are faith, fidelity, community-building, proselytism, appeal to emotion rather than reason, the practice of rituals, urgency…
Those mascots in Japan who claim to be kami are thus surfing on the lucrative wave of brand religion. The extra spiritual aura gives them a competitive advantage in that it gives people more reason to adopt them as their representative, to form a community around them and to promote them. You do not need to be a mascot to claim such aura, Apple or Coca-Cola are doing the same to bind their customers to their products.
As we’ve seen through the two articles, there are no limit to what can become a kami, or even to what kami are. In that sense there is no reason why a mascot could not be a kami. Do people actually believe that the mascot is the protector of their island? Right now, probably not, but they might enjoy passing it as a story… and if such story catches on, who knows what people will believe in a few generation, once the story has become a legend. After all, there are now status of the kid anime character Doraemon inside a shrine in Shizuoka prefecture, so who could claim that no mascot will ever be enshrined as a Shinto kami?
New age, new kami.
Whether coming from Shinto, from folk tales or the mascot ranks, the contemporary kami fill up new needs for spirituality in our modern individualist, fast-speed, consumerist society. They are the medium for spiritual experiences at the age of rationalism, materialism and disinterest from religion. Take for example the U-turn blue line on Sajima island, in the south of Kamijima. Aka: Kamirin’s turf.
This U-turn marks the end of the road, but also offers the cyclists who have come up to there a life-changing experience. A little sign there reads:
How to enjoy the U-turn blue line:
First, pass through the line
Second, look at the ocean and feel healed. Or shout towards the sea.
If you close your eyes and walk along the blue line…
✦ ✧ You will become a new person and will be able to do your best again!✧ ✦
Where is Kamirin in this story? Right at the bottom of the sign, on their bike, as if they were the one giving the advice to the cyclists. At the U-turn blue line, there is no shrine, nothing religious, and yet the sea-view, the context (a dead-end) and the kami-like mascot recreates what Shinto is very much about: a spiritual connexion with nature to inspire humankind.
Kami-mascots are offering this quick, simple, purchasable spirituality in a similar fashion the shops on Shinto shrines offer too. You can buy a Kamirin’s key-ring or a Hachiman’s phone strap, you can get your kid an Akabeko toy or go pick an omikuji at your local shrine… All of those actions will satisfy a certain craving for divine protection and fortune-calling. In modern days, capitalism entered spirituality.
Along with consumer goods, free and fun rituals also maintain the spiritual connection between humans and the divine. They take the forms of carrying a kami’s mikoshi and dancing bon odori during matsuri, or walking eyes closed along a blue line on some island’s dead-end.
Mascots are the new creatures populating Japan, along with the old ones venerated on local Shinto shrines and the yōkai monsters of the popular tales.
To answer the article’s title, gods, monsters and (some) mascots are all kami, whose concept I hope you get a good sense by now. Shinto gods are becoming less and less well-known, although they are still visited in their shrines every year by the majority of the Japanese population. Monsters are still alive in popular culture thanks to artists and creatives interested in the rich stories they carry. Mascots finally are the new black. Extremely popular and lucrative, many of them are well-known in Japan and abroad, and some might make it to the Shinto pantheon in the long run.
Spirituality in the world is in decline, but still alive. The new forms of spirituality in Japan go along with the new lifestyle of Japanese people: more focused on individuality, fast consumption and playfulness. The combination of simple rituals and purchasable luck are characteristics of today’s spirituality in Japan. Yet most people continue to have faith in kami, to visit and pay their respect to them. Spirituality is far from dead in Japan; it has solely adapted to the new features of contemporary society.