Day 20: “Kyara-ing Shinto”…?

Hello everyone. It seems kind of fitting to finish this series of articles slash travel reports with an English transcript of the presentation I gave yesterday evening. It was really challenging to me to prepare (and hold) it in Japanese, but although I did not make it into the regional newspaper like other participants, I am quite happy with how it turned out. Especially since I had the pleasure of many conversations about it during the farewell dinner afterwards with all kinds of people. So, what have I been doing here in Ise? What follows is a slightly expanded version of my presentation, I hope you enjoy it.

As I mentioned in my opening post, I am a media scholar from Tübingen university. In Germany, “media studies” developed out of two different directions, one being more empirically orientied, with a focus on things like mass communication and public opinion formation (so, basically, a social science), the other being a kind of expansion of traditional humanities, like literature or (cultural) philosophy. I would consider myself very much a semiotician at this point, although this is not terribly popular at the moment, but with a stronger influence by the cognitive sciences than by “high structuralism”. Anyways, my focus of interest is especially on “visual communication”.

In my dissertation, I was mainly engaged with a very special “communication technology”, if you will: Fictional characters. Not necessarily characters that are derived from “narrative” media (like novels, films, comics, or even videogames), but characters that are explicitely designed to act as stand-ins for companies, agencies, and so on. In Germany, you have to look around a while to find those. One nice example would be Max Maulwurf of the Deutsche Bahn (the German Railway). He would be called “Makkusu Magura-kun”, I suppose. Nice to meet you. He has a pretty busy work-life to apologize for track constructions and the like, on public signs in train stations and so on. He is a working character, a “hataraku kyara”.

As I said, in Germany such “working characters” are pretty rare. Not so in Japan, though, right? As everyone here is well aware of, Japan is a “kingdom of characters”, a “character superpower”, “where no town is too small, no product too plain, no PR campaign too obscure to miss out on having its own mascot”, as one put it. Japan is blessed with working characters on every street of every town in every prefecture. To a foreigner, that’s pretty fascinating. And as a foreign semiotician, I am fascinated out of my mind. Roland Barthes could not have been fascinated than myself!

Okay, that’s why, for my presentation, I decided to focus on Ise’s mascot characters. This topic might seem of limited interest to you, but rest assured: it is much, much more complex and intellectually challenging than you would expect. One could easily write a book about it (which I have done). But especially, the task for this presentation was to develop some ideas that fascinated us during these 3 weeks, either regarding shinto, or regarding Ise, and I think that characters – or kyara – are a nodal point, a crossroad (a “kessetsuten”, as philosopher Azuma Hiroki might have said) between both of these areas. And maybe in more ways than one might think. That’s what I will be talking about.

Right. So, Ise has to mascot characters. There is Ise-Mairin-kun from Ise’s Tourism Association, and there is Hanaterasu-chan from the Town’s Department for Industry and Tourism (actually, there are even more, but I will ignore them in this context).

Such mascots are called “Go-Tôchi-Characters” (“regional characters”) or “Yuru-kyara” (literally “loose characters”). I like to work with a conceptual distinction established by manga-critic Itô Gô to use the English loanword “character” (kyarakutâ, キャラクター) only for “actual” characters, that is, fictional beings as part of narrative storyworlds, as you can find them within books, films, comics, and so on. They are part of a story. “Kyara” (キャラ), on the other hand, which is primarily just an abbreviation typical for Japanese, could be used as technical term for all those wacky guys here, which do not have any real narrative, who are presented as being part of the “real world”, much like a fictitious celebrity. Such, it might be said, have also a long tradition in Japan, if you think about “virtual idols” like Hatsune Mika, for example (who, to me, would alos be a kyara in that sense). Anyways, there are two media, two forms of representation, that are central to kyara: the one being these wacky giant rubber-suits, called “kigurumi” in Japan, the other pictures. A special kind of pictures, featuring thick outlines and contours (thus they are called “senga”, line pictures) and an easily recognizeable visual iconology (Itô calls this a “zuzô”, a term that is used in the way of “zuzô-gaku”, Iconology a la Panofsky): you recognize a characters if you uphold a specific, and easily reproduceable visual code. It is important that both terms, kyarakutâ and kyara, were important into Japanese within the 1950s because of the need for a specific legal distinction that is related to this pictoriality. The protagonists of (real-life) film or of novels are usually just refered to as “tôjô jinbutsu”, dramatis personae. But those, you can not put under copyright, legally speaking. It was the Disney company and its Japanese licencees who needed a term for a specific kind of characters, namely such that can be sold on products: Mickey Mouse, Bambi, the like. In other words, characters whose visuality and reproduceability is their main economic function. That’s why the English term was adopted, and it quickly became widespread in Japan. Tezuka Osamu, then, adapted the Disney-model of characters-based franchises, and he also adopted to use his stack of characters like fictional actors: Mickey Mouse can appear in a variety of films in ever-changing roles, as if a actor was “behind” all single fictional storyworlds, but this character is itself fictitious. If there is no storyworld to speak of anymore, like around the character Hello Kitty, then we can speak of a “kyara”. So much for terminology. Anyways, mascot-kyara, which are highly fascinating to me, have basically one job and one job only: to symbolize a town or a prefecture and that which is typical for this region. And to give this typicality a “face”, to give it – quite literally – a character (seikaku, a personality). Kyara can be thought of as a medial form to symbolize and effectively communicate this culturally manufactured “essence”.

Well, considering Ise’s “tokuchô (particularity), it’s “zokuzei” (attribute), that is certainly the Ise Jingû, the Grand Shrine. These last three weeks have been about nothing but the enumeration of cultural reasons for that. So, without a doubt, what Ise’s Gô-Tôchi-Kyara have to “become”, in order to do their communicative work, is to – somehow – turn the meaning of Ise Jingû into an  anthropomorphic being that also happens to be adorable.

Enter Ise-Mairin-kun. The pilgrimage-to-Ise-buddy. This is a pretty straightforward approach: “He” is one of the pilgrims ho want to make their way to this place, maybe Edo period. He has a pretty clear narrative motivation, you can connect him to typical “chronotopes” (generic places where stories evolve, like say, a crossroad in the forest) and, generally speaking, he is “totemo erai”, admirable for his tireless efforts.

Now, it gets interesting, however. Hanaterasu-chan. What kind of creature is “she”? On her homepage , managed mainly by 1 person of a 7-people staff of the city, you can find a profile with countless pieces of biographical information. We learn that her gender is “a girl”, that her hobby is “finding good things in Ise”, or that her favorite food is “Ise-Udon noodles and sweets”. The city gets a lot of fan mail, there even is fan art, as you can see here. Really cool drawings. The city encourages this by providing character and color sheets, she is free-to-use. And this seems to work pretty good. Nowhere, however, is any mention of the Ise Jingû or shinto.
Obviously, this doesn’t seem necessary. “Hanaterasu-chan” literally means that the “flowers” (“hana”) are “shining” (like light), and the profile actually mentions her “secret”, that the flower on her back grants her the superower to make everyone happy and genki (healthy and active). But apparently “Hanaterasu-chan” is, above all, a pun on “Amaterasu Ômikami 天照大神“, the sun goddess, the highest deity in shinto, the mystical origin of the Japanese emperor. The tiara on her forehead is clearly a symbol of the sun, and the object around her neck looks suspiciously like a certain super-sacred mirror, called Yata no Kagami, in which the deity’s spirit is enhrined.

Okay. I try to put this into context. In many, many occasions during our classes, the Ise Jingû was refered to as the “Vatican of Japan”. Politically as well as spiritually. I think it is not a stretch to state that this kind of representation would be considered highly inappropriate if its subject were, say, Jesus.

Big topic. And we could go even further and carefully remind ourselves of certain problems that were caused by pictorial representations of sacred beings in another religion called Islam. The following picture is cencored for safety’s reasons.

Super-big topic. Apparently, at least at first sight, shinto is very easy-going in contrast. No topic.

But, of course, everything is much more complicated than it looks. I had the privilege to dig a little, to get various backgrounds, and ask many questions on Hanaterasu-chan and “her” development and administrative work, with the city’s PR staff. A heartfelt “arigatô” to Tani Tomoe-san, the head of Ise’s PR department, who supported me enormously.

What I learned is that Hanaterasu-chan was actually born out of a public design contest in May 2009 and got elected as Ise’s official mascot in 2012. Name and design came from the public, the professional work was conducted only later. The thing is though that the Jingû administration does not recognize the relation of the character in any way. There is no official connection between Hanaterasu-chan and shinto. Hanaterasu-chan is accepted, as long as certain implicit rules are followed. We would not find Hanaterasu-chan within the actual grounds of Ise Jingû.

For that reason, no mention of the deity, the goddess, may anywhere be found on all official releases. For the same reason, neither the sun-symbol nor the mirror are so much as hinted at her profile. The connection is obvious enough, however, in the intention of the original design as much as in her reception. Otherwise, the mascot would quite frankly miss the point and be pretty much useless, since its only function *is* the representation of Ise Jingû. But this is left unspoken. Pictorial communication. The iconography (the “zuzô”) is clear enough. While this is fascinating enough (and I can’t wait to work this into my thesis, with all the semiotic implications!) it seems especially typical for the quintessential Japanese phenomenon of “anmoku no ryôkai”, implicit or tacit agreement: you don’t speak about it, because the rules are clear to everyone. Everyone that is not a foreigner, at least.

But there might be yet another, second connection between Japanese characters (or rather: kyara) and shintoism. And here is where it all gets highly speculative. But the question keeps coming back at you: Why? Why are there all this mascots everywhere whose obsession with, to a foreigner, seems almost pathological.

You even have all these politicians that use fictitious, adorbale characters to – somehow – communicate with the general public, ministers like Hatoyama Kunio (minister of internal affairs) as Saiban Inko (down left), ambassadors like Fuyushiba Tetsuzô with Hello Kitty, governors like Kabashima Ikuo (current governor Kumamoto) with Kumamon, or even former prime minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro with Mamoru-kun and Ayumi-chan.

For that matter, even Tennô Heika, His Majesty the Emperor (by the way a descendant of Amaterasu Ômikami), met with “Kumamon” who performed “his” signature fast-step-dance, when the Tennô visited the prefecture of Kumamoto on October 23, 2013. What’s going on here?!?

Here is someone who doesn’t have a kyara-buddy:

Obviously, a lot of contemporary Japanese observers are asking the same question. The numbers of books dedicated to the kyara-phenomenon, since around the turn of the century, is enormous. For instance, the sociologist Aihara Hiroyuki, published a book in 2007, called “kyara-ka suru nippon”, “Kyara-ing Japan” or “The kyara-ification of Japan”, but more in the active than the passive form: “Japan is turning character” could be a nice, if slightly awkward, translation. I find it very recommendable. Aihara’s answer, if there is one, was somehow surprising, however: Shinto. What is important to note here is that Aihara, as an intellectual writing about characters, is not only fascinated with them. He is enthusiastic. Most Japanese – who not simply ignore the phenomenon – are. Japan’s acent to the status of a “character superpower”, is seen as a continuation of the “soft power”-vision that emerged after the burst of the bubble economy in the 1990s. Popular culture as an export article that the whole world can (and must) look up to. Everyone loves manga and anime. And, indeed, just last year, a blatant copycat of Kumamon in Chinese television (called “Lucky Kuma” or “Lucky Bear”) caused some political trouble. Can you spot the difference?

I can confidently say that most Japanese scholars who wrote enthusiasticly about the kyara-phenomenon (Azuma being an exception, maybe, and certainly Odagiri Hiroshi) do the same thing to explain it: Resort to tradition. Resort to the original Japanese faith of shinto. While this may seem far-stretched, there is some evidence to back this claim. In 2001 already, Kayama Rika published a book that was widely recieved, called “The Reasons why 87% of the Japanese people love characters”. The book uses data from the then newfound Bandai Character Lab from the year before, according to which, the reasons for most people to posses at least one favorite character featured on everyday products like cups, pencils, or clothing, are “kokoro no yasuragi” (consolation of the soul), “higo” (a feeling of protection), and above all, “ayashi” (a kind of spiritual healing). Terms which all are, doubtlessly, strongly connected to religious creed or at least to spirituality.

Miura Jun, the media/pop-star that actually invented the term “yuru kyara”, went even further and claimed that only in a polytheistic nation like Japan where, traditionally, every stone, river, mountain or even artefact can be thought of as animated, kyara could be invented. The “8 Million Kami” of shintoism – or, rather, the cultural relevance of these – must be seen as the actual origin of Japan’s fascination with characters.

The idea seems somehow convincing: In monotheistic religions, like Christianity, the distinction between things that live and things that don’t is pretty essential. In shinto, on the other hand, potentially everything could foster “spirits”, especially natural phenomena. So, according to Aihara, Kayama, Miura, and many other Japanese writers (Aoki Sadashige should be mentioned, or Inuyama Akihito and Sugimoto Masamitsu), every ashtray,  railroad crossing, or everyday object can be thought of as “animated”, if only indicated so by a pictorial “face”. According to this discourse, it is incredibly easy for Japanese people to entertain this imagination, because it is part of a certain cultural tradition anyway.

Within opening ceremony, Hashimoto-sensei gave a great introduction speach in which he encouraged us to look out for kami everywhere during the following three weeks. He ended his speech with the remark that kami are just like Pokemon Go, they can be found everywhere, they are like a second layer of virtual reality. To some extent, that was certainly a joke, but I am not so sure whether there might not be more to it. Or if we can turn that comparison around and see Pokemon through a kami-filter. I am fascinated by this prospect for a long time now, especially since it seems so important to most Japanese scholars. Certainly, three weeks of shinto-introduction do not make me an expert, so I feel I am not closer in answering that question. I would thus like to conclude my presentation with the question I opened it with: Did shinto turn character? Thanks for your kind attention.

That was my presentation. I can add now, maybe, that I obviously did not get any “answers”. I doubt that there are such. Anyway, I am very glad for the comments and the feedback, in general everyone seemed to be quite happy with my contribution. Since there were only shinto-experts around, not kyara-experts, much of my material was new to most people. Within the discussions afterwards, especially during the farewell dinner where a ot of important people where invited (I sat at the table with the vice-mayor of Ise, a fantastic guy whou could make you drink as if there is no tomorrow; I did) one thing became clearer to me, however.

Initially, I set this whole presentation out to provoke a very particular reaction. As I have been trying to expain in previous posts, some of the more troublesome approaches to shinto are guided from a kind of thinking that Japan must be seen as “one territory, one language, one ethnicity”, and all such things. A very nationalistic take on tradition, to put it mildly. In a way, it is “very Japanese” to answer every question why something behaves in a certain way in Japan with reference to some “Japanese state of mind”, which is then, often, connected to shinto, as the “not-imported” tradition. And in a way, most Japanese writers who do approach the kyara-phenomenon do the same, if only in passing: Japanese has this crazy new thing going on that knowone in the world quite “gets”, so it must be connected to indigenuos Japanese traditions. I mildly hoped from my audience to, either, distance themselves from this line of thought (and thus from one variety of cultural essentialism) or acknowledge it and thus claim kyara-phenomena as “essentially Japanese”. For the latter, you need and pretty high tolerance for popular culture, and it would mean, I think, to also admit that these kind of traditions, if they exist, can be pretty much used and “formated” in pretty unexpected ways. In other words: they should stay, always, at least a little bit suspicious since they are open to any kind of “highjacking”.

I realize that both kinds of reactions I had hoped to stipulate with this “discursive machine” could not be given.  It would not happen. I am not even certain that this is necessarily a bad thing. In a way, of course, it is so typically Japanese, if anything, to answer just with something like “totemo omoshirokatta ga, chotto wakarimasen…”, “it was so very interesting, but I can not really say…”. What can you not really say, the one thing or the other? But exactly this is the question where no answer will be provided! And as I said, maybe that’s for the best, since I don’t really believe in such answers. As wrong as it would be to blame shinto for mascots-characters, as misguided it would be to disregard it either. Obviously. Or, maybe, it would need a different kind of scholar anyway, someone who actually looks in (older) cultural history, in religious concepts, in sacred texts. And not just in “micro-semiotics”, like how certain characters as Hanaterasu-chan are culturally approached and their meaning negogiated.

Lets not overstate what I did here: The three weeks were fantastic and inspiring, but it was much more holiday than research, and this was nowhere close to any academic work. The best I could thus hope for was certainly not to get any “actual answers”, but rather to share one or two questions. And that is certainly what I gained from the whole thing. Some of them I might even use in my Php defense at home, in about 3 weeks from now.



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5 Responses to Day 20: “Kyara-ing Shinto”…?

  1. Phil says:

    Well, you absolutely don’t have to understate what you do (or did) here: you show the process of, and your struggle with “verstehen” (and the concept a bit more in depth) as part of interpretive social academic work! So from what you wrote here alone (always repeating how you are not able to even put down half of it!) I’m absolutely convinced that you gathered a s***load of input and “raw material” to process and think about for the next months to come. – And I can’t wait to discuss at least some of this stuff with you! 😀

  2. Der Lukas says:

    Haha, yeah, I am looking forward to that as well, thanks! 🙂

  3. Kili says:


  4. Tony Reatsch says:

    Thank you for your semiotic approach. Great job.

  5. Alisha Saikia says:

    This was a great read especially since I am working on a similar topic. I am a Phd student in the University of Tsukuba and my broader area of study is Japanese Religion and Popular Culture. My Master thesis was Kyara in Japanese Religious Landscapes. Shukyo Asobi in Ryohoji Temple and Kanda Myojin
    I would love to discuss more about Shinto and Kyarafication if you would be interested and may be we could get some ideas to collaborate on a paper together.

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