Japanese mascots go beyond cute to master trade
TOKYO, Japan - Eri Suzuki is serious about her goal in life - working in a theme park as a character mascot, one of those oversized, fuzzy creatures that dance and cavort with children.
So she came to the Choko Group mascot school in Tokyo for instruction in the myriad tricks of the trade, such as how to move in giant feet and a furry animal head.
"Where are your eyes? Where are your ears?" said Choko Oohira, the school's founder, gesturing in front of a recent class on moving in costume that included students dressed as a giant panda, cats and sheep.
Herself a 20-year veteran of the mascot arts, Oohira founded the school - the only one of its kind in Japan and, quite possibly, the world - in 1985. Her goal: to help mascot wannabes perfect the art of moving and playing the characters.
"When I see places where someone's hand is coming out between the costume's hands, or they take off their mask in front of people, or show their skin under the mask, it's very disappointing," Oohira said.
"I just want to tell them that's not how to do it. I want to show the world how to fully become the character and explain that's how to make children happy."
Students are taught everything from traditional dance, to help with actual dance routines as mascots, to different walking styles that illustrate different ages while wearing costumes.
Other lessons include how to interact with children while wearing a costume, how to present a kind or even scary aura, and training to make sure the mascot's gestures work when people are unable to see the performer's face.
There are roughly 25 students, ranging from those just giving it a try for fun to others, like Suzuki, destined for work in theme parks. They range from those in their 20s up to those in their 50s.
"I had been doing this in my own sort of style, so I wanted to try and actually learn from professionals," said Eiichiro Sakaida, a 21-year-old who has worked as a mascot part-time and came from more than 900 km away to try the class.
"I realized there's a lot of things that I didn't know, so I hope to use what I've learned this time going forward."
Once students graduate, work is unlikely to be a problem since Japan, which idolizes all things big-eyed and cute, has been experiencing a massive mascot boom.
Mascots exist for everything from individual companies to theme parks, government offices and tourist sites such as Tokyo's eponymous Tokyo Tower. Each has their own character and is pulled out for promotional events.
In the greater Tokyo area alone, there are some 250 mascots, not counting those used as company promotions.
"I do indeed like them," said Seiji Uchida, 12, who took part in a recent morning exercise session with a score of characters. "The fact that they're fluffy and each character has its own personality is quite interesting."