Yuru-chara and the Tokyo 2020 Mascots

What in the world is ゆるキャラ, or yuru-chara?

Directly translated, yuru-chara (and the full terminology: yurui kyarakutaa) means “loose” or “laid back” characters. These characters are mascots that embody numerous Japanese regions, organizations, and more. The characters, often endearing and cutesy in nature, appeal to residents and foreigners alike.

Visually, yuru-chara have some sort of visual connection to the location or organization they represent. They also have a background story and specific traits that make them unique. For example, the official mascot for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Miraitowa, is named after the Japanese words mirai (future) and towa (eternity). According to the Olympic website, the name “was chosen to promote a future full of eternal hope in the hearts of people all over the world.” The mascot’s indigo blue checkered-like pattern represents the Tokyo 2020 emblems, while its personality is said to be based on an old Japanese proverb reflecting on new knowledge gained from old things. Miraitowa even has the super power of teleportation to compliment the mascot’s dedication to both tradition and innovation.

On the flip side, the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games mascot, Someity, has telepathic powers. Someity’s name comes from “Someiyoshino”, a type of Japanese cherry blossom, and the phrase “so mighty”. The mascot’s pink color was inspired by cherry blossoms, while the character’s gentle yet tough personality represents that of determined Paralympic athletes.

It’s evident that a great deal of thought is put into the design and story behind yuru-charas. From a business standpoint, the rising demand for yuru-charas is great for building a following. The beloved characters draw fans in at events, conferences, and more. As such, many characters even have their own social media profiles! With their cute designs and cultural motifs, it’s no surprise for their rising popularity in promoting tourism and economic development for the companies, local governments, and organizations they represent.

Has this article piqued your interest in yuru-charas? This year, U of M’s own Center for Japanese Studies (CJS) is actually hosting a contest for people to design their own yuru-charas! Anyone can enter, and the chosen design will be the next face of the Center for Japanese Studies. Click this link to enter and find out more.

For More Information:

Click here for articles about yuru-chara from The Japan Times, and click here for more information about the Tokyo 2020 Mascots.

Maps as Art

If you handed me a printed map from a rest stop, I’m not sure I would be confident in telling you which direction to go. To me, physical maps are geographical puzzles you shove into the back of your car’s glove compartment. In the past, I never thought of a map as beautiful, let alone as an example of art; however, this perspective was challenged after a field trip to the Hatcher Graduate Library.

Instead of the normal lecture, my digital research class was treated to a brief tour of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library and Hatcher Graduate Library. Out of the numerous books, resources, and study spots, what caught my attention the most was something I would have never expected: maps. I was mesmerized by the Unique Perspectives: Maps from Tokugawa & Meiji Japan exhibit, which was on display until October 30th. While slightly faded, an array of swirling colors and intricate details captured my attention, and I found myself wandering back to the exhibit after class.

For a moment, I forgot about the stresses of essays or homework and was whisked away to another time and another place. Triangular mountains and waving rivers somehow made me feel at peace. While granting me historical facts, these displays stretched my imagination. All the lines and jagged squiggles weren’t meaningless marks on paper, but places, history, and art. I daresay the mere size and grandeur of some of the maps resembled priceless paintings. As someone studying Japanese through LSA’s Residential College program, I was also drawn to the uniqueness and artistry of the symbols. I imagined shiny black ink caressing the paper in gentle strokes, forming different characters with something important to say.

In moments I saw maps – and art – in a new light. I found myself no longer cringing at the series of puzzling lines, but captivated by the complexity and splendor the maps held. Now, I’m not educated on traditional map making rules, nor am I an analytic art critic; it’s possible my perspective of the display simply reveals my ignorance about maps. However, I viewed even the most simple of maps as anything but stereotypical or boring. This is my first blog post, and if a small trip to the library prompted me to see maps in a new light, I can’t wait to explore what other artistic treasures are in store during my journey here at the University of Michigan.


The Buried Beauty of Butoh Dance

You are standing still. Close your eyes. Imagine an ant crawling over the bones of your left foot. It finds a nest in the space between your toes. Then, more of them appear. They surround your feet, tracing their shape…and then, they start the ascent. Trailing up your legs, between them, up your belly. One tickles the thin skin on your wrist. You swat it away only to find two more have replaced. You are swarmed with them. This has become a full-on infestation. The ants with their furry feet and beady abdomens journey across the map of your face, your hilly nose, into the depths of your ears, until they disappear into your hair.

Feeling a bit disturbed? This, says the dance instructor, is how you should always feel when you perform Butoh.

This semester, I’m taking Asian 200 – Introduction to Japanese Civilization. It is just that – an overview of each major period of Japanese history from the Heian Era to the Meiji to World War 2 and today. As we near the end of the semester, we have just begun our discussion on the 20th century. Because an entire course could be dedicated to World War 2 and Japan’s role in it, we have focused more on the effects of the war on the people, the economy, and the arts.

One of the most innovative arts to come out of the post-war era in Japan was the avant-garde dance called Butoh (which literally translates to “dance which steps on a political party” or any dance that is not sanctioned by the Japanese government). 

Hijikata Tatsumi performing Butoh; Image via artistsspace.com

Created by Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo in 1959, butoh strove to become the new Japanese dance, which broke away from both Western modern dance and traditional Japanese dances. Especially after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there wasn’t a time when nationalism was more necessary to unite the country after tragedy. Butoh was the catalyst for young Japanese artists and intellectuals of the early 60’s to reject the status that Japan had been reduced to by Western superpowers. They wanted to subvert the sense of “alienation,  dehumanization, and loss of self-identity” ( Klein, Susan Blakeley. Ankoku Butoh. Ithaca: Cornell East Asia Papers, 1988: p. 9) that had been assigned to them.

Through the performance of Butoh, the dancers embrace a grotesque beauty – where they often make their expressions as revolting as possible, yet move across the stage with a paradoxical grace of controlled spasms. In a way, the more alienated and dehumanized the dancers become on stage, the richer the social critique.

The emaciated (and often naked) bodies of the dancers are covered in a thick white powder, highlighting ribs muscles, and especially the facial features. The dancers are enrobed in a mist macabre and their movements further unsettle the audience. We watched a few videos in class and had to define our emotional response to them.

Classmates answered “confused,” “creeped out,” “disturbed.” I think this comes from how weak the dancers appear (which of course is all an act). We feel awkward watching extreme suffering (even if it is fake) before us. The dancers become hyper-human in their ability to decompose and waste away. They become an alternative form of the humanity we thought we knew.

But how do they do it? Understanding that such a foreign dance would be difficult to talk about without experiencing it firsthand, my professor brought in a Butoh artist/scholar named Dr. Katherine Mezur to teach my class real exercises that are used in professional Butoh troupe lessons. We were instructed to wear loose, moveable clothing and white, cotton socks (though it was ambiguous which was more important: the whiteness or the cotton-ness). We were given the option to sit out if we ever grew uncomfortable. While I promised myself that I wouldn’t let myself sit out, I was pretty sure that at least one person in our class of strangers would feel shy or embarrassed, and gratefully accept the role of observer.

But no! Everyone participated. One of the first exercises after getting loosened up was the immersive imagination scene I referred to earlier: the one with the bugs. Because we had our eyes closed, we were all embarking on our own experience, yet we shared the energy of everyone in the room. We then learned a shuffling step, which provides the base for all Butoh movement. Moving around in the same space, we had to be aware of each other’s persons. We became each other’s obstacles. To complicate things even more Dr. Mezur would yell out an animal or a kind of material (glass, steel, wood) and we’d have to internalize these properties and incorporate them into our basic movement. This exercise was to teach us to realize the materiality of the body.

The most bizarre, and most striking, element of the Butoh dance is the facial expression. Dr. Mezur taught us to roll our eyes back (Exorcism-style),  cover our teeth with our lips, open our mouth, and draw in your neck like a gobbling turkey.

Image via pinterest.com

Luckily, everyone else’s eyes are turned up to the ceiling too, so no one could make fun of how ridiculous we looked.

Not only did I feel extremely ugly, I felt an internal pain from imitating the appearance of suffering. And that’s just the cherry on top of the revolting body image of Butoh. It’s about experiencing all aspects of being human: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The dancers of Butoh seem to say: ‘Not only are we humans who die and kill and begrudge and heartbreak and destroy. We are also humans who can turn the scariest, saddest, unexplainable parts of our stories and create something hauntingly stunning and beautiful and emotional. We connect with you through a shared fear that we might not make it through this performance. But we always do.’