In Japan, Combating the Coronavirus Requires a Large Pink Cat

A masked superhero patrols two from Tokyo’s busiest districts to help Japanese citizens beat coronavirus. It’s called Koronon, and it’s a bulbous, bubblegum-pink cat.

The crusader is a mascot – a person in a plush costume – with a large X that cuts through the phrase “COVID-19” on its stomach. All day long it grazes Ikebukuro and Shinjuku and distributes masks. Koronon also serves as a visual reminder of social distancing and hand hygiene, the pandemic equivalent of Smokey Bears forest fire prevention efforts as a spokesman in America’s forests. Central Tokyo in the COVID era isn’t quite as busy as usual – bars and restaurants close early and most events are canceled – but there are still a lot of people out doing research on Koronon and its many coworkers.

While mascots in other parts of the world are largely limited to sporting events and amusement parks, Japan is introducing a mascot for what appears to be every city, prefecture, business, event, local export, and more. Saiyou-kun, a bespoke rhinoceros, sponsors the Tokyo Foundation of Employment Services. Ayucoro-chan, a kimono-sporting piglet who wears a fish as a headband, is the mascot of Atsugi City. Ranon-kun, a monk who is also a lion, is the mascot for the Higashi Honganji Temple in Kyoto. Gansho-kun – the mascot of Gunkanjima, an abandoned mining island in Nagasaki – is a walking, sinister lump of coal with neglected buildings on its head. The list goes on and on and on.

Even mascots unrelated to the virus or hygiene – including Sorakara-chan, the mascot representing Tokyo’s ultra-tall Skytree tower – wore masks during the pandemic. BEHROUZ MEHRI / AFP via Getty Images

A Japanese website lists roughly 3,500 mascots across Japan, but that number is far from comprehensive. The mascots draw on elements of yokai (supernatural monsters or creatures from Japanese folklore), anime, manga and video games and are intended to appeal. “People tend to be proud of their local mascots,” says Chris Carlier, who has been documenting Japan’s countless mascots on his Mondo Mascots social media accounts for about a decade. Carlier says people often buy goods with their favorite characters.

The soft creatures can also be a balm. “Mascots help cut the edge when discussing dark and serious matters,” says Carlier. Kaila Imada, an editor at Time Out Tokyo who previously covered mascots, agrees with this sentiment. “I think part of it is bringing a little joy,” says Imada. Taizo Hayashi, designer and manager of Koronon (and Al-pha Co., an event promotion company), hopes the mascot will help “make the world peaceful” by adding a little lightheartedness in the face of tough times offers.

Shinjuku Awawa, a soap bubble-shaped mascot, predates the coronavirus pandemic but has also helped preach the gospel of hand hygiene. Courtesy Chris Carlier / Mondo Mascots

While Koronon (whose name loosely means “no corona”) appears to be the only mascot created in Japan in response to the coronavirus, it is not alone in fighting the pandemic. Mascots have been re-used across the country to educate the public on issues related to the virus.

Some mascots, who usually do other things, have been recruited to hand out face masks. Others, including Nazo No Sakana, the mascot of the Chiba Lotte Marines baseball team, have starred in social media campaigns about proper hand washing technique. Many of them are featured on signs reminding residents to practice social distancing, and illustrations of mascots behind human speakers appear at many press conferences. Carlier says her presence helps make dark discussions easier. Because the bizarre characters are so recognizable and associated with specific locations, the arrangement also helps viewers determine exactly where the politicians are speaking.

In addition to Koronon, the coveted mascots of the pandemic included Shinjuku Awawa, a giant soap bubble that used to hang around in nightlife and remind people to wash their hands. Maskuma, a mask-wearing bear who has long been the mascot of the Tamakodaira Health Center in Tokyo; and Quaran, a winged creature whose large goggles appear to help track down infectious diseases such as dengue and yellow fever. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many other mascots have been retrofitted with masks or visors every time they appear in public. Some have even worn costumes to look like amabie, a mermaid-like creature from Japanese mythology believed to be a cure for diseases.

Koronon in Ikebukuro, flanked by fans.Koronon in Ikebukuro, flanked by fans. Stanislav Kogiku / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

While the mascots have become a highly visible part of efforts by local governments to deal with the pandemic, it is difficult to quantify their impact. “A sign with a flashy, brightly colored mascot is likely to get citizens’ attention, but I have no idea how effective they are,” says Carlier. For one thing, they seem to be getting the word out about rules in places where people have largely followed them anyway.

Hayashi isn’t sure what will happen to Coronon in a post-pandemic world. If annual booster vaccinations are needed, the cat may hop out to remind people to get theirs. Imada notes that some Japanese museums have sourced COVID-related materials for future exhibitions; Maybe Koronon has a future there.

The big goal, says Hayashi, is for Koronon to join the Olympic mascots. Two more, Miraitowa and Someity, are already scheduled to attend the opening and closing ceremonies of this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games, and various other ambassadors, including Sailor Moon and Astro Boy, have helped promote the events. Olympic spectators love a tale of tribulation and triumph – of the risk of trying and then conquering seemingly insurmountable challenges. And at a time when people have overcome so many hurdles, finding an outsider is something delightful. Even if it’s a cat.