TOKYO — Japan is a country that loves cute mascot characters. The most familiar equivalent in the West would be those weird little creatures representing each Olympics games, or the stumbling, tumbling gators, leprechauns, and stuff on the sidelines of American sporting events. But here in Japan, businesses, social movements, government agencies—even the police —have mascots.
In recent years, the city of Funabashi hit gold with its “unofficial” mascot Funassyi, a bright-yellow genderless “pear fairy” that has millions of fans in Japan.
Funabashi, as you might have guessed, is known for growing delicious pears, which are called nashi in Japanese. Despite the spelling of the fairy’s name, which can read rather lewdly in English, it is pronounced more like “foo-nah-she.” And until recently all that most of us really knew about Funassyi was that that it likes Aerosmith. Only last week did we discover it is also a peacenik.
According to its official biography, Funassyi was born on July 4 in the year 138, and it is different from other fluffy, cute mascots that generally are silent. It moves, it shrieks “hyahhaa” at a high pitch, jumps around, speaks Chinese and English fluently and shakes its head up and down at a top speed.
Despite being Japanese, this pear worships Joe Perry, the guitarist of Aerosmith, and also rock-god Ozzy Osbourne. The mascot gained over 1.2 million followers since it started its activities on Twitter in November 2011. Its motto is “I’m happy if I can make everyone happy. I want them to smile.” When speaking, it often ends its sentences with “nassyi,” which sounds like nashi, the Japanese word for “pear.”
March 6 marked the opening of Japan’s first permanent store specializing in Funassyi goods, cleverly named Funassyi Land, which will be operated in Funabashi City.
To commemorate the occasion, Funassyi held what was said to be its first press conference with the overseas media at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. The results were slightly unexpected, and provoked an online debate about whether or not Funassyi is a pacifist and supports maintaining Japan’s “peace constitution,” which forever renounces warfare as a means of settling problems.
At a time when debate has been heating up over proposed constitutional reform about precisely that point, and the cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to pass legislation to codify the “collective self-defense” doctrine that would allow Japan’s military to fight overseas, there is something surreal about the opinion of a portly pear fairy carrying so much weight.
Matt Alt, an expert on Japanese popular culture and author of Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, believes the popularity of Japan’s mascot characters, including Funassyi, is rooted in native animism.
“Mascots are only the most recent example of a Japanese predilection for personification and characterization of things that extends back for centuries, even millennia,” says Alt. “Their roots are in the yokai (monsters), and fantastic creatures from Japanese folklore. Many yokai are personifications of natural phenomena or even everyday objects like sandals, umbrellas, or tools. Even today, walking, talking representations of everyday objects are a staple of the mascot world—like Funassyi, who is an anthropomorphic pear—or rather a fairy in the form of a wise-cracking anthropomorphic pear.”
Alt says Funassyi “is the undisputed superstar of the Japanese mascot world right now… an inescapable presence on TV, in magazines, and on store shelves.”
Indeed, the primary Japanese retail company handling Funassyi merchandise earned over $8 million in related sales for the 2013 fiscal year.
According to Nikkei Trendy magazine, the Funassyi creator was a local merchant who wanted to promote his city and has chosen to remain anonymous. The magazine quotes him saying, “I was surprised to see the character take on a life of its own.”
Allow me to personally interject here that Funassyi is not a real creature. It is a person, probably a male, in a suit, pretending to be a pear fairy. Just so we get that straight, since we did conduct a bit of a public dialogue at the correspondents club.
None of us there really expected expecting to get a straight answer to any question. In fact, the PR materials handed to the press in advance told us not expect honest answers. (If only every press conference opened with that disclaimer, the job would be so much easier.)
So, I asked Funassyi to try to answer questions as honestly as possible, despite the press release warning.
“Ask anything you want. I’ll answer any question!” it replied in English.
And so, I asked, “How do you feel about the current [ruling party] plan to change the constitution, which would remove the words ‘basic human rights,’ but, since you’re not human, that doesn’t really apply to you and I’ll skip that question….How do you feel about the removal of the peace constitution to make Japan able to fight again and are you willing to go fight and die for the Japanese Imperial Army?”
Funassyi laughed nervously and said, “I really, really don’t want to answer that question….”
To which I said ‘thank you’ and was about to sit down, but then in keeping with his promise to answer everything, Funassyi blurted out, “Well, in everything I desire peace.”
Which I followed up with: “So you’re saying you’re in favor of the peace constitution. Thank you very much!”
And there was no protest from Funassyi and giggles from the assembled reporters and Funassyi fans as the back and forth was translated into Japanese.
A few hours later, the Japanese edition of the Huffington Post ran an article with the headline: “Funassyi asked about constitutional reform by foreign reporter, interpreted as saying, ‘I’ve promised to support Article 9 (the renunciation of war).’” By Friday evening over 3,500 people had “liked” the article on Facebook.
A university student commented on how refreshing the off-the-cuff remarks by Funassyi were: “When a celebrity says something political, especially if its critical of the government, they tend to be ostracized by the mainstream media. It’s important to live in a society where anyone can express himself or herself freely. This article is the right answer.”
The sports newspaper Sponichi ran an article with the title: “Funassyi, at FCCJ press conference, perplexed by questions on the peace constitution, personal income.” Judging by some angry comments, right-leaning nationalist fans were angered that Funassyi had been tricked into coming across as a peace-loving hippie.
Other news reports followed, touching on the mascot’s varied answers relating to questions of peace, branding, New York City, the nature of the Japanese spirit (“never give up”) and his legendary fight with another bear-like mascot character named Kumamon.
The Wall Street Journal made headlines by asking Funassyi how much it was paid per hour. “A thousand pears” was the reply. It should be noted that with the current price of pears from Chiba prefecture in Japan, it would mean Funassyi earns $15,000 to $20,000 for every hour of work.
A reporter from Bengoshi.com (a website offering support for people seeking legal assistance) asked the Pear Fairy about its terrible working conditions, offering pro bono legal advice.
While the press conference was certainly entertaining, there is something a little sad about a country where the native press has become so stifled that the easiest way reporters can address issues of constitutional reform, war, peace, and labor-exploitation problems is to ask for the opinion of an extraordinary guy hidden inside a yellow pear fairy suit.
The press conference ended with Funassyi’s usual jumping and spastic farewell: “Nashijiru busha!” Loosely translated, it means that the fairy is so happy and full of freshness that “the pear juice inside me is spurting out!”
Maybe some things are better left lost in translation.
Although, it did seem to some that Funassyi tried to flash the peace sign on its way out. It’s a little hard to be sure because it has no fingers.