Before the pandemic, the Japanese designer who created the Olympic and Paralympic mascots predicted that they would become the “face of the Games.”
It hasn’t quite turned out that way. The two mascots are ubiquitous in the Olympic merchandise being sold around Tokyo as the Games unfold. But in a country where mascots play a major role in corporate branding and merchandising, they have mostly been a subdued presence at the very event they were made for.
The Japanese public is not really swooning over them either, according to fans and experts who study the country’s mascot industry. The mascots’ social media profiles are modest, and a common complaint is that their names — Miraitowa and Someity — are hard to remember.
Miraitowa is the Olympic mascot, and Someity represents the Paralympics, which are scheduled to run in Tokyo from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.
“Within the whirlwind of all the Olympic controversy, I think the mascots were forgotten somewhere along the way,” Yuki Fuka, 46, said as she walked around the Olympic Stadium with her daughter over the weekend. “The Games have just started and their existence is already an afterthought.”
Every Olympics since 1972 has had an official mascot, but Miraitowa and Someity are competing in a crowded local field because Japan already has thousands of whimsical, clumsy creatures, known as yuru-chara, that were created to promote their hometowns.
Japan’s best-known mascot may be Kumamon, a cuddly bear from Kumamoto Prefecture that helped popularize the yuru-chara phenomenon about a decade ago. The naughtiest one is almost certainly Chiitan, an unsanctioned “fairy baby” mascot from the city of Susaki that was once suspended from Twitter over its violent antics.
As of Tuesday, the Olympic and Paralympic mascots had about 15,000 Instagram followers between them, a small fraction of Chiitan’s nearly 900,000. Miraitowa had posted just 70 times on the platform in two years.
Are Miraitowa and Someity loathed or even disliked? Not at all. They’ve just been a bit, well, underwhelming.
“They’re not hated, design-wise. They seem to be functional. They seem to be doing a good job,” said Jillian Rae Suter, a professor of informatics at Shizuoka University, southwest of Tokyo, who has studied Japanese mascots. “But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of passion for them.”
The mascots, which first appeared in public three summers ago, were chosen from a shortlist by elementary school students from around Japan and named by a jury of the Olympic organizing committee. Chris Carlier, a British writer and illustrator in Tokyo who runs Mondo Mascots, a website and Twitter feed about yuru-chara, said Miraitowa and Someity may have been popular with children who associated their look with Pokémon characters.
Miraitowa’s name is a blend of the words “future” and “eternity.” Someity’s is a variation on the name of a popular type of cherry tree, a source of fascination and delight in Japan for centuries, and a play on the English phrase “so mighty.”
The mascots’ checkered pattern makes them look a bit like walking racing flags. Their designer, Ryo Taniguchi, told the Kyodo news agency in 2018 that the pattern was a nod to one that was popular during Japan’s Edo period, which lasted from the 17th to 19th centuries.
“I think the characters, just like the logos, will become the face of the Games, the gatekeepers,” he told Kyodo.
Since the Games began last week, Miraitowa has been posting on Instagram from sporting venues around Tokyo. Olympic medalists are also receiving miniature Miraitowas with their flower bouquets, and the two mascots have done the occasional television spot.
Still, they are keeping a relatively low profile on such a giant global stage. Professor Suter said on Tuesday that she had seen television coverage of the Games for days and had only caught a glimpse of the two mascots once — on a screen inside an Olympic venue.
Notably, Miraitowa and Someity were not a major presence at the opening ceremony on Friday, prompting one social media user, Suekichiii, to tweet what became a widely popular picture showing plastic versions of the mascots watching the opening ceremony from home. Suekichiii later told the Japanese news outlet Maidona that the tableau had been designed to evoke sympathy for them.
Mr. Carlier, of Mondo Mascots, said he initially felt that Miraitowa and Someity were too thin and athletic-looking to compete as yuru-chara, given that Japanese mascots tend to be clumsy and “lumbering.” He said he had eventually come to like them, but still doesn’t consider them to be memorable.
That may be because their names “don’t exactly roll off the tongue,” he added, or because their checkered logo tends to blend into the backdrop of Olympic venues that are designed in a matching style.
Or perhaps they are just unlucky to be representing an Olympics that is being held during a pandemic, with few spectators.
“I don’t think most people are blaming the characters,” Mr. Carlier said. “I feel kind of sorry for them about their fate.”
It is unclear how the mascots’ performance could affect official merchandise sales. A spokesperson for the Tokyo Olympics told Kyodo in 2018 that licensing related to mascots and other “Olympic emblems” was expected to generate the equivalent of about $126 million in revenue.
Tokuko Otsu, a spokeswoman for the Games, said last week that the estimate had not changed. She added that data from sales of official Tokyo Olympics merchandise, including “mascot-related products,” was not yet available.
Hiroyuki Nakamura, who was shopping at an Olympics gift shop in Tokyo over the weekend, said he and his 10-year-old daughter took a dim view of the official mascots and had no plans to buy mascot-related merchandise.
“For us parents, it’s hard to keep up with the names of all the different mascots that keep popping up,” he said. “But don’t these two have especially difficult names to remember?”