The Most Popular Cat in Japan and Japanese Naive Painting

“Hiko-nyan,” a cat wearing samurai armor and carrying a sword from the city of Hikone, is probably one of the most popular “yuru-kyara,” or heartwarming characters, in Japan today. An expert says that Japan has a long history of naive paintings which may be akin to the present “yuru-kyara.”

By Yas Mamemachi

Hikone, Niiza

Hiko nyan the most popular cat in Japan
“Hiko nyan” the most popular cat in Japan
Photo : Tourism division of industrial department, Hikone city office

Heartwarming mascots or cartoon characters are popular with children as well as adults in many countries. The MetLife, one of the largest life insurance companies in the US, for instance, has an exclusive contract with Snoopy, one of the world’s most famous cartoon characters, as part of its public relations strategy.

The same thinking applies here in Japan, especially since a famous artist/TV personality, Jun Miura, coined the word “yuru-kyara” (heartwarming character) in the early 2000’s, the “yuru chara,” which became a Japan-wide fad.
(Note: The word, “yuru-kyara” is registered as a trademark by Miura and Fuyosha, a major Japanese publisher.)

First, the character should carry a strong and positive message about its locality. Second, it should feel and act rather awkward and unique. Third, it should be a heartwarming character. And fourth, it should have a stuffed suit.

In other words, Miura believes that the characters must revitalize remote towns and villages throughout Japan. So, by his definition, the world-famous beagle, Snoopy, would not be recognized as a “yuru-kyara” because he is used as a corporate identity, not a local favorite.

Among hundreds of “yuru-kyara” supported by and/or tied up with local governments throughout Japan, “Hiko-nyan,” a cat wearing samurai armor and carrying a sword from the city of Hikone, is probably one of the most popular heartwarming characters in Japan.

“Hiko-nyan” is also a coined word. “Hiko” comes from his hometown, the city of Hikone, and “nyan” is the sound a cat makes from the Japanese perspective.
(Note: Most Japanese cannot recognize the cry of a cat as “meow” or “mew” the way native English speakers hear it because of their specific linguistic perceptions.).

So let’s go to the city of Hikone and visit “Hiko-nyan.”

Hikone is located near Biwako Lake, the largest lake in Japan, about one-and-a-half hours by rail from Kyoto. In the Edo period (from 1603 to 1868), the Emperor lived in Kyoto, which was the capital of Japan then, and the Shogun, who governed the country, lived in Edo, which is Tokyo today.

The city was considered to be important commercially and strategically by the Edo government because it was located at the crossroads of several major commercial roads and had key ports at the nexus of the lake water passages between the East, which is Tokyo, and the West, which is Kyoto.

The city was governed by one of the most trusted warlord families, the Iis. “Hiko-nyan” is based on an anecdotal story of a cat that saved Mr. Ii.

The story says that a cat beckoned the second generation son of the local lord to the gate of a local temple right before a thunderstorm, thus prevening him from getting wet.

In the castle town of Hikone (Note: Hikone castle, one of the most beautiful castles in Japan, is centered in the city) the pre-Pacific War atmosphere has been mostly preserved. Unlike other major Japanese cities, such as Tokyo and Kobe, a large western port city with a former military shipyard, Hikone was not destroyed by air-raids.

However, the traditional town atmosphere does not mean that the city has always been vital commercially and socially. It is simply another quiet town.

Hiko nyan everywhere in town.
“Hiko nyan” everywhere in town.
Photo: Yas Mamemachi

While walking around, you will see “Hiko-nyan” everywhere: “Hiko-nyan” posters on doors of shops and on small banners hanging from street lamps. You can’t miss his large “welcome-to-the city-of-Hikone” poster on the wall in front of the main exit of Hikone Station. I wonder if “Hiko nyan” is the last resort to revitalize the city.

Like many other “yuru-kyaras”, “Hiko-nyan” belongs to the city government of Hikone. You could say he is employed by the government.

I wish I could have gotten an exclusive interview with “Hiko-nyan,” but I couldn’t because he is too busy. So I made an appointment with a government officer, Tatsuya Hayashi, who works in the tourism division of the industrial department.

Mayor’s choice

According to Hayashi, it was the 400th anniversary of the construction of Hikone castle in 2007. Two years earlier, the city decided to prepare a symbol, a logo, and a mascot character for the anniversary event through competitive bidding.

Among the many participants several companies were selected, and two of them remained in the end with two different types of mascot characters, including “Hiko-nyan.”

“It was very difficult to choose one,” says Koji Tanizawa, the tourism division chief who knows more about the backstage bidding than anyone else. “The final decision was made by the mayor after soliciting to opinions from the executive committee.”

“Sometimes, I wonder what would have happend if the mayor appointed a different candidate. Well, this might be Hikone’s destiny,” adds Tanizawa with a smile.

Mascot character for the 400th anniversary of the construction of Hikone castle.
Mascot character for the 400th anniversary of the construction of Hikone castle.
Photo: Tourism division of industrial department, Hikone city office

Soon thereafter, with the mayor’s designated heartwarming character, the city government made a move. They carried out various public relations activities with the newly created mascot character, including participation in local events and TV appearances in Osaka, the largest city in the western portion of Japan, as well as in Tokyo.

As a result, according to a press release from the city government, 764,484 visitors came to Hikone during the anniversary year of Hikone castle. The positive economic effects on the tourist industry was estimated at 17.4 billion yen (approx. US$218 million) and the overall economic effects 33.8 billion yen (approx. US$425 million). Total merchandise sales reached about 1.7 billion yen (approx. US$21 million).

Hayashi says that the number of visitors who come to the castle annually is a rough indication how well the city is doing from an economic standpoint. According to him, in 1954 and 1955, about a million visitors came to the castle annually. After 1955, there has been a gradual decline in the number of visitors to half million, and in 2008, the year before the castle anniversary, the number was down to about 400,000.

“After the castle anniversary year, the number went back to 500,000 and then to 600,000, thanks to ‘Hiko-nyan.’ Not all of it depended on ‘Hiko-nyan,’ though,” he says.

Hiko nyan souvenirs.
“Hiko nyan” souvenirs.
Photo: Tourism division of industrial department, Hikone city office

The city bought the trademark for “Hiko-nyan” from its creator which entitles any corporation and/or organization to use “Hiko-nyan” without having to pay royalties. The applicants, most of which are local factories and companies, can easily use “Hiko-nyan” for their merchandise, such as towels (textile manufacturing is the main local industry, not to mention souvenirs for visitors to the city, including “Hiko-nyan” pins and “Hiko-nyan” cakes containing bean paste).

“It makes us feel like we are promoting public relations activities with people who work in local industries. I think that is wonderful,” says the division chief.

Moreover, starting in 2008 the national “yuru-kyara” festival is held once a year in Hikone, while “yuru-kyara” become even more popular.

At the 2011 event, which was held October 22 and 23, 210 mascot characters from municipalities all over Japan showed up in Hikone to promote their hometown favorite foods and sightseeing spots.

These mascot characters attracted about 78,000 people and the positive economic effect was estimated at 430 million yen (approx. US$5.4 million).

Hikone is truly the sacred place for “yuru-kyara.”

But these 210 mascot characters are not treated equally. Too many mascot characters makes their world far more competitive, and such competitiveness divides them into the popular and the unpopular, or the winners and the losers.

Survival in the “yuru-kyara” game is difficult, and Tanizawa in the city office understands this situation after the boom ends.

“We know that even ‘Hiko-nyan’ will not continue to enjoy his present level of success, but we think ‘Hiko-nyan’ should continue to be plain and simple, offering a sense of relief,” he says.

Not the last resort

The next day I went to Hikone Castle to see the “Hiko-nyan” show, which is presented three times a day when the character is not appearing at events outside the castle.

He shows up in the castle tower square, an open place in front of the castle tower, from 10:30 to 11:00 and from 13:30 to 14:00. The third show is held in the Hikone castle museum from 15:00 to 15:30.

I went to the castle tower square a couple of minutes before 10:30. Since the castle is located on the top of a low hill, the audience has to walk up an incline.

At 10:30, just like a movie star walking on the red carpet for a premier, “Hiko-nyan” appears from nowhere with a couple of young men wearing windbreakers with “staff” printed on them.

The 30-minute show was close to another photo op session for a teen pop star. Some young people were shrieking and young mothers talked to their children about what a cute creature he was.

As time passed and the end of the show approached, the crowd thinned out. Maybe 30 minutes is simply too long for a person in a stuffed suit to perform simple acts repetitiously. Or maybe he was seeing a drop in his popularity after rising to the top of the “yuru-kyara” pyramid.

After the show, I entered the castle. It was just another Saturday, however, and castle was very crowded, reminding me of a quote from Hayashi in the city office, who said the number of visitors is a litmus test of the city’s tourist industry as well as its economic situation.

When I walked up the very narrow stairs, I realized that senior volunteer guides were posted along the way, managing the flow of visitors. One of them suddenly started explaining how Hikone Castle was unique compared to many other castles in Japan.

It was not his assignment, but somehow he was lecturing on the details of the castle in a fluent style. Visitors listened to his interesting stories while passing by.

Asked why he was lecturing about the castle, the senior volunteer said that since the castle is the heart of the city he is happy to encourage visitors to know a little more about it.

As I left the castle and walked to the rear of the structure, I realized that an open-sky “kyogen” school for beginners, “Experience Oumi kyogen,” had just started.

“Kyogen” is a traditional short comedic drama, which was developed during the Muromachi period (1336-1574). In the area that included the city of Hikone at the time, “Oumi kyogen” was developed.

More than a dozen young families with children listened to the outdoor lecture. The lecturer, probably a professional kyogen performer, explained how kyogen performers would inform the audience of the site and time of a drama in plain Japanese.

He concluded that a sense of imagination was critically important in this particular theatrical form.

I wished I could have stayed a little longer, but I had another appointment.

I said “Hiko-nyan” might be the last resort for revitalizing the city, since you can see “Hiko-nyan” all over the city, from the train station to the castle. However, I might have to revise that first impression.

Some city residents have been making efforts for years to revitalize their hometown. The emergence of “Hiko-nyan” has encouraged more people to share this aim.

Japanese naive paintings

On the train back to Tokyo, I started wondering why “yuru-kyara” are so popular in Japan. The creatures look cute, or “kawaii,” which is why they quickly became popular.

Maybe that’s it. Is it a universal situation? No such cultural movement has been noted in other culturally influential countries like the US or France.

This aspect might be unique to Japan. So how did it develop? It’s because we already had a cultural environment in which such unique qualities can grow.

I was searching for experts who might explain “yuru-kyara” and the uniqueness of Japanese art through Google and found a lecture entitled “Think of how Japanese culture is original, in consideration of “yuru-kyara” being held at an event for high school students.

The lecturer was Arata Yajima, a professor at Atomi Women’s University in Niiza on the outskirst of the Greater Tokyo metropolitan area. He recently published a book on Japanese naive painting. Let’s talk to him.

Professor Yajima with his latest book on Japanese native paintings.
Professor Yajima with his latest book on Japanese native paintings.
Photo: Yas Mamemachi

When stepping into Professor Yajima’s office, you notice several beautiful posters for exhibitions at an art museum in Tokyo. He worked as a curator at the museum before moving to his present university. One of the posters is for a Japanese naive painting exhibition.

Yajima started our discussion by saying, “Honestly, I didn’t know much about “yuru-kyara,” but we have a long history of naive painting, which may be akin to the present “yuru-kyara.”

According to his definition, Japanese naive paintings are locally produced heart-warming artworks which are not grounded in realism.

According to the professor, in China and Europe different ethnic groups promoted their interests through force. Consequently, a variety of cultures rose and fell, and these cultures blended together to promote a multicultural environment.

In such a multicultural environment the most important consideration is securing universality. With regard to art, this means acknowledged masterpieces regardless of ethnic origin, ones whose ultimate goal is realism.

In the case of Japan, because of its highly homogeneous society, “We have been culturally spoiled and developed with little restriction,” says Yajima. “It could be said that naive painting was easily accepted under these circumstances.”

In addition, Japan has been influenced by one foreign country after another with far superior levels of culture.

“The first was China, then Europe, and then the US. What we realized is that ‘they are too good to defeat,’” he continues.

“China’s celadon porcelain, for instance, has no single scar or cloudiness on the surface. We couldn’t produce such things. Then, one day, someone said, ‘Being perfect is boring. Don’t you think things that are slightly distorted are unique and impressive? How about a cloudy surface on earthenware? It wasn’t bad.’ This way of thinking, called ‘wabi,’ spread and became accepted in the Muromachi era.”

“Such an open-minded artistic view promoted development of a variety of naive painting styles throughout the history of Japanese art.”

The professor says that we should be proud of such an artistic sense of value because that means we found a new artistic sense that transcends realism. We did it because we learned and understood what perfect beauty is like.

Recently, professor Yajima’s Japanese book on naive painting was published, while two popular arts journals with features on naive painting which he contributed to were released.

Glancing through these publications, I was caught by one painting and one group of stone figures.

A thunder and his drum and the group of stone figures in two released popular arts journals with features on naive painting which he contributed to.
“A thunder and his drum” and the group of stone figures in two released popular arts journals with features on naive painting which he contributed to.
Photo: Yas Mamemachi

The title of the painting is “a thunder and his drum.”

Multiple gods are enshrined in Japan, including human beings, animals, natural gods, and even foreign gods, and we use a Japanese term "yaoyorozu no kami," to describe eight million gods around us or in our lives.

Thunder is one natural god. We used to say “kaminari -sama or -san” or “Master of the thunder, or Mr. Dear thunder” with awe and affection. The sound of thunder was believed to be the sound of a god beating a drum up in the sky.

The painting shows how the god accidentally drops his drum into the ocean and is trying to retrieve it with a perplexed look on his face.

Professor Yajima says in the caption of the drawing that it looks like another “yuru-kyara for another municipal government.

The group of stone figures is from the Yasumiya shrine in a remote area of Nagano, which is where the 1998 Winter Olympic Games were held. It’s located about one-and-a-half hours from Tokyo by the Shinkansen super express train.

It is believed that 700 to 800 stone figures are scattered throughout the mountains in this area. They include a woman holding a baby, a man with a rice pounder and a gun, a guardian deity of children wearing a big smile, an ogre, a cat, a monkey, a wild boar, and something from outer space (maybe).

According to a Japanese book on the 100 great mountain passes in Japan [Ide, Magoroku, ed. 1982 Nihon hyaku mei touge. Kiriharashoten: Tokyo], it is said that a holy man visited villages in the area to pray for abundant crops and a healthy life at the end of the Edo period. A miracle happened, and in order to show their appreciation, the villagers made these sculptures from stones and brought them up to the mountain pass.

As Professor Yajima says, these sculptures may provide some kind of blood lineage to “yuru-kyara.”

According to Professor Yajima’s book, the drawing is called “Otsu e” (or Drawings in Otsu), which was a popular souvenir in the area during the Edo period. The area is near the city of Hikone, where “Hiko-nyan” lives today.

The story started with “Hiko-nyan” in the city of Hikone and pulled back to the same area. We detour for “Otsu e,” sometime in the future. The Detour Japan continues.