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When you travel to Japan, you will see cute cartoon characters in ads, billboards and company logos everywhere you go. Dogs or cats are popular - from a courier company's black cat logo, to warning signs featuring a dog wearing a police uniform, to dentist ads that depict a cat wearing a nurse's uniform and welcoming people.

Japan is the country of cute characters and mascots. The Japanese like to turn everything into a character. These cartoon characters are often derived from familiar animals or foods.

There are countless characters in Japan. Each region has a unique character called “Yuru chara” which is an abbreviation of “Yurui character,” literally meaning "loosened character." It is named because Yuru chara (mascot characters) look like they have no tension and are relaxed. Yuru chara are created to promote a local region or town. They are used for promoting local events, local foods and tourism. The most popular Yuru charas are "Kumamon," the official PR mascot character of Kumamoto prefecture, along with "Funassyi," the unofficial character for Funabashi City in Chiba prefecture. There are 3,000 to 4,000 Yuru charas in Japan. Every year, a Yuru chara grand prix is held where different characters compete to become the most popular Yuru chara in Japan. 

Train stations often contain human-sized statues of the regional character to welcome you. The design of a character often reflects the region's major food product, an historical figure or a traditional craft.

In Ehime prefecture, their character "Mican" represents a mandarin orange. "Funassyi" is the Funasbashi City mascot in the shape of a nashi pear. In Hamamatsu prefecture, the character "Ieyasukun" is based on the famous shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu who lived and ruled in the 16th century. In the town of Haebaru in Okinawa, the character "Haerun" has the head of a friendly pumpkin (widely cultivated in that area) and she wears a traditional Okinawa kimono. 

There are also “Shinshi,” which are messengers of the gods. Each Shinto shrine has Shinshi which are based on particular animals. There are various animals such as foxes, mice, bees, rabbits, turtles, snakes, deer, monkeys and birds. The type of animal differs, depending on the shrine. Since ancient times, the Japanese have believed in animism. Animism is a belief system in which many things are regarded as having a spirit - not only living things such as animals and plants, but also mountains, rivers and rocks.

Because of Shinto and its animist beliefs, the Japanese are familiar with assigning everything a character and personifying them. The creation of characters in this country is backed by its long history. 

The jewellery designer and maker Mariko Kitano creates beautiful and elegant accessories based on animal and plant motifs from the countryside at Imabari, in Ehime prefecture. One of her collection consists of a series of pin badges featuring animals and nature themes. Mariko gives adorable look to all the strong wild animals, the delicate flying butterfly and the cat basking in the sun.

Please check out the Mariko Kitano collection