TOKYO — British comedian John Oliver, known for his satirical news show “Last Week Tonight,” dove into the cute yet weird world of Japanese mascots and ended up in a feud with a particularly rogue otter character that wears a turtle as a hat.
Confused? Perhaps this short film will help.
No? Okay. John Oliver explains it all far better than The Washington Post ever could.
Up to speed? What you need to know is Japanese people are crazy about mascots, or yuru-chara, and everything from cities to museums, products to the police, sports teams to the military and prisons have their own, very cute, mascots. Somehow, in the course of one of his comedy sketches, Oliver enraged a particularly “unhinged, psychotic, unsanctioned” Japanese otter mascot. And now the mascot seems to be itching for a showdown with the British comedian.
The city of Susaki had a mascot named Shinjo-kun, a “magnificent otter with a ramen dish as a hat,” as Oliver describes him. And it also had a real otter named Chiitan as its honorary tourism ambassador. And, of course, the real otter had its own mascot, too, the aforementioned Chiitan with a turtle for a hat.
“The point is there are three otters," Oliver explains.
Then Chiitan, the otter’s mascot, went rogue -- performing stunts that prompted the city to disown him, but winning a legion of followers on social media.
Essentially, John Oliver became a fan. And to join the fun, he made a mascot of his own, named Chiijohn, who traveled to Susaki.
All of this left Chiitan the mascot unhappy. So Oliver was challenged to a “no-holds-barred match” and to explode through tables (a reference to another Oliver piece about WWE wrestling). The comedian tweeted drily: “I’m in a public beef with an unsanctioned Japanese otter. I needed this.”
Susaki, with an aging population of 20,000 people, is not quite sure whether to laugh or cry.
The small Japanese port (see its PR video here) had initially embraced Chiitan and often let him pose for photos with Shinjo-kun, that city’s official mascot. All was fine until Chiitan started taking things in a distinctly edgy direction by lampooning the whole super-cutesy yuru-chara phenomenon.
According to the New York Times, the city received more than 100 complaints about his behavior, especially about some of his more dangerous stunts, like twirling a motorized weed cutter around his head. Children, we are told, are some of Chiitan’s biggest fans.
The city’s mayor, Kosaku Kusunose, announced in February that he had asked the company behind Chiitan to suspend its activities, reportedly claiming copyright infringement.
Later that month, TV Tokyo said it had suspended a planned “Fairy Chiitan” cartoon anime show because of the dispute, while the SEGA Games company also canceled plans to collaborate with Chiitan in an online game.
Shinjo-kun, meanwhile, is no slouch himself. He actually won a nationwide yuru-chara contest in 2016 from among 1,400 entrants. Anime shows featuring Shinjo-kun are reportedly set to air in Japan, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong in the fall. On Valentine’s day, Shinjo-kun cried tears of joy after receiving more than 200 gifts from well-wishers, more than twice as many as last year.
And there’s money in it, too, quite aside from the potential tourist boon. Susaki’s tax revenue reportedly surged after Shinjo-kun’s 2016 championship win — in a system meant to redress imbalances, people in Japan are entitled to pay 10 percent of their local taxes to any jurisdiction of their choosing, and many are now choosing Susaki.
But happy as we are to see Shinjo-kun prospering, The Post’s Tokyo bureau still knows who we are rooting for. And, no, it’s not Mr. British birb, as Chiitan now calls Oliver (you’ll have to watch the video to understand that running joke).
Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.