Japan’s industrial city of Amagasaki was founded a century ago this year. Nestled between the nouveau tech hub of Osaka and the picturesque Kobe, Amagasaki is consistently overlooked when it comes to tourism. Certainly, when Trip Advisor ranks one of the coolest things to do there as “bus transportation,” (read: leaving) then it’s probably time to do some rebranding.
Enter Amagasaki’s unofficial mascot, Chicchai Ossan, who is truly a doozy of a yuru-kyara—that is, the moniker behind the proliferation of lovable, mostly silent characters representing everything from cities and prefectures to government services and businesses.
Chicchai Ossan—or “small middle-aged man”—was introduced to me via merchandise. His poorly translated English name can be found emblazoned atop sheets of stickers, keychains, and note pads at a kitschy shop just steps away from Tsutenkaku Tower, the Eiffel Tower of Osaka and yet another idiosyncrasy of south Japan.
To a Westerner with no knowledge of the character frequently seen on television and in smartphone games, the name evoked a comical barb I could send the guy I’m dating. He turns 40 in July, which is prime ossan age.
Typically, middle-aged to older Japanese men are referred to as ojisan, which literally translates to “uncle” and is meant as a term of endearment. Ossan is the ruder counterpart that shows through in the aesthetic of small middle-aged man to an almost comical degree. He’s slovenly, a perma-5 o’clock shadow evenly coating the bottom of his chin just below rosy red cheeks earned from throwing back a few too many beers. Even Chicchai Ossan’s tank top and track pants evoke a very specific aesthetic of the type of guys who apparently hail from Amagasaki.
The mascot is one of the few that talk. Chicchai Ossan speaks in a Kansai accent reminiscent of his hometown, his wisecracks and gestures evoking what appears to be an endearing stereotype of certain Japanese men in their mid-30’s. Everything from his halo of hair encircling a mostly bald head to his geta wooden flip-flops all come back to a joke the whole country may be in on, but may very well be lost on an overseas audience clamoring for more off-kilter mascots along the lines of the sad egg Gudetama over cute stalwarts like Hello Kitty.
This gravitation toward “gross cute” (kimo-kawaii in Japanese) mascots is perfectly in line with what’s been popping up in Japan since the ’90s. The Atlantic published a piece in 2014 on this backlash to the kawaii (cute) movement that overtook Japan in the 1970s following the rise of Sanrio. Its focus? Chicchai Ossan’s best friend, the sentient talking pear named Funassyi, who unofficially reps the Tokyo suburb city of Funabashi.
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The two regularly make public appearances and hock various products and services. The folks behind Chicchai Ossan have been especially brilliant when it comes to his marketing, bringing him one step closer to overseas audiences. A “Found Ossan” contest during his special appearance at the Los Angeles Anime Expo last summer promised copious prizes to those who spotted the character, snapped a photo of him, and tagged the shot with #FoundOssan.
The many fans who participated undoubtedly approached Chicchai Ossan and gave his head a pat or two. Part of his mystique is the yuru-kyara legend that rubbing small middle-aged man’s bald head is its own kind of good luck charm. Given his rapid ascent in a country so oversaturated with mascots that Japanese officials have actually made statements of concern over the thousands of characters popping up, it’s fairly clear that Chicchai Ossan has some unspeakable juju working in his favor.
The Amagasaki character was also able to take a trip to Paris for the city’s Japan Expo last summer as well as San Francisco’s J-Pop Summit. Such globe-trotting is unlike what many other mascots experience when it comes to crossing that barrier from national hero to worldwide commodity. Slowly but surely, this ossan has built up a brand.
His visage has been used on everything from the wildly popular smartphone messaging app LINE to packets of Pretz sticks to delicate face masks meant to exfoliate the skin. Chicchai Ossan is far from a one-dimensional character used purely for marketing purposes, however. He’s got a sidekick in the form of the unibrowed pug named goat (“yagi”) and even has his own family to attend to, as you can see from the Ossan Show theme song.
As proud as this character is of his home city, he may very well be absent for the Amagasaki centennial celebration, set to take place on Oct. 8. Chicchai Ossan gave an interview with Tokyo Journal prior to his California trip and wasn’t that hopeful about a collaboration between himself and the city:
I once visited city hall to say, “Hello,” but they told me to work on my own. I didn’t even get an invite to the city festival! There are advantages and disadvantages. If it’s official, the character works with money from the city as its representative. On the other hand, as an unofficial character, I can work freely without restrictions.
It’s worth noting that Funassyi has had similar success in an unofficial capacity. As the country continues to look to mitigate the many mascots that have turned everyday life in Japan into something like a surreal theme park experience, those who strike out on their own appear to be the ones who will survive a potential purge of yuru-kyaras.
I wish I could say I had more of small middle-aged man to take with me as a keepsake after a recent visit. A long series of flights from Japan to Argentina resulted in losing the Chicchai Ossan keychain I’d picked up on a lark. Still, my fascination with this off-kilter character has only continued to blossom. This is the beauty of a world made far smaller by the technology shrinking its distance at our fingertips.
I may very well go back to Japan, taking the loping local lines to Amagasaki to wander the streets in search of a kind man who’s putting the town of 450,000 people on the map.
A former Weekend Editor at the Daily Dot, April Siese's reporting covers everything from technology and politics to web culture and humor. Her work has been published by Bustle, Uproxx, Death and Taxes, Rolling Stone, the Daily Beast, Thrillist, Atlas Obscura, and others. Siese joined Quartz in December 2016.