Tokyo Games Mascot Designer Has an Eye for ‘Cute’ and ‘Cool’

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Ryo Taniguchi is seen at a press conference on Feb. 28, 2018, after his designs were chosen for the Tokyo Games’ mascots.

With the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games postponed until next summer due to the coronavirus pandemic, The Yomiuri Shimbun decided to interview Ryo Taniguchi, an illustrator in Fukuoka City who is the creator of the Games’ mascots Miraitowa and Someity, about his hopes for the international events and his next challenge after the Olympics.

On Feb. 28, 2018, at the mascots’ unveiling, Taniguchi stood amid a lightning storm of camera flashes in his beloved dotera, or padded kimono jacket, which is now part of his trademark look. He had a message for his wife, who shared the hardships with him: “I want to take her to a sushi restaurant that doesn’t have a conveyor belt.”

“I wonder if it’s just a dream,” Taniguchi later recalled thinking.

During the Yomiuri interview several months later, held after the decision to postpone the Tokyo Olympics, Taniguchi expressed his acceptance of the delay and the necessity of waiting a whole year to see his creations on the world stage.

“It’s a matter of life or death. It’s disappointing, but it can’t be helped,” he said.

Since his creations were officially adopted as the Games’ mascots, he has “seen firsthand how hard the staffers of the organizing committee work.” This has given him a strong and special desire to see the Games become a reality.

He is both excited to see Miraitowa and Someity play an active role in the Games, and also concerned about the threat of the novel coronavirus. “The Games cannot be forced to be held. This is a disaster. I wonder if it will be possible to hold them even next year?”

■ Birth of Miraitowa

Taniguchi was riding his bicycle along the moat of Maizuru Park in Fukuoka City one day, heading toward the bustling Tenjin area, when inspiration struck. He stopped his bike and let his pencil run freely across a page in his notebook.

He finally had a theme. He’d wanted something cute and — above all — simple. “I would create only what I would want to have.”

At first, Miraitowa had a chonmage topknot modeled after the Olympic flame. Taniguchi had a clearly Japanese-style design in mind, like a samurai or ninja, but he later decided to get rid of the chonmage and instead emphasize the current checkered pattern, which had already been chosen for the Olympic and Paralympic emblems.

■ Sticking to what he likes

With the coronavirus weighing down the economy, the artist has seen his commissions dry up. Still, he has chosen to make the most of the bad situation. “I’m doing what I like because I have plenty of free time now,” he revealed.

Over the past few years, he has been working on making character figures. He said he has sold them at overseas events and each of the creations has been well received.

He said he meticulously crafts the form of each character — carefully plumping some parts up, or shaving others down by the millimeter. He said: “I don’t think anyone will be able to notice, but I am particular about things like ‘a little more chubby.’ It may be my own obsession.”

The characters he loved as a child, including Doraemon, Tom and Jerry, and Unico, are all rounded and cute.

“In addition, SD Gundam and Bikkuriman appeared soon after. I liked both cute ones and cool ones,” he said.

Since the second grade of elementary school, he has bought Shukan Shonen Jump, a weekly comic magazine published by Shueisha Inc. Even to today, he never misses an issue.

For a time, with his love of drawing and manga, he wanted to become a cartoonist. But he decided to take a different path. He explained, “It’s painful to draw the same character many times for each frame, and I also hate drawing backgrounds.” He said he likes to create a character while focusing on the features and settings.

Tapping Fukuoka’s energy

Even after his character designs were adopted as the mascots for the Olympics and Paralympics, his life in Fukuoka City has not changed, except that there has been more work to do.

He describes Fukuoka as a town with strong positive energy. “There are many cheerful people who are filled with appreciation and say things like ‘I like Fukuoka,’” he said.

Aside from the four years he spent in the United States to study, he has never left Fukuoka. And he has no intention of moving to Tokyo to expand his career.

“I think Fukuoka’s energy has an influence on my work,” he said. “My wife praises the figures I make by saying, ‘I like them because there’s nothing gloomy about them.’”

■ Continue to self-challenge

Taniguchi was in charge of designing “Japanda,” which T-ARTS Co. started selling last year. At last, his long-awaited character business started, and many items that he was involved in designing will be put on the market in the future.

Taniguchi also has another dream. “I want to take on overseas work,” he said.

For Taniguchi, looking at his own experience, there is no telling what will happen in life. “If it hadn’t been for Miraitowa and Someity, I might have died as an illustrator in the coronavirus crisis,” he said.

However, through his experiences, he has come to a realization. “If I can keep challenging myself, then one day in the future …”

Ryo Taniguchi was born in 1974 in Fukuoka City. As an illustrator, he designed the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games mascots, Miraitowa and Someity. His designs for the mascots were chosen after they won the highest number of votes — 109,041 — in a nationwide election by elementary school students. His trademark look includes an aloha shirt in the summer and a dotera padded kimono jacket in the winter.