Unseen Japan

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Return of the Banana Princess: How a Fruit-Clad Cosplayer Came to Represent a Southern Japanese City

Posted on October 09, 2018 in culture, society, cosplay, kyushuJay Andrew Allen

A popular city mascot resumes her vaunted role. Learn about Japan's history of "discount banana hawking", and how it gave birth to Princess Banana, the tourist symbol of Kitakyushu City. (Picture: Kitakyushu PR)

Kitakyushu's Inventive Tourism Promotions

One of the most fun aspects of Japan is the existence of ゆるキャラ (yuru-kyara). Short for yurui masukotto kyarakuta-, yuru-kyara are local mascots, usually some sort of cartoon character played by an actor in costume, that are used by a city or other local jurisdiction to promote tourism or a specific local event. There are hundreds of yuru-kyara throughout Japan. Even smaller locales adopt the critters. E.g., this past summer, when my wife and I visited the hot springs town of Wakura Onsen in Ishikawa Prefecture, I discovered "Wakutama-kun", the town's adorable, egg-shaped mascot.

Wakutama-kun, the mascot of Wakura Onsen
Wakutama-kun, the adorable. egg-shaped mascot of Wakura Onsen in Ishikawa Prefecture.

Other cities have used similar but slightly different tactics to promote themselves. I've talked previously, for example, about how the city of Iga has used its reputation of the birthplace of the ninja to garner tourists - albeit with much misunderstanding by, ahem, certain Western media outlets.

The city of Kitakyushu took a different direction still. True to its name, Kitakyushu ("North Kyushu"), a city in Fukuoka Prefecture, occupies the northernmost tip of the southern island of Kyushu. It serves as the gateway city from Honshu, the main island of Japan, into Kyushu. The city touts numerous tourist attractions, such as Mojiko Retro (門司港レトロ), a former bustling port for foreign trade that retains its classic look from Japan's Taisho era (1912-1926); the Kokura castle complex, originally built in 1602; and the Kanmon straits, the water passage separating Kyushu from Honshu.

Mojiko Retro in Kitakyushu
Mojiko Retro in Kitakyushu - night view. (Picture: まちゃー / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Kitakyushu has pursued multiple strategies for garnering tourists. In 2017, it funded the production of a video that shows the "powerful" Kanmon Straits current taking down monsters of Godzilla proportions. So if giant monsters ever resurface to attack the Japanese homeland, folks, you know what to do: head straight for Kitakyushu!

But its most enduring symbol to date is a woman wielding a banana scepter.

Kitakyushu's Banana Legacy

First, some cultural context is in order. Bananas weren't a readily available commodity in Japan until a steady stream of imports from Taiwan shortly after the First Sino-Japanese War in the 1890s made the fruit easy to purchase. Bananas were brought over unripened, and left to ripen in a local warehouse before sale in order to preserve their freshness. However, some bananas would ripen on the journey, while others would become bruised or damaged. In modern times, such damaged fruit is turned into candy. But in the Meiji era, the technology to create such products didn't exist, so the only choice was to sell the product at a discount on the streets.

The arrival port for Taiwanese bananas was - you guessed it - the port of Monshiko in Kitakyushu. Kitakyushu became the progenitor of バナナの叩き売り (banana no tatakiuri), or selling discounted bananas from open air carts on the main street of Sanbashidoori. Vendors would bring out their wares, introduce them through a special monologue, and then begin hawking their discount wares to the public. (You can see a reenactment of this practice in the video below.) The songs and introductions used by vendors would vary from region to region and dealer to dealer, with hawkers often taking great pride in the originality of their compositions.

The practice of tataki-uri began around the Taisho era, when bananas were still relatively pricey, and were given as souvenirs or to people who were hospitalized. As technology and trade boomed, the price of this "exotic" fruit dropped, and the practice died out. Today, while Japan still imports bananas, some are also grown in the more tropical regions of Japan, with 60% of domestic banana production focused in Okinawa, and the other 40% coming from Kagoshima.

Shima Banana - Island Bananas from Okinawa
Okinawa's Island Banana (島バナナ; shima-banana), a smaller, squatter version of the vaunted fruit. Island bananas are relatively expensive, and sell for around ¥3000 (USD $30) for 2lbs. (Picture: mmstock / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

But Kitakyushu can still lay claim to this historical tradition, and to celebrate its prestigious banana history, the city commissioned the creation of an animated character, Princess Banana (バナナ姫; banana-hime). The character was primarily used on posters to tout the city's annual Banana Museum, which typically runs during the month of October. And yes, it's exactly what it sounds like: a festival aimed at providing samples of different varieties and strains of bananas from around the world, and teaching visitors about the history of the fruit.

Banana Museum Announcement from 2015
A poster for the Banana Museum event in Kitakyushu from 2015, featuring Princess Banana.

The Banana Princess Comes, Leaves...and Returns (But for How Long?)

One enterprising city employee, Inoue Junko, a native of Kitakyushu, decided to take this concept one step further: she made her own Princess Banana costume. Nicknamed "the overly-serious government employee cosplayer Princess Banana Runa" (本気すぎるコスプレ公務員バナナ姫ルナ), her performance turned out to be a huge hit, and she embarked on a countrywide tour as Princess Banana, encouraging tourism to the southern island city.

By all reports, Inoue's run as Princess Banana was highly successful: a year after her introduction, tourism to Kitakyushu increased by an estimated 20,000 people year-over-year. All good things must come to an end, however, and Inoue, who changed jobs and had three kids to raise to boot, decided to step down.

(JP) Link: Thank You, Banana Princess Luna - The Cosplay Government Worker Borne by Kitakyushu

ありがとう、バナナ姫ルナ~北九州が生んだコスプレ公務員:データ・マックス NETIB-NEWS
北九州市観光課が、観光客の獲得に向け取り組んできたさまざまな施策。そのなかでも、とくに話題になったのが、“本気すぎるコスプレ公務員”こと「バナナ姫ルナ」だった。  バナナ姫ルナとは、北九州市の門司港...

Unfortunately for Kitakyushu City, it couldn't find another actress to replace Inoue. So now, a mere seven months after her "retirement", Inoue has agreed to resume her role - but only until a new Princess Luna is found. The news hit all the major Japanese news outlets as Inoue once again donned her costume to kick off the 2018 Banana Museum event.

(JP) Link: Back to Work After No Replacement Found; The Return to Action of "Princess Banana"

"コスプレ公務員"が活動再開|ニフティニュース
北九州市のイメージキャラクター「バナナ姫ルナ」のコスプレ姿で3月まで観光PRに取り組んできた同市職員の井上純子さん(31)が5日、活動再開を発表した。 井上さんは市観光課に所属していた2016年7月…

After doing some digging online, I hypothesize (and it's only a hypothesis) that Inoue never quite realized how popular her real-life embodiment of the illustrated Princess Banana would become. I can only imagine it must have been overwhelming to go from nameless government employee to media sensation practically overnight. There are a number of "matome" (round-up) fan pages devoted to Inoue, and it quickly becomes apparent reading them that she's managed to keep some aspects of her life, such as her current relationship status, private.

I think part of the reason Inoue has managed to keep some semblance of privacy is that she occupies a very strange space in Japanese media. In the main, Japanese media is very good about distinguishing between 芸能人 (geinoujin), or celebrities, and 一般人 (ippanjin), or regular citizens. If a celebrity, for example, is dating a non-celebrity, the partner's name and image will typically not be used in Japanese media; if they appear in pictures, it's either with their backs to the cameras or their faces blurred. The press has this tacit understanding that people who didn't ask to be in the spotlight shouldn't be thrust into it. (This assumes you're a law-abiding citizen who's never run afoul of the police. Get arrested, and your name is mud overnight.) I think this is why Inoue seems to manage being a quasi-celebrity in a nation where celebrities are mercilessly hounded by tabloids and major media outlets alike. It likely made it easier to step back into the role for a limited time.

At any rate, fans appear to be happy that Inoue is back at her post. Now it's a question of how long it's take to find her replacement. Honestly, I'm a little saddened that all of those non-Japanese who appealed to the city of Iga to become ninjas aren't donning blond wigs and besieging the city with requests...