As the excitement of climbing's Olympic debut subsides, one quirky rectangular representative of the sport is working hard to boost participation and welcome newcomers to indoor walls in Japan and worldwide...
In Tokyo, one climber boasts a bigger Twitter following than even the best Japanese athletes. Boruneesan climbs V8. Boruneesan is an 'influencer'. Boruneesan is a rectangle with arms, legs, a made-up face and green hair. Boruneesan is a climbing wall that climbs climbing walls.
Yes, it's all a bit 'meta'. But this kawaii (cute) character's goal is simple: to inspire people to start climbing.
ボル姉さん (Boruneesan) translates to 'bouldering sister' and her costume — a grey fabric cuboid stitched with coloured plush 'hold' shapes paired with pink climbing shoes — is an example of yuru-chara (ゆるキャラ), or mascot characters, which are used widely in Japan to promote an event, business, organisation, local area or indeed anything that can be characterised in a wacky outfit.
Unlike in the UK, where mascots are typically linked to sporting events or children's entertainment, yuru-chara have formed part of a broader Japanese cultural phenomenon since their conception at a 2008 mascot Grand Prix event. Today, mascot marketing is estimated to be a multi-billion-dollar industry as businesses commercialise cuteness amid kawaii culture.
Boruneesan is loosely affiliated with Boulcom bouldering gym in Tokyo, but fundamentally she's a mascot for climbing as a sport, waddling and smiling her way around the numerous (around 100) climbing gyms scattered throughout Tokyo and sharing her passion with others.
Her anonymous human inhabitor is a keen climber. "I have been bouldering for about 9 years," they say.
"I came to the human world about three years ago," Boruneesan adds, as her human falls into character. "Until then I was living in the 'wall world'."
Boruneesan's human aims to spread the joy of climbing. "I am working to liven up the "industry" of bouldering, rather than promote a character created by one gym," they explain. Dressing up as an endearing character with comic appeal seemed like the ideal solution. "Yuru-chara catch people's eye, so I think it's easy to reach as many people as possible with the message you want to convey," they say.
To date, the character has attracted 15.6K followers on Twitter and 8.4K on Instagram. In her popular Instagram videos, Boruneesan swings, campuses and even run-and-jumps; she's surprisingly agile for a cuboid and not at all wooden, despite her embodying a plywood panel. She can even do one-arm pull-ups.
"I climb at various gyms in Tokyo," Boruneesan says. "But eventually I want to climb walls all over Japan and around the world."
Fans buy Boruneesan-branded merchandise — including t-shirts and tote bags — and send her letters, drawings and even models. "Thankfully, many people support my activities and want to meet me," Boruneesan explains. "I want to climb with people all over the world someday." Occasionally, Boruneesan bumps into famous climbers, such as Yuji Hirayama, who request selfies with her.
Boruneesan is signed-up to an entertainment agency and has featured on the 'Mondo Mascots' Twitter account, a showcase of the best — and most bizarre — of yuru-chara culture. She occasionally attends character meet-ups, where she takes part in games such as relay races and mingles with other mascots.
Perhaps the most famous sporting mascots are those created for each Olympic and Paralympic Games. Miraitowa and Someity were the Tokyo 2020 Games mascots this summer. But hosting the sport's Olympic debut in her home town of Tokyo was also a turning point for Boruneesan, who is welcoming more and more newcomers to the city's world-class climbing facilities.
"Many people in Japan witnessed the joy of climbing," Boruneesan says. "It was also trending on Twitter. Gyms are receiving calls from people who watched the Olympics and they're saying: 'I want to experience bouldering!'"
Miho Nonaka and Akiyo Noguchi's respective silver and bronze medals have boosted climbing's profile in Japan through extensive press coverage. "I couldn't stop crying when I watched Akiyo Noguchi, who has been leading the Japanese climbing world, win a medal and retire at the end of the Games," Boruneesan adds.
2021 overall IFSC Boulder World Cup winner Yoshiyuki Ogata is a fan of Boruneesan's work and laid-back attitude. "I would like to thank her for promoting climbing in this way," Ogata says. "She represents a fun approach that climbers can have and one that is different from a focus on competitiveness and performance. I'm really rooting for her, but I want her to be careful not to injure herself, as she must not be able to see very well!"
You could call Boruneesan an influencer. "It may be so," comes her cryptic response when asked if she identifies as such. "I'm aiming to be the most influential mascot in the world."
If nothing else, she's inspiration for this year's Halloween fancy dress competition — but don't assume that everyone can climb as hard or as elegantly in costume as this 'bouldering sister'.
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