The Japan Rugby World Cup has brought us highs, lows and – sometimes intermittent – coverage of the national sport played out some 9,400km away. While the game is familiar the setting isn't, and the world cup has been as much about absorbing the culture as it is watching play.

One piece of culture that is turning heads, beyond others are the mascots.

The Ren-G, of which there are two, are lion-like Shishi are the official spirit animals of the games.

Unveiled in January their reception by the international world of rugby was mixed.
Some praised the animal's bringing a "soft and cuddly" side to the sport. Others questioned if a rugby mascot "should be burly, surly and have a pint."

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"Kill it with fire. . ." was one of the more direct responses.

However, many are missing the point of just how integral mascots are in Japan. Not just for sports, but for everything.

New Zealand's history of cuddly anthropomorphised animals at sports fixtures has been a bit hit-and-miss. Every so often Murray Ball's dog might get an outing at an All Blacks fixture, and the sooner Wooliam the mascot for the FIFAU20 WC New Zealand is forgotten, the better.

The New Zealand FIFA mascot Wooliam and an Uzbekistan fan. Photo / File
The New Zealand FIFA mascot Wooliam and an Uzbekistan fan. Photo / File

Mascots are big in Japan. In the country that launched 1000 Hello Kitty lunchboxes, and urged Pokemon-loving children around the world to "catch them all" - there's nothing too odd that it can't get a cutesy treatment.

Itawe bowls of ramen, trains, tofu beans and even medical procedures have their own smiley, velvet lined mascots. Each one representing teams, cities, states and even companies.

The Ichijiku Corporation, for example, has a maniacal smiling enema probe penguin creature.

Yet this is perhaps not the strangest of cuddly critters.

The Indian Film industry is promoted by a giant bread-headed creature named Naanko-chan.

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Meanwhile, the financial sector seems to have slightly less family friendly totems.
The Ama City Mascot for example is nicknamed 'Amazones' a latex-clad dominatrix who whips people with a native species of leek. Delicious.

Some cafes and local businesses have been inspired to create mascots to promote their wares, such as the cut-price Kutsubera Man or "shoehorn man" who is the face of a small cafe in Tokyo.

While there is a tendency to mock and berate spots mascots in the English-speaking world, in Japan they are dead serious about their emblems. However odd they might seem to outsiders arriving for a rugby tournament.

In the states, another country that goes large for fluffy sideline sports animals, the Philadelphia Flyers recently changed their mascot.

Gritty – a boggle-eyed ginger mop in Hockey gear – was subbed in last year fans weren't convinced.

Similarly to the Ren-G of the RWC, Philadelphia residents described to eight foot creature as a "nightmare."

However, after some questionable behaviour on and off the pitch – crashing events and matches – the Hockey league soon came to love the giant orange mess.

In Japan however, the same cannot be said. They like their mascots orderly.

This was exhibited recently by the exploits of Chiitan. The sea otter mascot which represents a small southern city started generating concern for erratic publicity stunts at the beginning of the year.

Chiitan's wild antics did not go down well with her home town. Photo /Twitter.com
Chiitan's wild antics did not go down well with her home town. Photo /Twitter.com

The normally benign, smiling animal began threatening people with baseball bats, having a go at pole dancing eventually forcing the local tourism operators to intervene in what it called "distasteful behaviour".

Asia One reported in January the otter was eventually fired for going "berserk on social media and in public". Behaviour that otherwise would be a normal turn of events for the Philadelphia hockey mascot.

Justice for Chiitan: The Otter was fired for erratic behaviour. Photo / Supplied
Justice for Chiitan: The Otter was fired for erratic behaviour. Photo / Supplied

If Chiitan tells us anything about the mascot culture, apart from that there are grave penalties for rogue otters, it is that mascots are regularly taken on and off the field – and can be retired at any time.

The Ren-G might not be everyone's cup of tea but they will be gone come November and the World Cup final.

By that point Japan will be gearing up to introduce their Olympic mascots, robots Miraitowa and Someity in the Paralympic and Summer Olympic games. Another oddball couple that have the potential to both divide and unite the world's sport fans.