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Applications to trademark Japanese anti-plague folklore character Amabie spark criticism

An image of a Japanese folklore creature called Amabie is seen. (Getty)

TOKYO -- Companies including major advertising agency Dentsu Inc. and religious corporations have applied to register over 10 trademarks relating to a Japanese folklore creature said to drive away epidemics; but the move has sparked online criticism over using the creature for profit.

The Amabie creature is a mystical "yokai" similar in appearance to a mermaid, and it has enjoyed a popular resurgence since the spread of the novel coronavirus.

According to the National Center for Industrial Property Information and Training's patent database J-PlatPat, trademarks for two "Amabie" in katakana characters, one in hiragana characters, and another eight combining the creature's name with other words, such as "Amabie-sama" and "Amabie omamori (good-luck charm)" have had registration applications filed since April.

Dentsu applied for registration of the creature's name in katakana characters in June. Various products and services had been put on a list to use the trademark with, such as swimming earplugs; fire trucks; advertising products; as well as experiments, tests and research relating to agriculture, livestock or fisheries. Other firms and religious corporations have applied for trademark registrations of products such as snacks, western liquor, face masks and amulets.

Many people have taken to Twitter to criticize the actions, especially those by Dentsu, posting comments such as, "The folklore of Amabie has been passed down from the past, and no one owns it," and, "How dare you try to conduct business with it." Online users have also said that Dentsu looks like "it's trying to secure everything it can lay its hands on" by presenting various products and services under the trademark.

Dentsu told the Mainichi Shimbun on July 6 that it had withdrawn its application. The company's spokesperson explained, "We were considering holding a campaign using the name Amabie, and tried to get it registered. But as we decided to reconsider (the campaign), we took procedures to withdraw the application. We never thought of using the trademark in a monopolizing or exclusive manner."

To apply for trademark registration, companies must submit a trademark, such as a name or logo, along with products or services that they want to use the trademark with to the Japan Patent Office (JPO). Trademark is registered if it passes a screening. Companies can use the trademark exclusively after registration. However, in some cases, applications for widely used words are declined for that reason.

The phrase "sodane" used by members of women's curling team Loco Solare, based in the city of Kitami in Japan's northernmost Hokkaido, which won bronze medals in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, became a national buzzword. Several companies and university cooperatives applied for registration to use the phrase as trademarks, but the JPO declined all applications saying, "The phrase is known as a buzzword, and it is used widely in commercial products."

Various products relating to Amabie, including souvenirs and snacks, have already been popping up across Japan. Firms can keep on using the trademark if a court recognizes that they have been using the name before it was registered by another entity.

(Japanese original by Miyuki Fujisawa, Integrated Digital News Center)

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