Japanese Store Chain Announces Mascot Change, Immediately Walks It Back
Donpen forever, Donpen for life
If you’ve ever been to Japan, then chances are you’ve at least seen a Don Quijote. They’re quite easy to spot because they tend to be large buildings with a giant blue penguin in a Santa cap bursting out of them. Don Quijote is one of the most ubiquitous and famous stores in Japan, with some satellite locations in Southeast Asia and Hawaii. The Japan locations are like if Walmart had the chaotic attitude of a Spencer’s and sold absolutely everything. Don Quijote is where pharmaceutical needs, Sanrio anklet socks, and dildos live together in peace and harmony. It’s my favorite store in the world.
The patron saint of this chaos is Donpen, that blue penguin with the Santa hat and the big katakana “do” (for “Don Quijote”) on his tummy. Donpen shows up on the exterior of every store, often as a giant lit-up plastic figure bursting triumphantly out of the marquee or, in some cases, the building itself. He and his female counterpart Donko show up everywhere on the inside of the store as well, pointing your attention toward various goods or just adding a delightful touch of chaotic ambience.
Also, this song is always playing somewhere in the store. That detail is less important to this story overall, but it’s incredibly useful for imagining yourself inside the true Don Quijote experience. It’s called “Miracle Shopping” and is sung by a Don Quijote employee. I believe it’s from the ’90s. It, too, is iconic.
Anyway, as you might have guessed from this description, Donpen feels more entrenched in his institution than the average mascot—even in Japan, where cerebral concepts like “don’t stand too close to the train” can have their own mascot. For the millions of people who have entered one of these stores, Donpen is Don Quijote, and Don Quijote is Donpen.
Which is why the events of December 16, 2022, were so shocking.
That morning (Japan time), Don Quijote Japan’s official Twitter account posted an “important notice.” It proclaimed the unthinkable: Don Quijote had decided to replace Donpen with a new mascot, Dojou-chan. Dojou-chan was simply a katakana “do” with arms and legs, and some kind of sign post. Dojou-chan does not have eyes or a mouth, or really any expressive features whatsoever. It’s sort of like if Aflac announced they were replacing the duck with a letter “A” that has arms and legs, and we all really loved the Aflac duck.
The backlash was immediate and intense. People flooded the comments section to express confusion, shock, and extreme dismay. Many expressed their shock using Kirby antagonist King Dedede, another blue penguin in a red hat. Others pointed out that you could keep Donpen and just replace the “do” on his chest with Dojou-chan. Scores replied simply with the equivalent to “Huh?!” One sage user astutely remarked (translated into English): “You can’t do this. Because penguins are cute.”
Once other Don Quijote-lovers around the world woke up and saw the news, they, too, joined in the chorus. It was truly unanimous. Every poster responded with some version of “WTF?!” or “NO!” Scrolling through the comments on Don Quijote’s Twitter post, I did not find a single instance of approval. And that’s just on Twitter. You can imagine how this chorus swelled once you took into account other social media platforms.
This chorus was so big, so unanimous, and so upset that less than eight hours later, Don Quijote issued an official apology. A rough translation of the apology reads: “From the time we made the announcement until now, we received many opinions from our customers. Our customers’ feelings for Donpen were much stronger than we thought. Thank you. We take these opinions seriously, and after some discussion, we have decided to keep Donpen as our official character. Everyone at PPIH Group [the shareholding company] will continue to love Donpen. We are sorry to have caused so much trouble.”
To recap: So many people were upset about this mascot change that it took the parent company less than eight hours to walk their decision back. Remember what I said about Donpen bursting out of buildings as a giant plastic figure? And how Donpen and Donko appear over and over and over again in the in-store advertising and decoration? There’s over 160 Don Quijote stores in Japan, and then another dozen or so scattered elsewhere. This rebrand would be expensive. And labor-intensive. The board had ostensibly already planned all of this out. You had to assume the ball was already rolling.
Perhaps even more impressive: The chorus of voices expressing love for and a desire to protect Donpen was so intense, that this apology even goes the extra step of saying, “We all love Donpen. We will learn to love Donpen again.” People made them bend the knee to Donpen.
There are a couple of reasons I find this story so intriguing—enough so to bring it up again a few weeks after the general public saved Donpen. One is that I love Don Quijote and Donpen very deeply. I was unwittingly in a Don Quijote as this all was going down, and am still slightly shaken by the knowledge that something I considered to be so prolific could be that dispensable. But more to the point, in an era in American pop culture where guys in a board room are deleting entire series from existence on HBO Max, it’s lovely to see the general public saving something they love from the maw of corporate decision-making.
I have seen a couple of Japanese companies recently eschew a more playful mascot or logo for a more “tame” one. An example that comes to mind is Bandai Namco, which changed its logo to a spitting image of the Bravo network logo last year. Even though the new Don Quijote mascot took the form of a Japanese katakana letter, from an outsider’s perspective, I wonder if various corporations in Japan are feeling a pressure to “modernize” their brands for the purposes of business expansion. In doing so, it seems like this particular board completely missed the point of what people like about their brand. The apology letter makes quite clear that whoever was behind this whole ordeal genuinely had no idea people liked Donpen so much.
So three cheers to Donpen, the hero of the people. May he continue to illuminate the voice of the common man as he illuminates endless aisles of electronic adapters.
(featured image: Kirsten Carey)
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