Fluffy, furry mascots are everywhere in Japan but Kumamon has captured the nation’s imagination like no other. We explore his ‘very’ soft-power potential.
Like most Japanese public servants, Kumamon has a desk, business cards and work attire that favours dark colours. At the Kumamoto prefectural government in western Japan he juggles two senior roles, as director of both the sales and the happiness divisions. The difference between Kumamon and other prefecture employees is that he is wide-eyed and rosy cheeked, with a body that recalls a chubby black bear. He is also the official mascot and quite a celebrity – the all-star staff member that every village leader, mayor and governor dreams of hiring. Tourists come from overseas to see him and companies around the country jump at the chance to put his image on their products.
On a weekday afternoon you’ll find him in his office in downtown Kumamoto. This is where his fans come for hugs and high fives. Over the past six years more than 2.5 million people have visited Kumamon Square, his office-cum-gift-shop, to meet him and buy souvenirs. Usually he has a full house and today is no exception, with 200 fans sitting around a small stage awaiting his arrival.
Outside the room, though, Kumamon is taking his time. He wanders into a shop, startling the staff and customers. He embraces a reporter and goofs around with a couple and their toddler. “That’s Kumamon for you,” says Sho Numajiri, an official of the Kumamon Group, the team that manages the mascot’s affairs. “He’s always up to some kind of mischief. We don’t control him.”
Kumamon first appeared in 2010 to promote a new Shinkansen line cutting through this mostly agricultural region of 1.8 million residents. It was designer Manabu Mizuno’s idea to create a mascot for the campaign. “The prefecture asked for a logo but I was sceptical that a logo would stand out. I thought it would be good to have someone doing Kumamoto’s PR,” says Mizuno, who heads the Tokyo-based Good Design Company.
A decade ago, if you asked Kumamoto prefectural officials about PR strategy, you might have been treated to a long-winded answer. The prefecture now has a single focus: set Kumamon loose to draw attention to the region at every opportunity.
There was a time when every government entity, industry association and snack-maker seemed to have its own oversized cuddly mascot, known as yuru-kyara (loose characters). But few can match Kumamon’s influence. The Kumamoto prefecture estimates that businesses in Japan have sold more than ¥150bn (€1.2bn) in merchandise and food bearing Kumamon’s image, with visitor numbers to the region up 12 per cent since 2010 thanks to their friend.
Around Kumamoto you can’t escape Kumamon. He’s on buses, billboards, vending machines, bicycles, cakes, hotel-room walls and aeroplanes. He’s collaborated on limited-offer products with bmw Mini, Baccarat, Leica and Steiff. The most diehard Kumamon enthusiasts spend their holidays shadowing him at events around Japan and his annual fan gatherings in Osaka and Tokyo, plus a birthday celebration in Kumamoto every March, collectively draw tens of thousands of people. He once greeted Japan’s emperor and empress and, earlier this year, he raised ¥3.6m (€30,000) through an online campaign to help fund repairs to Notre Dame cathedral in Paris after it was devasted by fire. Kumamon might not have been so ubiquitous if it hadn’t been for the prefecture’s Harvard-educated governor, Ikuo Kabashima. He had the idea of licensing Kumamon’s image to businesses for free as long as they agreed to strict rules. “You can choose only from 150 official illustrations and dozens of logos and you can’t have Kumamon holding a product or speaking,” says Miki Urata, the Kumamon Group’s director. So many businesses and organisations have come knocking since then that the prefecture has had to outsource the work of approving applications from licensees.
Kumamoto officials grasped early on how social media could magnify their message. They sent Kumamon – a nobody when he started – to Osaka for an experiment in viral marketing. He would turn up without warning and without any indication of what he was there for. By the time Kumamoto officials volunteered an explanation, Kumamon was an online sensation. After he won a national popularity contest for yuru-kyara in 2011 his fame took off.
Managing a larger-than-life furball is a tough job for the Kumamon Group. At their office a few doors down from the governor’s, the 10 team members look after the mascot’s schedule and projects. But mainly they try to make him seem real. They post messages to his 800,000 Twitter followers and on his Facebook page, which has almost 180,000 likes. Last year they began uploading YouTube videos of Kumamon frolicking around the region’s most picturesque spots, and have recently agreed a deal with US animation studio Tonko House for a Kumamon film that’s set to hit the big screen next year. Now that the mascot is venturing into China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand, the Kumamon Group’s biggest headache is battling fakes. “We’re not making any money overseas yet because it costs a lot to go after counterfeiters,” says Urata.
Most of Kumamon’s activities at home are small scale but every performance is carefully planned. Half an hour before he’s due to arrive at a mall in Fukuoka to promote Kumamoto food products, his advance team is busy mapping out his route. He will start his visit in the basement parking lot; take the service elevator upstairs; dole out tangerines; ride the escalator one floor up; dance; lead the crowd to the sweets and seafood table; and make his exit through a back door. His attendant – a young woman called Asuka in a yellow, robe-like happi – has to look out for hazards that might trip him while she keeps up a comedic monologue about the mascot’s movements. “Kumamon doesn’t speak so I talk for him,” she says. “And I dance with him. We have to practise a lot because there are 10 different dance songs.”
As a safety precaution for the person wearing the costume, Kumamon only performs for 30 minutes at a time. You’re not supposed to know that, of course. Kumamoto officials try to maintain the illusion that Kumamon is a living creature, not make-believe. Asking whether he is actually a bear (kuma means bear in Japanese), how the performers inside the costume are recruited or even exactly how many costumes there are won’t get you anywhere. “Kumamon is Kumamon,” is all Numajiri will say.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone would take Numajiri seriously until you’ve seen how people react when there are in Kumamon’s presence. When two devastating earthquakes pounded Kumamoto in 2016, prefectural officials cancelled Kumamon’s activities. After a month of lying low, he began visiting emergency shelters, where grinning kids mobbed him and elderly residents clasped their hands together and bowed in thanks. “To see Mickey Mouse you have to pay to get into Disneyland and he’s usually on a stage,” says Hiromi Kano, the president of Kigurumi.biz Inc, one of Japan’s top mascot producers. “You don’t get to meet Mickey Mouse – he’s a distant presence. Kumamon is more approachable. That’s his selling point.”
Even so, aren’t the residents here tired of seeing him everywhere? “We’re used to having him around,” says Yoshinori Kikuchi, chef-patron of Mihachi, a gastropub located in the city centre. He hands one of his customers a box of sweets wrapped in paper featuring Kumamon. “People outside of Kumamoto love it when I give them Kumamon gifts. I bought my niece a Kumamon backpack. Kumamon is just part of our daily lives.”
Kumamoto prefecture, in southwestern Japan, is a sparsely populated region of 1.7 million residents. Historically it was the economic and political heartland of Kyushu, one of the archipelago’s four main islands. Today it’s one of the country’s top agricultural regions. The prefecture is covered in forests – a fifth of which are protected – and has one of the world’s largest volcanic calderas, Mount Aso. In the capital, Kumamoto city (population 739,000), residents drink spring water from the tap. The region has been rebuilding after two earthquakes in 2016.
With businesses keen to cosy up to Japan’s favourite ‘yuru-kyara’, his friendly face pops up all over. Here’s our pick of the products sprinkled with a little Kumamagic.