Despite the bears name being derived from his hometown of Kumamoto, Kumamon is no small-time mascot unknown out of his city of origin. Kumamon products can be seen all over Japan; from humble beginnings, this big, black bear has risen to fame with a popularity that continues to grow. So who is Kumamon, and why is he so popular?
くまモン (Kumamon) was created by the Kumamoto Prefecture government in 2010. Initially, Kumamon was designed to help boost trade for the Kyushu Shinkansen (bullet train) as a representative of Kumamoto Prefecture, for which he is the lone mascot. At a first glance, the bear is a sort of bumbling oaf. He is dumpy around the middle with a sizeable rear, and with that dopey, glazed expression on his face, he is reminiscent of a grizzly, bear version of ‘Of Mice and Men’s mentally challenged Lennie. Do a Google image search for Kumamon and you’ll be bombarded with a montage of cheeky poses and unusual pass-times with pictures of Kumamon picking fruit, riding horseback, attending business meetings and frolicking around town. He’s funny, he’s unusual, and he’s both cute and unnerving in equal measures.
These days you can buy Kumamon everything. Kumamon endorses pretty much anything you can think of: stationary, toys, clothings, snacks, alcohol, bed linen… the list goes on. During the first half of 2012, Kumamon merchandising revenue earned Kumamoto ¥11.8 billion.
One of the reasons why Kumamon products are so widespread and diverse is that the Kumamoto Prefecture does not charge copyrights for using the mascot – as long as the approving body gives the product the thumbs-up, any company can use Kumamon to endorse anything at all, as long as it has some link, however tenuous, to Kumamoto.
This has led to a high level of brand recognition – one internet poll indicated that almost 90% of Japanese people questioned could recognise who Kumamon was. Hundreds of applications to use Kumamon for merchandising are processed every month, and Kumamon-suit clad actors are present at about 2,000 events every year. The number of products that he currently endorses varies from source to source, from 8,000 products to almost 20,000 products.
However, it’s not all happy-go-lucky in Kumamon land. Earlier this year, Kumamon came under criticism for being ‘too fat’. However, as one of the most popular Yuruchara (ゆるキャラ – mascots) in Japan, I don’t think that being a few pounds overweight will diminish the Kumamon craze. This cuddly bear is here to stay. Next time you’re in Kumamoto, try and count how many times you see Kumamon in one day… you’ll run out of fingers pretty fast!