Kumamon, the mischievous black bear mascot, is not only the face of Japan’s Kumamoto prefecture; he’s also the face of a movement. No other “creature” captures the craze surrounding Japan’s mascot boom as the rosy-cheeked bear.
His name is a combination of two words: “Kuma” is short for Kumamoto and “Mon” represents the local dialect that uses that word for the standard Japanese word for “things,” or “mono.” The bear was created in March 2010 to draw in tourists ahead of the 2011 opening of a new bullet train stop in the capital city of the southern Japanese prefecture. His popularity surged after he won the title of Japan’s most popular mascot in an online poll last year. He didn’t partake in this year’s poll.
Riding on the wave of his popularity, Kumamon’s image was everywhere. His smiling face was on the packaging for the region’s rice or local snacks. Hisao Wakasugi, manager of the Kumamon promotional team, said the prefecture received 400 applications a month to put the bear’s image on various Kumamoto products after his victory last year.
The strategy paid off. There are already three books about Kumamon on store shelves with another four on the way. Kumamon-related goods generated more than ¥2.5 billion in sales last year, but Mr. Wakasugi said he expects that figure to double this year.
The prefecture has worked hard to preserve the image that Kumamon is more than a person in a suit. He was given the title of “sales manager” for the prefecture’s agricultural products. When asked who plays the role of Kumamon, Mr. Wakasugi responded curtly: “Kumamon is Kumamon. There is only one Kumamon. Don’t ask any details.”
But for every success story like Kumamon, there are dozens of mascots that fail to resonate initially. Take, for example, Mak-kun. The pine-cone shaped fairy of the red pine forest in Minamiminowa, a village in central Japan, came in last in the 2011 poll. However, through active promotion on Mak-kun’s blog and frequent appearances at events, the mascot rallied to place 48th out of 865 entries in this year’s online poll.
And just who plays Mak-kun? It could be you, if you can stand the conditions.
Takashi Fujisawa, who oversees Mak-kun, said he loans out the pine-cone outfit to whoever needs it for promotional events. He explains that the suit can be difficult to wear — especially in the summer. The rules are that whoever wears the mascot outfit must wear a long-sleeve shirt and wrap a towel around their neck to prevent staining the suit with sweat.
“We don’t last more than 30 minutes during the summer time,” he said.
Read the WSJ’s Page One story on Japan’s mascots here: Isn’t That Cute? In Japan, Cuddly Characters Compete
source, kumamon on tumblr, kumamon on youtube