By now you probably know the basics about Kumamon. He’s a mascot created by the Kumamoto Prefectural government. He is a bear, since the “Kuma” in Kumamoto means “bear” in the Japanese language. You are also probably quite aware that is very popular not just in Kumamoto but all over Japan and his image can be found in locations nationwide.
He was first created in 2010 for a campaign called “Kumamoto Surprise”. As the Kyushu Shinkansen was set open to in 2011 and link Kumamoto with the main shinkansen line (and thus make it possible for tourists to visit Kumamoto via shinkansen only), the prefecture wanted to increase tourism. Thus, Kumamon became the face of that campaign, which was the start of his national exposure.
Mascots can be found all over Japan promoting not just cities and prefectures, but famous tourist spots, foods, or even business and organizations. Thus, Kumamon was in danger of being lost in the overall mascot population. However, riding off the PR from Kumamoto Surprise, he was able to win the 2011 Yuru-kyara Grand Prix, a nationwide contest for the most popular mascot in Japan. This victory propelled Kumamon to mainstream and gave him the boost to spread all over Japan. Before the victory, it was estimated that Kumamoto earned 2.5 billion yen ($26 million US) in merchandising sales. After the victory, in the first half of 2012, Kumamoto earned 11.8 billion yen ($120 million US).
However, unlike many trends in Japan, Kumamon has shown some lasting power. In addition to visits all over Japan, he has taken trips abroad to help promote Kumamoto. Products with his image can now be found in other countries. One reason for his quick spread is that the prefecture allows Kumamon’s image to be used for free, as long as the item it used for is from Kumamoto or for a Kumamoto business or location. Companies get to use the Kumamon image to increase consumer interest and Kumamoto gets free PR by having Kumamon show up on their products.
Love him or not, Kumamon is probably here to stay. A nationwide survey conducted in June 2014 by the Nippon Research Center showed that Kumamon was the best known character out of a roster of 27 major mascots, with 88% of respondents saying they knew who Kumamon was.
Kumamon in the News
Kumamon leads Japan’s mascot craze, but don’t mention Pluto-kun – The Guardian (May 12, 2013)
Harvard Degree: The Political Economy of Kumamon – Wall Street Journal (November 14, 2013)
Cuddly bear Kumamon becomes a marketing superstar in Japan – South China Morning Post (February 24, 2014)
Mascot Kumamon turns cute into bear market – Japan Times (March 12, 2014)
Two characters stand out from the crowd in Japan’s ‘yurukyara’ mascot fad – Japan Times (August 4, 2014)
Evolution of Kumamon
Did you know Kumamon has had a few image changes over the years? Take a look.
You can see the second version of Kumamon in action here during a visit by Governor Kabashima and Suzanna to the Nanba Grand Kagetsu in Osaka in 2012.
While you can follow Kumamon’s event calendar (available here) to try and catch a glimpse of him, you can also catch him for sure right in the heart of Kumamoto City, at Kumamon Square on the ground floor of the eastern building of the Tsuruya Department Store (the same building that has Tokyu Hands). He does two shows on the weekends with irregular appearances on weekdays.
Become a MONbassador!
The PR Division of the Kumamoto Prefectural Government is looking for people to help Kumamon promote Kumamoto. They’ve begun a new program to recruit MONbassadors. A MONbassador acts like a bridge between Kumamoto and Asia by providing information about Kumamoto’s attractions on Facebook, blogs, homepages, and other social media.
You do not have to reside in Kumamoto or Japan to become a MONbassador, so all current and former Kumamoto JETs quality. This is not a paid position, but you will get a certificate of appointment and a special pin badge (Ohhhh!), and you will be invited to a free party and tour of Kumamoto exclusively for MONbassadors (Ahhhhh!).
Kumamon’s Kumamoto Diary
In other Kumamon-related news, Kumamon has a new, English facebook page. You can follow him on his adventures in Kumamoto and the rest of the world.