Kumamon: An Official Mascot for a Local Government Becomes Popular Across Japan

Kumamon is the official mascot for the Kumamoto Prefecture in Japan. Kumamon’s role is to promote the Kumamoto Prefecture. Kumamon comes from the word Kumamotomon 熊本者.  Kumamoto is written as 熊本 in Kanji, and the first letter 熊 (kuma) means bear, while  者 (mono) means a person. While the Kumamoto Prefecture is not known for having lots of bears, Kumamon is named after the character 熊. Kumamon became the mascot on March 12, 2011, when the Kyushu Bullet Train that connects Nagasaki and Kagoshima began operating. Kumamon was designed by an art director named Manabu Mizuno. Soon after its creation, Kumamon became popular not only in Kumamoto, but also across the whole country.

Kumamon was awarded the Loose Character Grand Prix in 2011. The Loose Character Award is for characters that are relaxing and fluffy looking, and give gentle and warm impressions to people.

Kumamon is considered a civil servant of Kumamoto Prefecture, and he travels across Kumamoto and Japan to deliver joy, happiness and laughter to people. Kumamon’s PR activity is not limited to Japan, as he often visits overseas. On November 11 2013, Kumamon visited Harvard University with Ikuo Kabashima, the Governor of Kumamoto Prefecture who holds a PhD from Harvard. This visit was possible because of cooperation from Professor Susan Pharr at the Department of Government at Harvard. Even though Professor Pharr is a friend of Kabashima, Harvard’s strict rules about lectures still applied to him. The administrative office at Harvard gave Kabashima permission to deliver a lecture on political economy, but it asked that Kabashima not allow Kumamon to participate in the lecture. The office claimed that the Harvard campus is a sacred place for academics, and only humans are allowed to give lectures. But Kabashima persisted until the administration compromised and allowed Kumamon to appear for the two minutes preceding the lecture. Kabashima also wanted Kumamon to appear in the classroom after he talked about Kumamon’s achievements, and Kabashima asked Professor Pharr to help him persuade the administration to allow it. As a result, the administration finally allowed Kumamon to appear during the question and answer portion, after the lecture. The lecture was very popular, and the lecture had to be moved from its original location with capacity for about 70 people, to one with a higher capacity. All in all, about 130 people came to the lecture.  After the governor gave a lecture about Kumamon’s effect on politics and the economy,  Kumamon danced in the classroom and did “Kumamon Aerobics.” The audience liked it so much that many of them took pictures of Kumaon and clapped their hands along with Kumamon.

On November 12, Kumamon and the Boston Red Sox’s mascot played catch with each other at Fenway Park Stadium.

Kumamon is also participates in charity, and he did the ice bucket challenge in August of 2014. After doing the challenge, he then challenged a  famous Kabuki actor, Ebizo Ichikawa. Ichikawa accepted the challenge, saying that he did so because his children are fans of Kumamon.

On October 11 and 12, 2014 Kumamon also went to Taiwan to attend a Japanese goods exhibition.

Normally, when a company creates a product using a mascot or certain character, the company has to pay certain percent of the profit. But the Kumamoto prefecture who has the licence of Kumamon allows companies to use Kumamon for their products for free, as long as it is good advertisement for the Kumamoto Prefecture. The governor of Kumamoto Prefecture says this is win win situation, where a company can use Kumamon for their products for free while the Kumamoto Prefecture is advertised by these products for free in return. Kabashima mentions that Kumamon is a brand ( label ) open for everyone. Even Daiso sells collaborated items with Kumamon.  Also, the Kumamoto Prefecture does not ask for sharing profits made through Kumamon collaborated items, some companies voluntarily donated some of the profit to the Kumamoto Prefecture as a token of gratitude. Because of this system, Kumamon has collaborated with many companies, and usually these collaboration goods have high sales. For example, in 2013, German teddy bear maker Steiff manufactured and sold a Kumamon teddy bear in answer to the passionate request of Governor Kabashima. Only 1,500 Kumamon teddy bears were manufactured, and they soon sold out after Kagoshima Prefecture began accepting orders online in May 12, 2013 (the price for each teddy bear was 29,400 yen).

 Also, in July of 2014, Steiff started selling a limited number of 3,500 key rings with a Kumamon teddy bear attached to them for 18,900 yen each.  While not only creating economic benefit, Kumamon often plays a role as a bridge of peace. At the reception ( party ) at the Japanese embassy in China  in April, 2013, which was held soon after the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands conflict had escalated, the Chinese press appeared at the embassy and was soon attracted to Kumamon’s adorable gestures and looks and the Kumamon appearance actually lessened the tension at the reception.  As you can see Kumamon is a rare case of an official mascot becoming popular at not only in one country, but internationally.

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