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Kumamon”—Japan's Most Popular Bear


Kumamon enjoying the gift of a cake at his birthday festival © Kyodo News Service

A mascot character named Kumamon represents Kumamoto prefecture in the Kyushu region, southwestern part of Japan. He is now "Japan's most popular bear." He attracts a diverse range of people, from children to adults who are charmed by his plump, black body, red cheeks, and wide-open eyes as if looking surprised, saying how adorable he is. Among lots of municipal PR mascot characters from all around Japan, he won the first place in a nationwide popularity vote in 2011. Ever since, Kumamon has appeared in numerous places, including events and product campaigns, rising to the seat of Japan's representative mascot character that transcends prefectural boundaries.

Bear Character from a Prefecture with no real Bears

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Left: Kyushu Shinkansen, running through Kumamon's hometown Kumamoto, and Kumamoto Castle © Kyodo News Service

Right: Kumamon, Sales Manager of Kumamoto prefecture, taking the comedy stage together with Kumamoto Prefecture Governor (second from left) © Kyodo News Service

Kumamon was first introduced on March 12, 2010. Kumamoto prefecture boasts abundant nature, seafood and agricultural products, such as one of the world's few caldera volcanoes, "Asosan". Kumamon debuted as a campaign character to promote this allure of Kumamoto to other prefectures, one year before the opening of the entire line of Kyushu Shinkansen, which bridges the provincial cities of Kyushu with Japan's second biggest city, Osaka.

To begin with, wild bears do not exist in Kumamoto prefecture. Kumamon was conceived from the link between the Kanji characters used in the prefecture name, "Kuma," which means a bear in Japanese. Incidentally, the "Mon" in the latter half of the name signifies "Mono (Person)" in the local dialect.

In order to market this new character that was barely known by even the residents of Kumamoto prefecture, the Kumamoto government first carried out a strategy to spark conversations that were unrelated to the prefecture. By making Kumamon appear in Osaka city without prior notice—in places where many people gather like downtown areas and tourist attractions—people were led to wonder, "What is this bear character?" In addition, by using social networking services (SNS), it was devised so that the topic of Kumamon would spread among his witnesses. After Kumamon gained wide recognition, the Kumamoto Governor held a serious press conference based on a contrived story that Kumamon disappeared from Osaka for nearly one month, and he called on people "to search for Kumamon".

This strategy paid off with Kumamon being featured in major media outlets such as newspapers and TV, making the once unknown character into a character recognized nationwide through the Internet. Then, one and a half year after his unveiling , at the "Yuru-Chara Grand Prix," an online popularity vote joined by 349 local mascot characters from Japan and overseas, Kumamon was crowned as the champion garnering 277,000 votes.

Merchandise Sales Amounting to 29.3 Billion Yen

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Above left: The annual sales of Kumamon-related merchandise was 29.3 billion yen
Below left: Yonkoma manga (4-cell manga) with Kumamon as the protagonist published on a newspaper
Right: The limited edition Teddy bear that was sold out in an instant
© Kyodo News Service

Kumamon carries out its activities as a civil servant of Kumamoto prefecture with the job title of “Sales Manager,” playing an active role in various areas such as by appearing in tourist campaigns run by the prefecture and going on a comedy stage together with the governor.

Kumamon’s popularity has not faded even after winning the Grand Prix. Now, we see merchandise related to Kumamon everywhere we go in Japan, including department stores, convenience stores and souvenir shops. Up to now, there has been over 10,000 items that have been approved as character merchandise with an illustration of Kumamon, like stationery products, shirts and bags, and especially sweets. Driven by the fact that there is no fee for using his trademark, it is said that the number of applications to the prefecture reaches up to 400 per month. In May, when a company in Germany released 1500 Kumamon Teddy bears on the Internet, they were sold out in just 5 seconds. The sales figure of Kumamon-related merchandise has reached 29.36 billion yen in the year of 2012.

Furthermore, starting from April 2013, a local newspaper started a Yonkoma Manga (4-cell manga) series with Kumamon as the protagonist. Also, nearly several dozen proposals to publish books relating to Kumamon have also been received.

Character that Rivals Mickey Mouse


Kumamon dancing at an event with dancers in the back © Kyodo News Service

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One of the reasons Kumamon has become popular among many people is its outstanding athleticism. Generally, mascot characters wearing heavy costumes engage only in non-strenuous activities like shaking hands, waving one’s hand or taking pictures with children at an event, but Kumamon is different.

Particularly, in dancing, Kumamon's authenticity lies in having received lessons from a professional teacher. "Kumamon Taisou (KumamonExercise)," in which he dances to the rhythm of the theme song, "Kumamoto Surprise," has a record of being viewed over 1.3 million times on an online video streaming website. By dancing together with 140 other mascot characters from different localities, the dance was certified in the Guinness Book of Records as the "world's largest mascot character dance" and became a hot topic.


Kumamon carrying out promotional activities at the MINI Plant Oxford in the UK. On the right is Paddington Bear © 2010 kumamoto pref. kumamon

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Kumamon, reigning at the top of Japan's local mascot characters as a rare presence promoting the Kumamoto brand, is said to have his eyes set on overseas as his next stage of activities. In addition to having previously visited China and Korea, he has debuted in Europe by appearing at the "Japan Expo," one of the world's largest Japanese pop culture conventions, held in Paris in July 2013.

Some people in his local Kumamoto prefecture voice their expectations for Kumamon to "develop into a world-class character that rivals Mickey Mouse."

(August 2013)

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