Posts by Jade Boyle


The Billion-yen bear

Jade Boyle

Society and culture | East Asia


When the earthquake in April 2016 hit Kumamoto City, the internet lit up with a very peculiar question: “Is Kumamon okay?”

At 1.5 metres tall, the cuddly black bear from Kyushu with rosy cheeks is arguably Japan’s most famous mascot. After the bear’s 2011 win at the Yuru-Kyara Grand Prix that saw him voted in as number one mascot in Japan, his popularity sky rocketed. Kumamon is now more than just a tourism ploy for Kumamoto Prefecture. His popularity has changed his position as a spokesperson for local Kumamoto goods .

Before the earthquake in 2016, Kumamon had reportedly generated 124.4 billion yen (148.27 billion AUD) in revenue for Kumamoto, with around 400 applications submitted a month for permission to use his likeness. As of 2016 Kumamon had his face plastered on anywhere between 8,000 to 20,000 products, taking a regular object into a must-have character product.

It was in the immediate aftermath of the terrible earthquake that Kumamon’s position had changed. He was seen as a potential 'conductor' of information for the outside world on Kumamoto. During the initial period of the quake, many people had expected the bear’s Twitter feed to update outsiders on what Kumamoto was experiencing. But, Kumamon was absent from Twitter, leaving followers to wonder and worry about the effects of the quake. The results of the earthquake saw 50 people dead, over 3,000 injured, around 44,000 people evacuated, and multiple homes destroyed. It was a massive shock for residents.

[caption id="attachment_6176" align="aligncenter" width="284"] Kumamon's image can be found throughout Kumamoto prefecture. Flickr: jpellgen [/caption]

This may come as a shock to some people, but Kumamon’s silence turned out to be a great source of debate on whether or not Kumamon’s Twitter feed could have been utilized to share information. A person who dresses like Kumamon needs to follow a very specific dress code to maintain the character's integrity. This actually requires a person to physically wear the bear-suit and then tweet on Kumamon’s behalf. Those experiencing the earthquake at the time would've had greater concerns beyond needing to play the role of a mascot updating his Twitter feed.

Yet as of May 2017 Kumamon has over 623,000 followers on Twitter and many maintain the view that the events of the 2016 earthquake should have been reported through Kumamon's social platform.

In the absense of this, the city had started a trending #Kumamon hashtag that let the people of Kumamoto affected by the earthquake share their stories with the rest of the world. This resulted in over 9,000 tweets, with some even being responded to with a visit from Kumamon. A recent documentary shows how Kumamon brought the public's attention to volunteers, local heroes, and survivors of all ages who had worked to help their communities in previous earthquake events.

[caption id="attachment_6189" align="aligncenter" width="448"] Even Matt Damon knows Kumamon. Flickr: Dick Thomas Johnson[/caption]

From an outsiders’ perspective, this may all seem very strange. A bear mascot can’t be that important. But Kumamon has been influential for Kumamoto in a social sense, and as a reliable source of income for the prefecture. In fact, there are mascots all throughout Japan that hope to emulate Kumamon’s success. Mascots can be found representing governments, cities, towns, organisations and events. Mascots are often closely tied to current affairs in Japan. Their appearances engage audiences within areas they are associated with and seek to bring in tourism to what could otherwise be an unknown area. Their likeness is often exploited in the making of souvenirs. Japan has a strong gift-giving culture, so when it comes to souvenir shopping, a mascot’s face can help sell local products to visiting tourists looking for gifts to give to their families.


[caption id="attachment_6181" align="aligncenter" width="469"] Kumamon souvenirs. Flickr: jpellgen[/caption]

Kumamon's creator Hiromi Kano, who is a mascot designer, has strong opinions about her creations. Seeing her characters as more than just costumes, she says that the appeal of mascots in Japan is in how people can engage with them. Public displays of affection are often kept to a minimum by unspoken cultural norms. Kano believes Japan to be conservative, and thus the appeal of these fictional characters comes from their ability to provide a space or reason for people to be publicly affectionate without reprimand. She has continued to make popular mascots since Kumamon’s debut.

The way mascots in Japan are being engaged with can slowly evolve what their intended duty as a public symbol should be. Kumamon, whether you love him or hate him, is not likely to lose his appeal in any near future. Given the amount of social and economic aid he provides, there is indeed more to what is first meant in his crowned title as 'billion-yen bear.'

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How far I’ll go: Moana and Wayfinding

Jade Boyle

Society and culture | Pacific


Could Moana engage younger generations of Islanders and non-Islanders to the art of Wayfinding? The 2016 film starring Pacific Islanders Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is about a young Islander girl, Moana, who hopes to save her dying island; by stealing a canoe, sailing across the ocean and returning the heart of Te Fiti. To do this, Moana learns how to wayfind; a skill that continues to be taught in the Pacific.

Wayfinding is the art of sailing a boat using only your senses and worldly knowledge. Moana specifically uses star navigation in the film, using her hands she measures the angles between the star and the horizon to determine her latitude. Voyagers had also memorised star maps; learning where the stars rose and set, and identifying as many as 220 stars. Outside of the film, wayfinders also used other techniques to find their way. Birds can indicate nearby islands, as seen when they fly from one island to gather food, and return home to feed their young. Some very skilled wayfinders can lie in the hull of a canoe and feel the wave patterns, which indicates the direction the canoe is sailing in. Using these skills, wayfinders had travelled over a third of the earth’s surface, using the wind, the waves, and the stars as their maps and compass to find islands from Hawai’i to New Zealand.

[caption id="attachment_5728" align="alignnone" width="1763"] A Double Hulled Vaka moored off the coast of Rarotonga. One example of an ocean-going vessel utilised by wayfinders in their exploration of the Pacific[/caption]

So, where does Moana fit in all of this? The film also features a different kind of star power, as a variety of successful Pacific Islanders, from musicians such as South Pacific Fusion band Te Vaka to actors Jemaine Clement and Rachel House. Combined with Disney greats John Lasseter (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life), Ron Clements and John Musker (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid) and the popular Lin Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame, the film was given serious street credit; and has been the subject of great debate in the Pacific.

While the film has most definitely caught the attention of Pacific Islanders and non-Islanders alike, raking in over $635 million worldwide, problems over representations of Maui and the Pacific have arisen. In the Pacific, the demi-god Maui is a defender of the oppressed; his stories of stealing fire, fishing islands out of the ocean and beating monsters, as referred to in the Moana song “Your Welcome” are stories of freeing the oppressed. It is uncharacteristic of Maui to brag about these achievements. Furthermore, the key source of Maui’s mana that made these achievements possible, is missing in the film; the Goddess Hina. She is Maui’s counterpart, and none of the Disney female characters could take her place, as they lacked her sheer power. It is debated that because of Hina’s absence, Maui’s character traits had to be changed to reflect this, presenting him as comedic sidekick instead of the hero he is.

[related_article align="left" show_image="yes" index=1 text="From Moana to Vaiana"]

The film has also been accused of depicting the Pacific as an exotic escape, continuing the tropes of the Islands brought on by colonialism. As the film depicts Tahitian drumming, Samoan outfits, tattoos, and Fijian music all on Moana’s home island, the film has also been accused of misrepresenting the diversity of cultures within the Pacific, and of profiting off Islander culture. Moreover, for people, and particularly children, who don’t know much about the Pacific, Moana could be the first time they are exposed to Islander cultures. Therefore, misunderstandings could occur about who Maui is, and the diversity of Pacific Islander cultures; despite the “Oceanic Story Trust” that Disney created to consult with experts of the Pacific, to make Moana as culturally authentic as possible.

But, could Moana’s success be an indicator that younger people are interested in learning more about wayfinding and the Pacific? The National Education Association (NEA) has suggested using Moana as a source for students from Kindergarten to Year 12 to learn about the Pacific. The Teaching with Primary Sources Western Region (TPS) has also created an educators guide to using Moana as a source to explore other subjects like science, language, and mathematics.

Beyond the silver screen, there are groups that are boosting awareness about the different techniques and types of wayfinding, such as the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) in Hawai’i. PVS had initiated a return expedition from Hawai’i to Tahiti in a 20-metre canoe known as the Hōkūleʻa in 1976. This expedition proved that wayfinding was not only a skill, but Islanders were travelling to new islands with a purpose, not finding them by accident. Furthermore, various other non-profit organisations in the Pacific are also promoting and protecting different types of Pacific Islander voyaging in their own countries like Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands and New Zealand.

While it’s still too early to tell what kind of course Moana has charted, one can only hope it is a positive way forward.

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