The Billion-yen bear
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.'