The series of earthquakes and aftershocks that hit Kumamoto Prefecture in southwestern Japan since last Thursday has killed at least 47 people and forced tens of thousands of people to leave their homes.
The economic loss is estimated at over 2 trillion Japanese yen (US$18.3 billion).
Amid the tragedy, the people of Kumamoto Prefecture look up to Kumamon for hope.
But the beloved bear has been missing since the devastating earthquakes struck, raising concerns about his safety.
Kumamon is the official mascot of Kumamoto Prefecture. He is a round-faced bear about 1.5 meters tall that is tasked with promoting tourism and local products.
Kumamon was voted as the most popular mascot in a nationwide character competition in 2011.
The mascot was created in 2010 by Kundo Koyama, in a bid to draw tourists to the region after the Kyushu Shinkansen line opened.
He has beaten Mickey Mouse, Hello Kitty and other mascots as the nation’s most favorite mascot.
The bear has become a symbol of Japan on top of sakura, Mount Fuji and sushi.
In fact, it’s estimated that Kumamon has so far generated up to 123.2 billion yen of revenue for Kumamoto Prefecture in the first two years after the bear’s creation.
What makes Kumamon so popular among thousands of mascots around the world?
First, apart from his cute appearance, Kumamon’s personality and characteristics suit the taste of the young generation.
Nowadays, people do not like heroes that much anymore, or something as naive as Hello Kitty.
Instead, they prefer one that is less perfect or has a flawed personality.
Kumamon is lazy and clumsy, and has not done anything to lose weight.
But those imperfect features make people identify with the bear. The phenomenon is much like the success of Teddy Bear of the United States, who has similar looks.
Second, Kumamon has actively used social media to interact with fans and followers. For example, the bear chatted with netizens in Cantonese on his Hong Kong Facebook account.
He has also set up different accounts on Twitter, Instagram, Weibo and Line.
It’s been reported that the local government has formed a team of about a dozen people to manage his schedule and activities, as well as take care of his social media accounts across the world.
Kumamon’s busy schedule costs the prefecture about several dozen billion yen every year.
Third, the Kumamoto Prefecture has adopted an open approach in promoting the commercial use of the mascot.
It doesn’t charge companies for using Kumamon’s image. If a company wants to use Kumamon, it simply fills out an application and gets permission to use it.
The Kumamon team has processed 3,600 applications in 2011 and 5,400 in 2012, and new requests average 10,000 per year. That has boosted the bear’s popularity.
Also, the local government has done many “crossovers” with different companies and organizations.
The mascot has helped sell many Japanese products. Honda Motors, Japan Railway and Tobu Department Store have launched products carrying the Kumamon image.
Last but not least, whether a mascot can become popular also depends on luck. The same formula may not work in any place.
Hope they find Kumamon soon, so he could help Kumamoto residents get over the tragedy.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 20.
Translation by Julie Zhu
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