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Kumamon mascot © othree/Flickr
Kumamon mascot © othree/Flickr

How Kumamon Became A National Sensation In Japan

Kumamoto Prefecture’s bold marketing plan garnered praise from strategists. There’s no denying the no-fee licensing helped move things along, but the success of the red-cheeked black bear known as Kumamon is not as simple as that. Learn the story behind one of Japan‘s most successful yuru-kyara.

Yuru-Kyara and Gotochi-Kyara

Yuru-kyara comes from yurui masukotto kyarakutaa or yurui mascot character. Yurui normally means loose, but here it means gentle or light-hearted. Yuru-kyara are entities unique to Japan. These mascot-like creations represent everything from local police and businesses to prisons and hospitals. Yuru-kyara are intended to help promote the organization’s agenda or attract customers. A sub-type of yuru-kyara are gotochi-kyara, or local characters, which specifically represent places (like cities, towns, and prefectures). Kumamon is an example of one of these gotochi-kyara. But unlike most, Kumamon’s fame has soared to extraordinary heights.

Kumamoto makes thousands of live appearances each year | © Nullumayulife/Flickr
Kumamoto makes thousands of live appearances each year | © Nullumayulife/Flickr

Kumamon’s Hometown

Created by Kumamoto Prefecture in 2010 to attract tourists to the region, Kumamon has since become a global phenomenon. Kumamoto is a region on Japan’s island of Kyushu. The area is famous for natural parks and farmland. The kuma in Kumamoto is the same character used to mean bear. In this way, the prefecture was already very lucky in terms of yuru-kyara – the name had a cute mascot built right in. But when the government funded the creation of Kumamon in 2010, they had no way of knowing what kind of impact he would have on the world.

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Kumamon’s Marketing and Success

Kumamon’s fame and fortune can in large part be attributed to the marketing scheme arranged by his copyright holders, the government of Kumamoto Prefecture. Normally, a company must pay the character’s creators in order to obtain a license to use his image. In the case of Kumamon, no licensing fees are required – the catch is Kumamoto Prefecture has to approve your product for use of the bear’s image. This means the product will only get approval if it is involved with the prefecture in some way. This makes sense, since Kumamon’s whole existence is based on the idea of promoting the region, promoting tourism and its local products.

There are some downsides, however. The only way Kumamoto Prefecture can profit from Kumamon is indirectly via tourism promotion, since it doesn’t ask for payment to use the character. There are also quality issues. Customers reasonably expect that the product packaging should reflect what’s inside, and with Kumamon that isn’t always the case.

Kumamon’s Appeal

Kumamon’s success can’t all be attributed to his marketing scheme. So what is it about the red-cheeked black bear fans can’t get enough of? Kumamon has all the characteristics of a good yuru-kyara. Firstly, his connection with his hometown is obvious, although Kumamon’s name is written in hiragana and not the same kanji as Kumamoto. Secondly, he’s approachable. His simple facial characteristics are easy to manipulate into a wide variety of cute and friendly expressions. But Kumamoto’s undeniable appeal is also unable to be fully explained. His cute and clumsy exterior combined with his message of gotochi love are the epitome of kawaii.