If I saw somebody walking around in a fur suit here in the US, I’d assume that either they’re a college football mascot or a furry. In Japan though, mascots are much more than glorified cheerleaders or sexual deviants.
While people in fur suits are rarely seen outside of Disneyland or college stadiums in the US, mascots in Japan are pretty much everywhere. They’re instrumental in promoting tourism or giving a cute face to an organization.
Virtually every town, city, municipal service, company, sports team, and rail line in Japan has its own mascot. There’s even a mascot school in Tokyo to teach aspiring mascots the skills of the trade.
With so many mascots, you might think that they all become indistinguishable from each other. But in recent years, one mascot has towered over all the rest: Kumamon.
Originally created in 2010 as a mascot for a bullet train line in the city of Kumamoto, Kumamon is a bear (kuma means “bear” in Japanese), who’s become a runaway phenomenon in Japan.
He appears at all sorts of public events, ranging from festivals to TV appearances to meet-and-greets to promote Kumamoto. But somewhere down the line, Kumamon became bigger than Kumamoto.
City mascots are usually meant to promote tourism to its city of origin, but Kumamon’s popularity has completely eclipsed the city he was meant to represent.
In 2011, Kumamon came in first place in an online poll for mascot of the year, beating out a giant bird, and a circle with legs. Stiff competition!
Kumamon’s immense popularity has meant that his face has been stuck on anything with a flat surface. The Japanese are fantastic at marketing themselves and, around Kumamoto especially, Kumamon is everywhere.
There are Kumamon stickers, Kumamon buttons; Kumamon candy, keychains, and bags. And if you love Kumamon enough, you can even get a gravestone with his cheery face on it.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Kumamon merchandise has sold over $30 million since his inception.
Kumamon’s immense popularity hasn’t gone unnoticed overseas, either. In the West, Kumamon’s become a minor internet meme:
Like all Japanese fads, Kumamon’s popularity will eventually come to an end. Manufacturers will run out of products to slap Kumamon’s likeness onto, and the big black bear will join Sugi-chan and other figures of Japanese pop culture irrelevance.
But until that time comes, I’m sure that Kumamon’s popularity will be milked for all it’s worth. And hey, maybe after his career in Japan, he can moonlight as a football mascot in America.