I can’t quite recall the first time I came across these beings, but I remember seeing flashes of these “Mickey Mouse failures” on TV when I first came to Japan, their unbalanced figures waddling about, their bodies so large that they can just about wiggle their hand to and fro in a pathetic wave, attempting to promote their prefecture.
Because that’s what they are. “Prefectural Mascots”, which are characters that are created in an attempt to increase tourist crowds in their homelands.
My first impressions of them were not exactly impressive. First, it made me smile that everything in Japan has to be “kawaii” (meaning “cute”); they have characters for everything, from health insurance companies to your local petrol station. Secondly, they appeared to me as cheap, lamer versions of our well-known folk at the land of Mr. Walt D, as mentioned above. Most of them weren’t particularly that cute anyway for Japanese standards, and though kids would squeal with joy and mums would snap away at them on their cameras, they simply stood there doing…sod all, really.
Still, some of these “yuru-charas” become stars, even phenomenons in Japan.
May I introduce to you, “Kumamon”, a big black bear who is the prefectural mascot for Kumamoto. “Kuma” meaning “bear”, hence the character design, though I’m not sure on the actual population of bears there.
Kumamon became especially well known, and also to myself, when he appeared on the National News about 2 years ago due to the fact that he had apparently won first place for the ‘Yuru-chara Grand Prix 2011’ i.e. The Best Prefectural Mascot contest. (Yes, there is such a contest.) Since then, his popularity has soared, and I’ve seen keyrings, towels, cuddly toys etc dotted around shops all over Japan. I noted he was doing well in promoting his prefecture.
Personally, though I thought he was cute compared to the majority of Yuru-charas, I didn’t see what was so special, until I came across video clips of this creature on Youtube.
I immediately understood the liking of him – he was not like his hopeless, waddling peers, he was dancing, leaping, acting surprised, moving around and had, of all anything, character and humour. He was not a person in a costume. He was Kumamon.
To his adoring fans’s delight, he began his own blog, Facebook page and Twitter account that I myself am addicted to. Because yes, he updates it daily (though his staff updates his Blog, as they introduce themselves at the beginning and inform us of his eventful day). The pictures and tweets in his social media accounts are adorable and hilarious, from pictures of him posing in a tomato field to throwing snowballs with kids.
So when I heard that Kumamon, who was touring Japan, was coming to a small town near where I live I jumped on the idea – I had to meet him.
On the day, I was highly excited. It was odd – he had become a star in my mind, not real, only existing in TV, Youtube and online, therefore meeting him face to face suddenly had my nerves flowing. I was actually half shaking when I got up on stage to see him.
After the photos, the hugs, the squeals of excitement and getting slightly harassed by him (he grabbed me in a hug and wrapped one of his legs round me), I stumbled off stage in a daze, only to be approached by a huge camera.
And this was the result (watch from around 3:10).
I don’t know whether I should feel proud or ashamed that they interviewed me.
I, like all the other hundreds of Japanese fans, am continually fed by this clever marketing scheme as I hope to make plans on visiting Kumamoto one day where one can enjoy a special Kumamon taxi ride.
But the end result is, there is nothing and no one quite like him. In Japan, everyone is proud of their hometown and roots, and each prefecture works hard in promoting tourism. Thus, Kumamon is of a large importance; he has become a strong ambassador for his home prefecture, and perhaps even for Japan, too.
Written by NARISE