We’re all used to mascots representing sports teams and companies in the United States, but what about a destination? I was introduced last week to Kumamon, a smiling, rosy-cheeked black bear who is the official mascot of the Kumamoto prefecture of Kyushu, Japan — the country’s third-largest island. Kumamon kindly made the trek to the States to be a part of an “Experience Kyushu” event hosted by the Consulate General of Japan in New York and the Japan National Tourism Organization. More than 100 media representatives and guests came together at the Japanese Ambassador’s Residence, where we learned all about the area and sampled food inspired by the local fare, including shochu, Kyushu’s traditional distilled spirit.
Kumamon, who was “born” in March 2010 to promote Kumamoto culture, food, and natural attractions, is no ordinary bear. He’s immensely popular, with more than 300,000 followers on Twitter and 147,000 fans on Facebook. Ikuo Kabashima, the governor of Kumamoto Prefecture — whose stated goal is to increase the “Gross National Happiness” of the people of Kumamoto — introduced Kumamon to the group.
The mascot has become successful thanks in part to an innovative marketing scheme — allowing companies to use his image for free by simply filling out an application that is approved by a management team in Kumamoto, as long as anything to do with the product is related to Kumamoto. So while the local government doesn’t see a direct financial gain, the benefit of recognition is priceless — the Kumamon team receives more than 800 licensing requests per month, and has processed more than 10,000 over Kumamon’s lifetime. Nearly 85 percent of Japanese people surveyed in an online poll said they recognize Kumamon.
Kumamon also knows a little something about events. Life-sized mascots like the one we saw at Experience Kyushu appear at more than 2,000 events a year all over the globe. His biggest appearance to date may have been in July in front of approximately 230,000 people at the Japan Expo — a celebration of Japanese popular culture — in Paris.