Kumamon, the Japanese Bear Character of the Kumamoto Prefecture
Yuru Kyara Might Revive Localities for Smart City and Social Innovation
Kumamon from Kumamoto Prefecture might be a benchmark for how to bring the genki back to regional areas battling the power drain that comes with ultra-ageing and decreasing populations.I visited the Kumamoto Prefecture Tokyo Representative Office in Nagatacho the other day and “upbeat” is the best way to describe the air in that office.
Red-cheeked and “Metabo” pudgy, utterly “Kawaii” Kumamon jumps out from the entrance display window and faces just as bright and smiling look up at us from busied desks and active computer screens as we enter the office proper.
Here is the Kumamoto Exercise which is Kumamon’s favorite past time.
My Nikkei BP colleague and I were there to discuss Social Innovation/Smart City Week with the Kumamoto Prefecture heads and what we did not expect was that Kumamon and other Yurukyara mascots for localities across Japan emerged as one answer to the search for innovative solutions on how to revitalize, bolster local pride and attract new residents for otherwise lagging economies outside the mega-metropolis cities like Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya, Sendai, Hakodate and Fukuoka.
I remember back in the 70s when my hometown, Hawaii, began a campaign to build pride and attract visitors. Titled “I love you Hawaii” everybody had shirts and bumper stickers, buttons and key chains. Despite being a “haole” and usually treated as an outsider in the beautiful tropical paradise, even I swelled with pride for the Islands as though they were mine and my roots were firmly grounded in the rich history of the land. Now that I’m somewhat grown up, I realize this sense of pride and unity or feeling of being included and integral is a vital part of a robust society.
Just take a look at Kumamon.
Kumamon is a boy born on March 12. He is ageless since no-one can pin down his birth year ☺ He is very curious and sometimes can be a bit of a rascal. His favorite thing to do is the Kumamoto Taiso (exercise).
He dons the Kumamoto Castle and Bear image color black and his innocent, slightly silly expression sets him apart from the other, more official looking characters of other prefectures. In the Kumamoto dialect “mono” or “thing” is pronounced “Mon” so “Kuma-mon” would literally mean “I’m a Bear!”.
This is his official site
You can buy a whole bunch of Kuma-mon goods but the most popular one is called a Hakata Ningyo.
Here you can see our other favorites with Kumamon at a big event!
First of all, the prefecture unified behind the concept. With strong leadership, each and every prefectural official came on board and worked to distribute business cards in the shape of Kumamon. It took months of effort but thanks to on-the-ground contact with people, a little Kumamon card passed between individuals, clustered to become a boom of popularity around an easily recognizable and well-accepted symbol.
Once you have established your entry point with a welcoming, locatable signpost, people will come. Kumamoto Prefecture’s mascot Kumamon functions like the beautiful Cabin Attendant standing at the airplane entrance ready to point you to your seat, the perfectly couture hostess awaiting to show you to your table or the smartly dressed bell-boy ready to take your luggage.
Imagine prefectures or cities as a Ryokan or Japanese Inn and Kumamon and other characters serve as the Okami or the lady of the Inn who welcomes you, decides the ambience of your experience and makes sure you start off with a feeling of true Japanese-style Omotenashi.
The Smart City event in Yokohama focuses on technical, structural and systematic innovation in the Social and Smart realm but Kumamon and other Yurukyara mascots across Japan may point to an aspect of social innovation that strikes the chord of joy and fun for all. From the tiniest to most elderly citizen, finding a rallying point and identity in a cute, friendly, fluffy mascot like Kumamon cannot be a bad thing. Don't take the Yurukyaras lightly, they just might be a way to push us further down the road towards peaceful living and genuine community.
Kumamon Hina Ningyo credit to www.japanexpertern.se
Former Deep Japan Writer