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Japanese mascot presents 'bear' minimum for marketing success

TOKYO--A clumsy bear mascot for a remote Japanese farming region has rocketed to superstar fame and notched up an unlikely marketing triumph in a nation obsessed with all things cute.

The life-sized Kumamon and his now nationally ubiquitous image — red cheeks and doughy physique — are found on everything from pastries and keychains to airplanes and purses.

Most local mascots linger in relative obscurity but Kumamon draws hundreds of camera-toting fans at public events. He makes national television appearances and his wobbly signature dance — once performed for the emperor and empress — has notched up more than two million views on YouTube.

Rivalling the success of Hello Kitty or Mickey Mouse in Japan, the black bear has rung up a commercial fortune for his rural birthplace, and become a closely-watched marketing case study.

The phenomenon has tickled officials from his home in Kumamoto, a prefecture in the far south which barely registers with many Japanese, let alone outsiders.

“Definitely Kumamoto's prominence has increased in the eyes of the public,” said Masataka Naruo, brand officer for the local government.

The rise of Kumamon — who has more than 300,000 followers on Twitter — is all the more striking given the ferocious competition among mascots, known in Japanese as “yuru-kyara” (laid back characters).

They are pressed into service to represent everything from cities to companies or even prisons, with the licensed character industry worth about US$30 billion a year, including copyright and merchandising. That is more than the Japanese, who love to read, spend on books.

In just two years, Kumamon has generated US$1.2 billion in economic benefits for his region, including tourism and product sales, as well as US$90 million worth of publicity, according to a recent Bank of Japan study.

Cooking Up Winning Recipe

The national craze marks an auspicious combination of charm, calculated planning and good fortune.

TV show writer Kundo Koyama, best known for his work on the Iron Chef cooking series, was charged with promoting the prefecture when a new bullet train service linking Kumamoto with the commercial hub of Osaka was being launched in recent years.

Koyama then asked celebrated art director Manabu Mizuno to create a campaign logo, and threw in the cuddly Kumamon as a bonus.

But his folksy construction won over local officials who were advised to let businesses use his image free of charge as long as it promoted the region, directly or indirectly.

And instead of selling a little-known area of the country and local products such as plums or chestnuts, they marketed the bear.

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