Kumamon's Burden: Going International (AND WE KNOW THE SECRET)

Kumamon - AkihabaraNews.com

Chubby Bear FAAAAAME!
Well, it appears the archipelago just isn’t big enough to contain all the cute.

Last week, shuffled off were the isolationist shackles keeping sales of official Kumamon products and associated licensing on Japanese soil. At the behest of creators and handlers in the Kumamoto Prefectural Government, on Japan’s southernmost main island of Kyushu, the caricatured bear who’s crushed all domestic mascot competition has been cleared for global expansion. 

What's a Kumamon?
Now, if you aren't hip, Kumamon is a mascot/character originally used to promote a new stretch of Japan's high-speed Shinkansen bullet trains. But his fame has grown far, far beyond Japan, and now, for 
East Asia, the United States, and the EU, the official likeness of the sticky-cute bumbling black bear has been cleared for commercial licensing and use. 

Of course, it's not that people outside of Japan don't already know and appreciate Kumamon: Japan's whole mascot economy phenomenon has been widely covered and rightly puzzled at in international news - often with Kumamoto Prefecture's most famous fake citizen held up as the exemplar. Or, just Google: China Kumamon (中国くまモン). Clearly they know how to pilfer a good design when they see it, and what they may lack in intellectual capital they totally make up for with skillz at Image►Adjustments►Invert.

Fun & Pointless Fact: Kuma means bear, and -mon is to Kuma as it also is to Poke, but that doesn’t mean anything at all. It’s too long to explain, so just know that the name ‘Kumamon’ is an epic symbologistic mashup of wordplay, hieroglyphics, and homonymery, and anyone who claims to know what the name actually means, doesn’t.

Editor’s Note: the author lived in Kumamoto for like, a long time. Maybe too long.

Puts a Smile on Your Face and/or Haunts Your Nightmares
As far as statistical significance goes, there are effectively zero Japanese people who dislike
Kumamon. Since his 2010 debut, the character’s hapless, thousand-yard stare of oblivious surprise has spread from billboards to magazines to food and everything in between and adjacent. You can even wipe your butt with Kumamon (and the fact that no one here thinks that is disrespectful is further evidence that the Japanese have a much more enlightened view on pooping that most of Western Civilization).

Foreigners looking in from the outside, including those of us expatriated here but still only marginally more inside, can certainly appreciate that Kumamon is a cute character, logo, mascot, whatever, etc., but it's still pretty difficult to get a handle on the shear force of culture behind his popularity. One thing, however, is clear to everyone: the Bank of Japan estimates that, over the past two years, Kumamon’s economic impact for Kumamoto Prefecture is a positive ~¥123 billion (~$1.2 billion). Inexplicable Japan-centric cutesy culture it may be, but the appeal is real, and Kumamon’s going international because people see Dollar signs, yo...errrr, Yen signs.

The Design Secret to Kumamon’s Success
Well, for starters, the rest of Japan’s mascot characters are objectively terrible. Google it. It's sad.

But, even if the others weren't so bad, Kumamon would still roll pretty hard, and it’s entirely about ellipses. That’s it. Not clever marketing. Not the colorway. Not right time/right place. Nope, what matters is that Kumamon is comprised of all circles and ovals, and the human eye absolutely loves that sorta stuff. 

In the original Kumamon figure, there are only three short lines that cannot be represented with ellipses: the bottom of the belly/butt/whatever, and the bottoms of each foot. Every other line can be reproduced with smoothly intersecting elliptical forms.

Exhibit #1:
Here we see a plain image of
chubbeh surprise:

Exhibit #2:
Next, we see Kumamon all da Vincied up:

Exhibit #3:
And last, just the lines - remember, only the bottoms of the feet and flat butt are not represented here.

This might help, too:

Chilling, ain’t it? Now you know how the Japanese cutesy character sausage is made.

Correlating Addendum:
If for some reason you don't believe us about the ellipses, well... you should.

Boom, son!

• • •

Images: Confidential Sources We Can’t Talk About 


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Terrie’s Take is a selection of Japan-centric news collected and collated by long-time resident and media business professional Terrie Lloyd. AkihabaraNews is pleased to present Terrie’s learned perspective; we all could use another take on the news - here’s Terrie’s:

Editor - November 21, 2014

Tamiya is going to release a Kumamon radio-controlled tractor called R/C Tractor Kumamon Version. It will be sold as a construction kit and finished goods.

Yoriko Takahashi - March 12, 2014

Today is Kumamon's birthday!
(a.k.a. the day when all of the Kyushu Shinkansen routes opened)

Kumamon meets Honda's small motorcycle series, Monkey. The collaboration motorbike Monkey Kumamon Version is going to be released on April 14. The exterior is colored with Kumomon's image color: black and red. Kumamon and Honda's logo are printed on the fuel tank. Red wheels are made in the motif of Kumomon's cheeks.

Japan Airlines is going to start offering a special in-flight meal jointly developed with Kumamoto prefecture which is located in the southern island of Kyushu. The name of the in-flight meal is (of course) named after THAT famous bear character mascot, "Air Kumamon".

Takara Tomy is going to release a Mothra (one of the Toho tokusatsu monster characters) version of Tomica for 700 yen on December 26 from its Dream Tomica series.

Tomica is a series of Takara Tomy die-cast toy vehicles. Its Dream Tomica series has collaborations with well-known characters including Mario, Godzilla and Snoopy.

On the same day, Kumamon's police car will be released for 700 yen. It's a police car with a Kumamon face on the front.

Takara Tomy is going to release a collaboration item between the famous Yurukyara-mascot, Kumamon, and the Japanese version of Barbie, Licca-chan for ¥2,940 on February 1.

Licca-chan ties her hair with bear-ear hair elastics to match the small Kumamon mascot that comes with the Licca-chan doll. It's rare for her to put on a dress in black since she usually wears dresses in girly colors.

The Kumamon-special Leica C camera is now on sale for ¥99,360 (~$818.00). Only 50 units are available for sale. Kumamon's photo and signature comes with the camera.

Badass Kumamon electric guitars!

A Japanese guitar manufacture, Fernandes, is going to release the Kumamon designed electric guitars on December 20. 2 models (ZO-3 KUMAMON CUSTOM and ZO-3 KUMAMON STD) will be available.

Editor - May 29, 2015

Kumamon Gets an RC Dune Buggy
Japanese hobby kit and RC car maker Tamiya has been chasing the Kumamon cash dragon for over a year now, and along with last December’s Kumamon tractor RC car (probably because Kumamoto = agriculture), an RC standard dune buggy has now entered the lineup.