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Kumamon as a Rescue Bear Mascot: Mythical Roots and Modern Reach

Kumamon visiting Yushina Tenjin Plum Festival

Introduction

Japan is booming with costumed mascots called yuru-kyara (literally “loose characters”). Despite their prominence and cultural significance, to date no study has investigated how they are created and transformed into cultural icons. This study explores the cultural significance of this phenomenon in the context of Japanese ancient folk belief, specifically the Jizō Bodhisattva. By focusing on Kumamon, a black bear mascot created for the promotion of Kumamoto Prefecture, and the resemblance of his role to that of Jizō, this study concludes that Kumamon is an icon, perhaps reincarnate of Jizō, to answer the societal needs for healing in postmodern Japan.

The costumed mascots are players in the effort to revive economically stagnant rural communities in Japan. On behalf of prefectural governments and offices, the mascots promote tourism and commerce primarily for locally produced goods. Designed in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, these attention-getting creatures draw attention at promotional events, contributing to a festive atmosphere. They wobble and sway with limited but occasional nimble movement. Some mascots have gained popularity to a near celebrity status not unlike global characters such as Mickey Mouse or Hello Kitty.1 They have indeed become Japan’s popular culture icons. An accurate count of the total number throughout Japan is unknown, but as an indicator of their proliferation 1,157 mascots participated in the 2017 Yuru-kyara Grand Prix, an online contest to select Japan’s most popular mascot.2 Many more are expected to exist.

Yuru-kyara, the term first introduced in 2002 by Jun Miura, conveys the attribute of “looseness,” meaning that the structure and form are somewhat amateurish, often with minimal design.3 They are endearing in part due to their primitive appearance; their open demeanor encourages rapport. Projecting vulnerability through unstable movement and gesture, they convey a childish helplessness that people adore. At their core, they embody a clear message of unabashed affection for the locality they enthusiastically promote.4

Because of anthropomorphism, the public attributes human characteristics to these mascots.5 Though mute, the mascots express friendliness through their body language. The essential characteristic of these costumed mascots, however, is kawaii “cute,” “adorable,” or “lovable.”6Kawaii, or the quality of cuteness in the context of Japanese culture and society, is often associated with sweetness, innocence, and helplessness, although ironically it can also mean the opposite, such as ugly-cute. Yomota proposes that along with native historical ideals such as mono no aware “pathos of things,” yuugen “profound grace and subtlety,” and iki “traditional chic and stylish,” kawaii is one of Japan’s key aesthetics.7

The two phenomenon discussed in this study, Kumamon and Jizō, can be considered icons of Japanese cultural myth. Myth is characterized in many ways—e.g., our attempt to explain the world of nature in stories, a repository of stories that contain allegorical instructions, or poetic fantasy.8 But perhaps most essentially, as Lévi-Strauss characterizes it, myth serves to resolve contradiction.9 Myth often reinforces accepted behavior by first scanning alternative solutions, then insisting that the culturally preferred one is best. In fact, myth offers guidance to those faced with anxiety, or experiencing crisis. It is this cultural context that informs the essence of Kumamon and Jizō.

In his interview, Joseph Campbell states that “one thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation” and “at the darkest moment comes the light.”10 Society drives the solution suggested in myth, and it is inevitably tied to the everyday world of ordinary people. Campbell asserts, “The images of myth are reflections of the spiritual potentialities of every one of us,” and “Through contemplating these, we evoke their powers in our own lives.”11 Viewed as myth, both Kumamon (and other mascot characters) and Jizō offer solutions to contradictions, provide response to wishes, and offer comfort to insecurity. Through interaction with these icons, people evoke powers in their lives.

One may ask how could a cute costumed mascot such as Kumamon, a blatant marketing and advertising device, be identified as a cultural myth? Leymore addresses this very question.12 Leymore insists that advertising, itself, is myth—a modern one. Moreover, it functions as does myth in traditional societies. She reasons that advertising acts as an anxiety-reducing mechanism, playing a role in modern societies similar to the role myth plays in traditional societies. Advertising does this first by restating our essential dilemmas and, second, by offering solutions. When purchasing a product or obtaining a service, the consumer buys not only a product, but also an image, the image enabling a belief in and hope for something better. Advertising “mediates between the abstract and the concrete, as well as between social values, cultural symbols and ordinary everyday consumption behavior.”13 The theme of cultural myth will again be addressed in the conclusion. For now, it suffices to point out that the phenomena under investigation in this study are informed by the understanding that they are a part of myth, functioning within ancient and postmodern Japan.

Introducing Kumamon

At the bequest of Kumamoto governmental officials, a team of professionals created Kumamon.14 This is an important distinction since, more typically, amateurs create the identity and design of prefectural mascots. Most often, if not through a crowd-sourcing initiative, prefectural employees submit ideas for the project. Though markedly more aesthetic in design, however, Kumamon is treated in the media as one of the best known, if not the signature representative of costumed mascots in Japan. This study, adopting a broad definition of the “loose character” persona, follows this trend.

Kumamon having fun in one of his daily Twitter postings Kumamon having fun in one of his daily Twitter postings

The following television interview introduces Kumamon to the public.15 Featured guests on this news program are a representative of Team Kumamon, Kumamon, and his presenter. When appearing in public, Kumamon is accompanied by a female presenter who serves as mistress of ceremony, assistant, and dance partner. With the camera on him, Kumamon flashes a board that reads, “Yoroshiku-maaV!” using the pun of kuma added to the phrase yoroshiku “how do you do.” Kumamon’s presenter speaks for him by translating his various gestures. Although Kumamon’s official weight, height, and age are intentionally kept secret, he is introduced as being born in October, 2010, when he becomes a special ambassador for the Kumamoto Surprise Campaign, a campaign created to coincide with the arrival of Japan’s Bullet Train line.

In addition to traditional media exposure, his activities are continually updated on the Kumamon Official Website. Here he is introducing himself:

Hello, I’m Kumamon. I was born in March, 2011, at the time the Kyuushuu Bullet Train line was completed. My job is to let everyone in Japan know about the surprise and happiness that I find in my life. I’m promoting Kumamoto’s delicious foods and the natural scenic attractions to people living in Kumamoto, and also to people in the Osaka and Tokyo areas. I was promoted by the governor to be the general manager for the Kumamoto Prefecture Government. And I am working ever so hard! Because I want everyone to know about the Kumamoto I love, I’m planning to visit many places! Pleased to meet you, everyone. Please keep beautiful Kumamoto and me in your heart! 16

Written, of course, in Japanese, this self-introduction reads in a playful tone, achieved in part by what may be called Kumamon-speech. It features Kumamoto dialect and puns on the word kuma “bear.” In the original Japanese, the final particle mon is used, as in umareta n da mon “I was born” and harikitteru n da mon “I’m trying hard.” The puns often used for Kumamon speech include Kuma-tta (instead of komatta “to be in trouble”), yoo-chek-kuma (instead of yoo-chekk “check this out”) and san-kuma (instead of sankyuu “thank you”).

The prefectural team in charge of the Kumamon initiative spelled out five criteria for success: (1) Clearly define the target, (2) tailor a media strategy for each event; (3) exploit social media; (4) make sure Kumamon always performs at a high level of energy, and (5) fully support the project through its evolving stages.17

Social media and the in-person performances are critical for producing Kumamon’s character and narrative. As to high energy level, Kumamon’s notable athleticism, as shown by his Kumamon Exercise dance performance, separates him from others. In comparison to most other costumed mascots, Kumamon freely expresses his feelings through exaggerated gesture. His quick and knowing response to others encourages further engagement, reacting and mirroring the feelings of his fans.

Creating the Kumamon Narrative

Kumamon originated as a marketing device. As such, he gained considerable notoriety through the initial campaign promoting the prefecture. A three-staged campaign targeting Osaka followed. In the first stage, Kumamon made surprise appearances at well-visited points in Osaka, and he did so without ever revealing his identity. The second stage called for placing posters around the city advertising Kumamoto’s tourism attractions and fresh produce. A small image of Kumamon appeared on the posters, again with no words of explanation. In tandem, these two initiatives created a buzz, stirring interest and curiosity about this strange black bear. The third stage brought it all together in a media event, actually a contrived event.

Ikuo Kabashima, governor of Kumamoto prefecture, arrived in Osaka and held a tongue- in-cheek press conference. Calling together Osaka media reporters, he announced that his special assistant, the black bear, had gone missing. Kabashima was asking the public’s support to help locate Kumamon. The press played along with the ruse that Kumamon, fed up with his task of randomly distributing ten thousand business cards to folks on the streets of Osaka, had simply run off. From that point on, in responding to the plea for help, Osaka citizens who spotted the bear sent Twitter messages to the authorities, and happily Kumamon was found.

News of this Osaka surprise narrative contributed to forming Kumamon’s character. Following this promotional initiative, and now with Kumamon’s increasing name recognition, the Kumamoto government allowed merchandisers to use the Kumamon character for free. No licensing fees were required. This encouraged the proliferation of thousands of goods featuring his likeness, while simultaneously his participation in various local events, performing his popular Kumamon Exercise dance, served in spreading his name.

Kumamon’s narrative is actively sustained on the Internet and has proven to be a significant boost to his fame. Support for this, as of April 2018, are his 800,000 some followers, with 112,000 fans following him on his Twitter account, and 183,451 “likes” on Facebook.18

The narrative discourse created digitally by Team Kumamon differs in interesting ways from the narrative discourse created by Kumamon’s personal appearances. In real-world appearances, Kumamon communicates through body language, through scribbling on flash boards, or indirectly through his human translator. Yet on his official website, Kumamon’s narrative is built through multiple modes of discourse. The discourse is created (1) in the third-person as a part of an announcement; (2) as self-narration in his own words and style, i.e., Kumamon-speech; (3) in the blog as a mixture of first-person voice, indirect quotation, and staff-initiated commentary; (4) in Twitter as first-person Kumamon-speech; and (5) on video in captioned first-person Kumamon-speech. Thus, through ventriloquized voices of first-person interior monologue, indirect quotation, and screen caption, Kumamon’s voices represent varied narrative points of view.

Most curious is the manipulation of Kumamon-speech presented in simulating and pretending voices. Narrative theory generally holds that an internal perspective achieved in first-person self-narration best promotes character identification and reader empathy, and it is most directly associated with character identification.19 When a character speaks in quoted monologue (or interior monologue) and presents thoughts at the moment of speech, it becomes more direct. Kumamon, speaking in his ventriloquized first-person voice effectively, in a controlled manner, stirs empathy—what Keen calls “narrative empathy.”20 The first-person narration readily evokes feelings of responsiveness resulting in a kind of emotional fusion between character and audience. Adamson argues that narrated monologue should be understood as “empathetic narrative,” and it is especially effective for instilling empathy.21 Through his unspoken and yet communicated monologue, Kumamon’s character is clearly established and it spreads through the media, which is similar to Azuma’s database consumption, and becomes central to consumers.22

Many of the postings related to Kumamon carry the message of genki, a term that refers to an uplifting, optimistic posture. In Japanese culture to give and to receive genki is a frequently exercised empathic practice, and is ubiquitous in the narratives found on the Kumamon official website. Genki may be used to encourage hope, to rally one’s spirits, or simply to wish one well.

As a sample of the Kumamon narrative, let me cite from his diary, posted in English and voiced in third person.

March 12, 2015. KUMAMON visited HK to attend YATA’s Chun Jie event! Recently, KUMAMON visited HK to attend Cun Jie (Chinese New Year) event held at YATA department store. He brought a smile to HK people by drawing a self-portrait along with the staff in setting the table at Kumamon Café. He was very delighted to receive an early birthday gift from his local fans.23

The majority of Kumamon postings in Japanese, however, are in first-person Kumamon speech. For example, when offering commentary he takes the style as presented here.

March 11, 2015. I think our hearts are one, mon. Hope my wishes are delivered. It has been four years since the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake… . I hope to continue my heartfelt friendship with you, and I hope as Kumamon I can offer help for the recovery.24

When Kumamon visits Kumamoto locales and elsewhere, a posting along with photograph appear with a caption such as, “This happened all because of you. Thank you,” in Kumamon-speech. The use of mon and chekkuma “check it out,” are typical of the postings, with his positive attitude of offering genki and happiness, and informing the public with positive news. The accumulation of these postings advance a broader Kumamon narrative.

March 22, 2015. (announcement) Tomorrow, on the 23rd at 11:55, on Fuji Television, Ms. Sakagami Shinobu is going to introduce Kyūshū and Kumamoto mon. I assisted in the ninja event mon. Check it out (chekkuma).25

Kumamon to the Rescue

Japanese are known to love characters and character goods. In questioning why, a 2009 NTT Research study aggregated answers such as these verbatim responses: * I find comfort (55.9%) * I feel I can be kind and gentle (37.6%) * My feelings are relaxed (37%) * I feel relaxed (32.5%) * My loneliness is diminished (30.2%).26 Characters apparently engender a softer, more relaxed stance toward one’s life world. In this most particular Japanese world of healing characters, Kumamon’s mission as a promoter of Kumamoto seems to have become more altruistic. This caring philosophy of genki resonates with the stated purpose of the Kumamoto Prefecture Happiness Department. Established in 2012, the department assigned Kumamon the role of head manager. Acting as the figurehead for implementing this policy of happiness he was ordered to visit all parts of Japan and to make people genki. This officially sanctioned policy of directing Kumamon to be an agent of care in offering help and even to rescue those in distress has been executed in various ways.

The Kumamon official website promotes his happiness mission:

I’m Kumamon of the Kumamoto Surprise Campaign mon! I’m also a general manager and the happiness manager of the Kumamoto Prefecture Government mon! I’m visiting many places with my sisters (presenters) to encourage Kumamoto residents to find more Kumamoto attractions and to invite people outside the area to get to know Kumamoto’s interesting places and delicious food mon!27

Kumamon’s fans frequently validate his role as one who brings happiness. In fact, his website “Fan Corner” openly solicits postings detailing the joy he has brought. Typically, fans share memories of their experience with him in the form of a narrative, somewhat like the wish-you-were-here tone of a travel postcard. Fans seem to need some form of record that authenticates their experience, and simply by narrating the encounter they make these memorable events their own, and at the same time make Kumamon an object of desire.28 Either through text photo or video postings, or some combination, fans express in these postings their praise and appreciation, by reporting, thanking, and speaking in Kumamon-speech. Kumamon fans speak from third-person, first-person addressing Kumamon, and Kumamon simulating perspectives. One fan expresses gratitude for Kumamon’s generous gift of genki and for his appearance that has brought comfort and happiness.

From Kumashachi. February 27, 2015. I met Kumamon and received genki. Thanks. I know you’re busy, so thank you for coming to Toyoda. Please come visit us again.29

Kumamon comes to the rescue to people who are in pain, and the fans are appreciative:

From Hime. May 12, 2013. News about Kumamon is my joy during my hospitalization. I’m being hospitalized now, suffering from the side effects of my medication. Happy news about Kumamon is the best therapy to cure the boredom and stress I am undergoing.30

Fans also “become” Kumamon by submitting commentary in Kumamon’s voice. This behavior allows the contributor to assume Kumamon’s character, where a part of the contributor’s self identifies with another, a move that is psychologically beneficial.31 This assuming of another’s character is most clearly manifested when the fan uses Kumamon-speech:

From Omusubi-mon. May 13, 2013. (with photograph of Kumamon on stage, holding a handbag, with a bashful knee bend and pointed toes, striking a kawaii pose) This bag is perfect when going shopping, mon. He’s in the middle of a promotional tour. [He’s saying,] “My left foot is the cute point, mon.” He’s working hard in this heat. Please visit us in Chiba again!32

Though originally created as a marketing device, Kumamon has evolved into a character who helps and even heals people. Wherever he appears he brings genki and happiness, even comfort following a disaster.

The following account of a video clip offers an example of how Kumamon touches the hearts of tsunami victims. The video clip runs 4 minutes and 55 seconds, and documents Kumamon’s visit to Kitasanriku City, one of the cities devastated by the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011.33 In the video Kumamon first visits a local kindergarten, followed by his visit to the region’s “Future Shopping Mall” a temporary, makeshift cluster of shops built near the relief housing center for those who have lost their homes.

At a local kindergarten, Kumamon along with representatives from Kumamoto tatami makers give twelve tatami mats to the children. Together with some of the children Kumamon actually carries in one mat with the caption reading, “We carried them together, mon.” A representative explains that the Kumamoto Prefecture tatami producers are assisting in the recovery of the tsunami inflicted regions. Next, Kumamon and the children play together on the tatami mats, rolling around and flipping over, which is followed by a shot showing Kumamon wearing around his neck a medal (made of origami paper by the children). At this point, the caption reads, “The medal. San-kuma,” while Kumamon’s unfocused eyes look directly into the camera lens, appealing to the audience with a sense of intimacy. The representative from Iwate Prefecture tatami producers thanks the tatami makers saying, “It is most important for little kids to be familiar with tatami, and it is wonderful to have tatami in this kindergarten.”34

In the second part of the video, Kumamon poses for a photograph with two local costumed mascots, Oofunaton (of Oofunato City), and Takata no Yumechan (of Rikuzentakata City). Next, Kumamon visits the makeshift cluster of shops, consisting actually of a row of prefabricated cabins. There he receives a massage at a small massage parlor, and the owner comments that because of hard work, Kumamon’s shoulders require a massage. After the massage, Kumamon thanks the owner by saying in caption, “Boy, I feel relaxed, mon.” When Kumamon is about to leave, a middle-aged woman approaches and hugs him by saying, “Uhh, so glad, I’m so glad, I feel tears welling up in my eyes.” The caption of the screen shows, “I’m so glad, so glad.”35

The woman cries, standing with another woman and man as the three wave goodbye, each promising to visit Kumamon’s prefecture; here the caption reads, “Let’s meet together again in Kumamoto!” Then the man adds, “But, please come again.” Kumamon reciprocates, waving his hand goodbye as he starts off. A man interviewed at the scene expresses gratitude to the people of Kumamoto and, in particular, to Kumamon. He and Kumamon shake hands, and the man affirms that he will go on doing his best to recover from the devastation.

Cut to Kumamon now with a presenter, standing on a simple outdoor stage before the children and residents of the relief housing. The Kumamon Exercise music is cued, and Kumamon along with two local costumed mascots break into the dance in quick sharp movements. A few children in the front begin to imitate the dance. In the last scene, the shop’s general manager comments, “We are still far from recovery and we require rebuilding, and the children have lost their playground. So, to be with Kumamon and see them happy is wonderful, and seeing them happy makes us adults happy. It is really heart-warming.” The group gathers together to pose for a photograph, and they call out in unison what is presented in the caption, “Kumamon, please visit us again.”36

Kumamon has come to embody the identity of Kumamoto Prefecture. Just hours after the devastating 2016 earthquake in his home prefecture, for example, a person from Hong Kong posted, “Earthquake just happened. R u ok, Kumamon?” A college student tweeted, “Are Kumamon and his friends safe?” And in a more spiritual vein Ming Jang Lee from Thailand emailed “Pray for Kumamoto & Kumamon,” a phrase repeated by many.37

When Kumamon made his first appearance after the earthquake, he was welcomed with cries of joy from children as well as adults. It was May 5, Children’s Day, and many were still living out of their cars, having lost their homes. Kumamon’s persona of genki was undoubtedly an uplifting moment, a joyous glimmer of hope.

Later in August, 2016, as a unifying symbol for the prefecture, Kumamon was featured on T-shirts promoting the reconstruction of Kumamoto Castle, which was hit hard by the initial quake and the multiple after-shocks. It was only fitting that arguably the two most iconic symbols of the prefecture would combine in a rescue effort to restore the confidence of the people. In keeping with his role as one who is there for those in crisis, Kumamon encouraged people to share their earthquake stories via his Twitter hashtag, which resulted in over 9,000 tweets.38

*Kumamon* on his thank-you tour, giving thanks for support from all over Japan for disaster relief for the earthquake *Kumamon* on his thank-you tour, giving thanks for support from all over Japan for disaster relief for the earthquake

Popular Culture Criticism in Postmodern Japan

To place the phenomenon of Kumamon in the social context of current day Japan, the popular culture theories of “narrative consumption” as well as “database consumption” are instructive.

As characterized by Lyotard, the postmodern features a decline of the grand narratives that constructed a coherent story in modern society.39 These grand narratives of progress, enlightenment, and reason formerly united a collective people into a unified whole. In postmodern culture, however, the proliferation of derivative works, copies without originals, or what Baudrillard called simulacra, are ubiquitous.40 No longer presenting grand narratives, these derivatives offer small stories that circulate in postmodern cultures.

The mascot phenomenon, the presence of Kumamon, for instance, can be understood within this context of postmodernism. Small narratives support the identities of the hundreds of other costumed mascots in Japan. Derivatives of mascots appear everywhere as well, along with a wide range of mascot-branded consumer goods and services. Ōtsuka’s theory of narrative consumption, and Azuma’s theory of “database consumption” both offer ways of interpreting the popularity of the costumed mascot.41 Yet these mascots do not exist as narratives or as database-supported characters alone. Rather, both physically and virtually, the mascots function as narrative-supported characters interacting with consumers in multiple ways.

Ōtsuka builds his argument by citing the case of Bikkuriman chocolates. He reports that Japanese middle school boys enthusiastically purchased them in 1987 and 1988 primarily for collecting story stickers, instead of the chocolates themselves. The Bikkuriman chocolate stickers contained segments of a storyline, but not the complete story. Ōtsuka takes the view that this promised consumption of a master narrative is achieved through the accumulation of fragmentary bits of information, and he calls this all-encompassing system the worldview (or grand narrative). Ōtsuka contends that consumers are more interested in how the story evolves and are more excited by the successive acquisition of the episodes than they are in the chocolate itself. This second-order interaction Azuma calls “narrative consumption.”

In his book on Japanese popular culture, specifically in his discussion of otaku—i.e., obsessive fans of Japanese popular culture especially anime (animation films) and manga (comic books)—in the context of postmodernity, Azuma introduces the concept of “database animals.” Extending Ōtsuka’s theory that commodities are consumed as narratives, Azuma emphasizes that popular culture works of comics and anime are consumed as derivatives. In the re-reading and re-production of the originals, that is, manga, anime, and games are merchandised in the form of fan games, figurines and the like. In this manner, characters in the popular culture database have a life beyond their original discourses. They become characters within a database universe, available to be consumed multiple times and in multiple ways.

Azuma also notes that with this derivative mode of consumption, i.e., postmodern database consumption, comes a different kind of self. The consumer is isolated, no longer in the life-world of the Other; the relationship is void of any real human interaction, and thus the self is not constituted as person. Consumers are merely animal-like beings that seek to fulfill their basic needs and desires. Thus they are database animals, and in this universe of database animals, characters gain prominence. Azuma challenges Ōtsuka’s narrative consumption and proposes that in Japan during the 1990s, not the narratives but the characters served to unify various works and products. Japanese otaku lost the grand narratives in the 1970s, fabricated the lost narratives in the 1980s and in the 1990s, prioritized characters in the database consumption.

In addition to narrative and database, the consumption of character is key to understanding the costumed mascot phenomenon. This is partly because, supported by their ongoing narrative, costumed mascots require distinct characters and they enjoy engagement with the public both in the database and in off-line, real-life encounters.

The Jizō Folk Belief and the Tradition of Healing

As stated earlier, although Kumamon originated in 2010 as a marketing device, the scope of his role has expanded considerably. The people of Kumamoto, and beyond, seem to have accepted him as a kind of helpful folk hero, a spirit. And not unlike a Jizō, Kumamon offers a sense of healing.

Jizō, Kshitigarbha in Sanscrit, means “Earth Store,” and he is one of the four great Bodhisattvas of the Mahayana.42 Jizō is known for his two critical vows:

  1. Only after the Hells are empty will he reach Enlightenment and become a Buddha, and
  2. Only after all beings are taken across to Enlightenment will he realize a state of Buddha.43

The Jizō Bodhisattva is known to have entered Japan along with Buddhism in the fifth or sixth century. However, Buddhism did not enter Japan to fill a religious void; it was met with cultural myth consisting of indigenous religious beliefs such as animism and Shinto, both of which embrace the worship of the divine in nature.

Religiosity in Japan is characteristically inclusive, essentially adapting to the needs of the people.44 Accordingly, over time Jizō Bodhisattva was incorporated into the indigenous Shintoism, and eventually was adopted by all the foundational sects of Japanese Buddhism. The concept of monotheism has not been widely accepted in Japan, and instead it is not unusual for a Japanese person to embrace multiple religions and folk beliefs simultaneously.45 Jizō, blending with different folk beliefs, began to appear throughout Japan as a roughly carved stone statue. This simple statue with a large head and round body features a serene face with eyes closed and a mouth suggesting a hint of a smile. Jizō often resembles a child and is frequently adorned with a red bib symbolizing an offering to the spirit of deceased children. Jizō is also thought to emerge from the Earth, symbolizing the Japanese people’s origination and profound connection to the land.

Jizō is omnipresent and accessible; he appears in the open, among the people. Jizō is placed in the vicinity of the activities of everyday life, at country crossroads, along village paths, in small altars on street corners. Even in city neighborhoods, one can find Jizō in small altars every few blocks.46 These neighborhood altars and statues are maintained and cared for with people even making offerings such as a piece of candy, fruit, or flowers. More elaborate offerings include children’s clothing, umbrellas, sandals or shoes to protect the Jizō from rain, thus making the Jizō’s journey easier.

Although no census information is available documenting how many Jizō statues are in Japan, the number is assumed to be quite large. At a recent meeting on Jizō held in Kyoto, a group of researchers physically hand-counted 2,200 Jizō statues in the Chūkyō Ward alone.47 Given that this is only one of Kyoto’s eleven wards, it is easily estimated that more than 20,000 Jizō appear in just the one city of Kyoto. Nationwide, the number is estimated to be over a million.48

Folk belief values Jizō as the guardian deity of children and travelers. Yet the protection is thought to extend to everyone in the neighborhood. In practice, anyone may pray to the local Jizō, asking that his or her wishes be fulfilled. The range of spiritual guidance the Jizō offers is indeed broad. Jizō is a benevolent savior for the old, diseased, and maimed. He is a healer who helps those unable to raise themselves up from misery. Jizō offers its community a form of hope, a spiritual hope, a spiritual guide as belief in its powers helps rescue beings from misfortune and pain. In Japan, Jizō is like one’s long-time family doctor, trusted with folk wisdom and care always “available to everyone for any pain, fear, or worry, large and small.”49 He provides solace to all who may ask, including even infants and other creatures unable to voice their needs. Jizō represents a deep-rooted tradition of healing among Japanese folk believers.

Japan’s costumed mascots also may be part of Japan’s broadly defined religiosity. After all, nativist Shintoism holds the view that Japan is inhabited by an unlimited number of gods who are physically dispersed throughout the islands. These gods are particularized in that they are manifested in a specific element of nature. An individual mountain, waterfall, or river, for instance, may be thought of as a sacred place. Even an old tree or a special rock formation may serve as a god/object within the natural environment to pray to. In folk belief, these various gods are considered protectors of human life, and the locals pray to these gods to bring them health, prosperity, and happiness. Miura, in fact, draws a spiritual connection between these gods and the costumed mascots, even speculating that for Japanese people seeing a deity in a costumed mascot comes rather naturally.50

Conclusion: Kumamon as Jizō

In his 2014 book I Am Kumamon’s Boss, Kabashima shares his mission statement as governor: to make Kumamoto residents happy. He explicitly states his desire to help, to come to the rescue of people in need. He frames his formula for success as

Y = f (E + P + S + H)

That is, Y (happiness) is a function (f) of the sum of these four factors: Economy (E) plus Pride (P) plus Security (S) plus Hope (H).51 The governor’s equation, as “innocent” as it sounds, captures the can-do spirit that Kumamon personifies.

Returning to the issue of religiosity within the cultural context of Japanese myth, it is intriguing to find striking similarities between Kumamon and Jizō. Are the two one in the same and is Kumamon a Jizō incarnate? The following similarities in form and function are evident. Both Kumamon and Jizō share human resemblance. Kumamon is a bear but is actualized as a boy, and Jizō often takes a form of a boy Buddhist monk. Each is out-of-proportion and round in shape, resembling a child and thus stirring the sense of kawaii. They appear with unrealistic and abstract features, bearing an open countenance to which multiple emotions can be shared. Kumamon has a soul, and so does the stone statue. Jizō is a spiritual icon of mercy, healing and guidance. Kumamon comes to the rescue by promoting his local economy and most of all through his efforts in making people happy. Both are rooted in and closely linked to the local community.

Kumamon is a product of Kumamoto prefecture, and his mission is to promote his birthplace. Jizō rises from the earth as an itinerant priest charged with healing the common folks of his birthplace. Kumamon’s functions are to facilitate a sense of social interaction, bring genki, and most of all to provide warmth and comfort. Jizō’s primary functions include providing guidance to locals in everyday life and offering spiritual consultation. If Kumamon is a relaxing and perhaps a healing entertainer, Jizō is a savior. Kumamon reaches personally to one’s emotional core, and Jizō reaches to one’s personal spiritual interior. Kumamon invigorates people in distress, and Jizō protects people in crises. Kumamon, with his own narrative history and Jizō with his folk narrative, each thrives on emotional and spiritual appeal. Both are embedded within the Japanese cultural myth, guiding people out of their misfortune, fear, and dissatisfaction.

Additionally, Kumamon, like the Jizō, has the potential to symbolically activate the community, contributing to a coming together after a tragedy.52 Following the reciprocity custom of making the rounds to thank the local Jizō for spiritual guidance in getting through a crisis, after Kumamoto’s recovery from the earthquake Kumamon began a nation-wide tour of visiting those localities that offered aid to Kumamoto in its time of need. Most recently, in February 2018, Kumamon visited Mie Prefecture thanking them for their spiritual as well as their material assistance in the aftermath of the tragedy.53

Of course there are differences. Kumamon moves and dances and travels to many locations in Japan and abroad. Jizō is stationary, although dispersed in many neighborhoods. Not unlike Azuma’s database consumption, Kumamon appears in multiple performances (sometimes simultaneously, although there is supposed to be only one Kumamon), and Jizō is duplicated thousands of times over. Kumamon speaks in others’ voices, whereas Jizō remains mute. Despite these differences, though, we find in each a sense of healing comfort and a desire for unconditional acceptance on an emotional level, with of all their “services” available with no strings attached.

Overall, Kumamon as well as some other costumed mascots offer

  1. A yearning for an uncomplicated world, a nostalgia bordering on a return to childhood memories;
  2. A culture of inclusiveness where one experiences a comforting, noncompetitive, all-embracing atmosphere;
  3. A sense of connectedness sharing electronically a small narrative that gives legitimacy to one’s existence in society; and
  4. a sharper identification with one’s locality.

Costumed mascots, evoking warm and fuzzy sensations accommodate positive sentiment to meet basic social needs such as feeling accepted and even loved.

As suggested by Azuma, the relationship one develops with a mascot does not truly involve the Other, since the Other is not human. However, unlike database consumption, mascots do assume a real-world presence, and their relationship with the Other (a real person) is realized as a social relationship, where the real person’s sense of self is never threatened. The narratives that support Kumamon in the media and on the Internet serve as the functional equivalence of reality. Here the fictionalization of reality and realization of fiction are in a symbiotic relation. In what Giddens calls “reflexive postmodernity,”54 we experience Kumamon as a part of system, the kind of system that we become aware that the life-world is but the product of the systems. But to bring the Kumamon experience back into the life-world, Kumamon physically and quite frequently appears at prearranged, and sometimes unscheduled and unexpected, venues. Extending both physically and personally beyond those recurrent icons and symbols of ancient myth, Kumamon’s mobility allows him to interact one-on-one as a travelling cultural icon, one that can engage (i.e., as a bear-person) with a population greater than his native Kumamoto.

In postmodern Japan, costumed mascots offer companionship and solace to those who are stranded in the more complicated social maze. In the dialectic of familiarity and distancing, a non-human bear silently “speaks” to one’s heart. Nobody knows whether Kumamon is capable of rescuing the world to bring “happiness” to everyone, but at least in Japan, for the time being, Kumamon and some of the other costumed mascots seem to be doing just that. Kumamon is a popular culture icon inheriting both narrative and character-central database consumptions, and nurtured by the myth of Jizō folk belief. The costumed mascot phenomenon thrives in the midst of postmodern Japan as a fugitive mixture of local boosterism and local spiritualism.


Notes

Fair Use Approval

All images of Kumamon are protected under the fair use doctrine as laid out in 17 U.S. Code § 107.

Since the very beginning of the Kumamon Promotion (2010), Governor Kabashima and his team of marketing advisors agreed to allow others (merchants, distributors, media, etc.) to use the likeness and images of Kumamon, without approval and without having to pay licensing fees. By leveraging the advantages of the “sharing economy,” Kumamon’s name recognition and popularity has grown exponentially.

Each visual of Kumamon submitted for publication in Response is taken from Kumamon’s official website, in particular, its English language Twitter feed. It is understood that content on this site is available for downloading—a service provided to fans.

The image of Jizō is in the public domain, specifically located here.

The author, Michael Maynard, the copyright holder of this work, releases this work into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In some countries this may not be legally possible; if so: the author grants any user the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.


  1. Sameer Hosany, Girish Pongag, Drew Martin, and Wa-Yee Lee, “Theory and Strategies of Anthromorphic Brand Characters from Peter Rabbit, Mickey Mouse, and Ronald McDonald, to Hello Kitty,” Journal of Marketing Management 29, no. 1 (2013): 48–68. ↩︎

  2. Each year a competition is held among the yurukyara to determine which is most popular. Kumamon won first place in this Grand Prix event in 2011. Yurukyara Official Website, accessed March 26, 2018, http://wwwyurugp.jp/vote/result. ↩︎

  3. Jun Miura, “Saikin ore jishin ga yuru-kyara ni natteru?,” Oricon, accessed March 13, 2013, http://www.oricon.co.jp/news/special...↩︎

  4. Akihiko Inuyama and Masamitsu Sugimoto, Costumed mascot-ron: Yurukunai “Costumed mascot” no Jittai (Tokyo: Boijaa, 2012). ↩︎

  5. Stephen, Brown, “Where the Wild Brands Are: Some Thoughts on Anthropomorphic Marketing,” Marketing Review 10, no. 3 (2010): 209–224. ↩︎

  6. Brian McVeigh, “How Hello Kitty Commodifies the Cute, Cool and Camp: Consumatopia Versus Control in Japan,” Journal of Material Culture 5 (2000): 225–245. ↩︎

  7. Inuhiko Yomota, Kawaiiron (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 2006). ↩︎

  8. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2004 [1949]). ↩︎

  9. Claude Levi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth,” The Journal of American Folklore 68, 270 (1955): 428–444. ↩︎

  10. Betty Sue Flowers, ed., Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers (New York: Doubleday, 1988). ↩︎

  11. Ibid., 207. ↩︎

  12. Varda Langhatz Leymore, Hidden Myth: Structure and Symbolism in Advertising (New York: Basic Books, 1975). ↩︎

  13. Ibid., 155. ↩︎

  14. Inuyama and Sugimoto, Costumed mascot-ron. ↩︎

  15. Nyūsu no Shinsō, “Kumamon Shutsuen!,” YouTube video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbFnB...↩︎

  16. Kumamon Official Website, 2011, http://kumamon-official.jp. ↩︎

  17. Ibid. ↩︎

  18. Ibid. ↩︎

  19. Suzanne Keen, “A Theory of Narrative Empathy,” Narrative 14, no. 3 (2006): 207–236. ↩︎

  20. Ibid. ↩︎

  21. Sylvia Adamson, “The Rise and Fall of Empathetic Narrative: A Historical Perspective on Perspectives,” New Perspectives on Narrative Perspective, ed. Willie van Peer and Seymour Chatman (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2001), 83–99. ↩︎

  22. Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, trans. Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2009). ↩︎

  23. Kumamon Official Website. ↩︎

  24. Ibid. ↩︎

  25. Ibid. ↩︎

  26. “Kyarakutaa ga nihon o sukuu,” NTT Research, accessed March 23, 2015, http://research.nttcoms.com/database...↩︎

  27. Kumamon Official Website ↩︎

  28. Susan Stuart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Baltimore: John Hopkins Univ. Press, 1984). ↩︎

  29. Kumamon Official Website ↩︎

  30. Ibid. ↩︎

  31. Tamaki Saitō, Kyarakutā Seishin Bunseki: Manga, Bungaku, Nihonjin (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 2011). ↩︎

  32. Kumamon Official Website ↩︎

  33. Ibid. ↩︎

  34. Ibid. ↩︎

  35. Ibid. ↩︎

  36. Ibid. ↩︎

  37. Neil Steinberg, “Meet Japan’s Kumamon, the Bear Who Earns Billions,” BBC, July 16, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/future/story/2016...↩︎

  38. “Kumamon: A Helpful Bear after Earthquakes,” NHK, accessed March 20, 2018, https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/s...↩︎

  39. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984). ↩︎

  40. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. S. F. Glaser (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1981). ↩︎

  41. Eiji Ōtsuka, “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative,” trans. Mare Steinberg, Mechademia 5 (2010): 90–116; and Azuma, Otaku. ↩︎

  42. Daniel Leighton, Bodhisattva Archetypes: Classical Buddhist Guides to Awakening and Their Modern Expression (New York: Penguin Group, 1998). ↩︎

  43. Shinobu Origuchi, Kodaijin no Shisō no Kiso (Tokyo: Chūōkoronsha, 1995). ↩︎

  44. Tazuru Uchida and Shinichi Nakazawa, Nihon no Bunmyaku (Tokyo: Kadokawa, 2012). ↩︎

  45. Jan Chozen Bays, Jizo Bodhisattva: Modern Healing and Traditional Buddhist Practice (Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2002). ↩︎

  46. Kyoto no ojizōō-san, kenkyu kekka o happyo, daigaku nado ga samitto, Kyoto Shinbun, March 12, 2015, http://kyoto-np.jp/education/article...↩︎

  47. John Spacy, “Jizo: One Million Cute Japanese Gods,” Japan Talk, April 4, 2015, https://www.japan-talk.com/jt/new/ji...↩︎

  48. Bays, Jizo Bodhisattva. ↩︎

  49. Miura, “Saikin ore jishin ga yuru-kyara ni natteru?” ↩︎

  50. Ikuo Kabashima, Watashi ga Kumamon no Jōshi desu (Tokyo: Shoodensha, 2014). ↩︎

  51. Kazuo Takemura, “Urban Folk Beliefs and Community Reconstruction,” Soshioroji 35, no. 3 (1991): 87–108. ↩︎

  52. Kumamon Official Website ↩︎

  53. Shinji Miyadai, Transformation of Semantics in the History of Japanese Subcultures, trans. Shion Kono, Mechademia 6 (2011):231–258. ↩︎

  54. Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990). ↩︎

About the Author: 

Michael L. Maynard, is associate professor of advertising at Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. His research includes mass media analysis, the relationship between mass communication and culture, and visual communication with focus on textual analyses of multimedia forms of advertising in Japan. His research has been published in the Journal of Advertising, Journal of Advertising Research, Journal of Advertising Education, Journal of Popular Culture, Journal of Business Ethics, Keio Communication Review, and International Journal of Comic Art.

Volume 3, Issue 1
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