Paris won’t know what hit it. From July 4 to 7, the French capital will be awash with anisongs, cosplay and kawaii, as the world’s largest overseas festival of Japanese pop culture, Japan Expo, returns for its 14th edition. Guests this year range from Fist of the North Star creator Tetsuo Hara and Macross mecha designer Shoji Kawamori to Visual-kei band Nightmare, idol group °C-ute and brainiac instrument makers Maywa Denki… but they might find themselves overshadowed by a bloke in a bear costume. Yes: unfathomably popular regional mascot Kumamon (250,000 Twitter followers and counting) is lined up to make a guest appearance at the Expo, where he’ll be performing his trademark exercise and dance routines.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, this rosy-cheeked, sack-shaped bear is the official representative of Kumamoto Prefecture, where he made his debut in 2010, ahead of the completion of the Kyushu Shinkansen line between Fukuoka and Kagoshima. Such mascots are common in Japan, where they’re described as yuru-kyara – literally ‘loose characters’, though a better translation (offered by Daniel Krieger in The Japan Times) might be ‘cheesy but lovable characters.’ As Krieger puts it, ‘unlike multi-billion dollar stars such as Sanrio’s Hello Kitty, this variety … earn their keep by drawing attention to a particular place, organisation or idea despite, or because of, their lack of polish.’
Designed by Manabu Mizuno, Kumamon (whose name combines the first character of Kumamoto with the local dialect rendering of ‘mono’, or thing) seems to fit the bill. The only difference is that, well, he’s actually popular: he won the nationwide Yuru-Kyara Grand Prix poll in 2011, beating out competition from the likes of Ehime mascot (and 2012 Grand Prix winner) Bary-san, and earned nearly ¥30 billion in merchandise sales last year. When revered German toymaker Steiff launched a Japan-only Kumamon stuffed bear in a limited edition of 1,500 earlier this year, it sold out immediately – despite the not-inconsiderable price tag of ¥29,800.
So will Les Françaises embrace this burly furball? Kumamon has already made PR appearances around Asia – including Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore – but that’s hardly a guarantee of European success. Still, he might find a sympathetic audience in France – not least because the country has been tentatively trying to boost its own native bear population.
Oh, and if you’re looking for Kumamon merchandise in Tokyo, ‘antenna shop’ Ginza Kumamotokan is the place to head.