In 2010, the Kumamoto prefecture in Japan created the character Kumamon to draw tourists to the region after the opening of the Kyushu Shinkansen train line.[1] Kumamon quickly rose in popularity and was voted a top character in a 2011 nationwide survey of mascots, gaining over 280,000 votes.[2] Kumamon is a black bear with rosy cheeks and a “lively and friendly personality” that has brought the Kumamoto prefecture significant attention (see Figure 1).[3] As one of the many Japanese yuru-kyara, or “loose characters,” Kumamon is arguably one of the most popular cute mascots on a local and global level. Popular culture critic Miura Jun coined the term yuru-kyara in 2004 to “denote characters designed for public relations of local governing bodies, events, and local goods.”[4] These mascots are derived from “creature suits,” which ties into a “long tradition of anthropomorphizing natural phenomena to naturalize cultural ideals,” much like the bear Kumamon.[5] When made into kigurumi, or full-body character suits, yuru-kyara are unstable and “wobble, making them all the more lovable.” In recent years, Kumamon has exerted strong economic and political influences, popularizing the commodification and globalization of cuteness.

Figure 1. Kumamon in Kumamon Square, a shopping mall in Kumamoto, Japan.

Cute characters are often stylistically simplified, and much of the cute aesthetic “depends on a softness that invites physical touching.”[6] Kumamon’s soft black fur, rounded body, and plain features evoke feelings of endearment and physical affection and thus generate positive feelings about the Kumamoto prefecture. Kumamon and his cuteness serve “as potential healing for alienation in the modern world”; his positivity and curiosity offer a healing relief and emotional coping mechanism to deal with the mundane and stressful environments of work and office life.[7] Kumamon also provides a sense of solidarity and comfort to people during natural disasters and spreads awareness of these crises. Following the 2016 earthquake in the Kumamoto prefecture, he visited the most affected locations, and people “squealed and hugged him, happy to see their friend come back.”[8] During a challenging period, Kumamon provided a sense of reassurance and familiarity, demonstrating his significant impact on communities beyond his marketability, economics, and capitalism.

In addition to providing emotional support for communities, Kumamon promotes the Kumamoto prefecture itself and its products (see Figure 2). Along with other yuru-kyara, Kumamoto is used in “the context of a culture of commercial cute in Japan.”[9] He typically appears in fanshii guzzu, “cute [and] decorative personal items often marketed to young women.”[10] Since Kumamoto’s release into Japanese media, he has been a strong advertising force, as he has brought attention to Kumamoto’s products and generated “¥11.8 billion in revenues in the first six months of 2012 alone, after drumming up only ¥2.56 billion in all of 2011.”[11] According to surveys of local businesses, local companies credited this boost in sales to specifically Kumamon’s presence. 

Kumamon influences the domestic economy and entertainment and further represents Japan’s global soft power. According to Joseph Nye, soft power is the “ability to directly influence behavior or interests through cultural or ideological means” rather than coercion or force.[12] Japan’s development of cute characters and mascots helps to promote the country’s international appeal through a more passive, non-coercive influence (see Figure 3). Mascots have the above soft power, in part because they are advertised as “a friendly character, something between a mascot and a human” rather than being viewed purely as marketing tools.[13] Japan has used the “Cool Japan” strategy to build relationships with foreign countries and increase the country’s appeal on a global scale.[14] Kumamon has been incorporated into this “Cool Japan” plan as a representation of modern Japanese culture, as well as become popular enough to sell in stores nationwide and be seen on national television. Kumamon has also been diplomatically employed to promote Japanese culture, drawing people from around the world to his prefecture.[15] In fact, evincing Japan’s global influence through Kumamon and yuru-kyara, other countries have adopted their own similar mascots. The Israeli embassy and American embassy have created Shaloum-chan and Tom the Jellybean, respectively, taking inspiration from Kumamon and other Japanese mascots. 

Figure 2. Kumamon stuffed plushies and other accessories.

Although Kumamon’s cuteness has brought him global fame and economic success, it has also unfortunately granted him immunity when he exhibits poor behavior in public. The immunity is partially attributable to Japan’s media stance on sexual harassment, or sekuhara, which “remains a space in which it is still visibly enacted and often framed as humorous.”[16] Public displays of sexual harassment by Japanese mascots are regarded as acts of entertainment instead of as serious violations of one’s personhood. Such is the case with Kumamon whether acting purposefully or jokingly, he has been seen in YouTube videos performing “non-consensual acts of a sexual nature on female audience members such as grabbing their breasts.”[17] The humorous framing of his behavior perpetuates the trivialization of sexual assault and reinforces “norms of sexual objectification and suppression of women in the Japanese workplace,” especially since he has been characterized as a hard-working manager. As Kumamon is a human playing the role of a cute bear, the line between human and animal is blurred, essentially barring him from ordinary boundaries of societal behavior.[18] People have commented on the YouTube videos, claiming that if someone wears a Kumamon costume and performs perverse acts, “It is ok because he is a bear,’ [and] ‘if you wear Kumamon’s suit, you will be surrounded by women, and if you don’t, you will be surrounded by the police.’” Kumamon’s actions are framed as humorous and “merely an innocent expression of a yuru-kyara’s kawaii nature,” problematically legitimizing sexually inappropriate behavior.[19]

Furthermore, Kumamon’s cuteness and behavior have damaging effects on views of women’s sexuality. Some have suggested that “Kumamon’s acts are innocuous because there is a woman inside the costume,” thus portraying a heteronormative view of sexual harassment that “legitimizes such acts if they take place between two women” as if to say that women are unable to commit acts of sekuhara in the way a man could.[20] This perspective perpetuates the idea that women are not in control of their own sexuality and can only be on the receiving end of sexual acts. Fortunately, since 2019, a greater number of people have condemned Kumamon’s actions as well as the positive responses to his inappropriate behavior, revealing how “Japanese audiences are feeling increasingly confident to call out the sexual harassment they encounter online” and the evolution of a social movement against cultural norms that harm women.[21]

Figure 3. Photos of Kumamon with other popular Japanese mascots.

The development of Kumamon and other cute characters has contributed to Japan’s economic and global success as a nation, as well as served to increase local pride and as a source of healing and stress relief for fans. However, despite their positive influences, these mascots may trivialize and perpetuate sexual harassment in various contexts, including the workplace. In developing cute mascots such as Kumamon, it is essential to consider the potential benefits and harms that characters cause as a result of their considerable influence on community values and beliefs to establish and ensure a better, more equitable society for all.

Published: 6/30/2023


[1] “Yurukyara–a Japanese approach to regional PR,” Japan Local Government Centre (JLGC), accessed April 14, 2023, https://www.jlgc.org.uk/en/news_letter/yurukyara-a-japanese-approach-to-regional-pr/.

[2] Japan Local Government Centre, “Yurukyara.”

[3] Walanchalee Wattanacharoensil, Sappawat Kantamara, and Kaewta Muangasame, “An investigation of the Kumamon and Sukjai mascots on destination branding,” Journal of Place Management and Development 14, no. 2 (2020).

[4] Debra J. Occhi, “Kumamon: Japan’s Surprisingly Cheeky Mascot,” in Introducing Japanese Popular Culture, ed. Alisa Freedman and Toby Slade (New York: Routledge, 2018).

[5] Occhi, “Kumamon,” 13.

[6] Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant‐Garde,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 815.

[7] Zachary Long, “Japan’s Next Top Mascot: An Analysis of the Use of Character Marketing and Commercial Cute in Japan,” Wittenberg University East Asian Studies Journal 43 (May 2019): 25.

[8] Ali Soltani et al., “Exploring city branding strategies and their impacts on local tourism success, the case study of Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan,” Asia Pacific Journal of Tourism Research 23, no. 2 (2018): 10.

[9] Long, “Japan’s Next Top Mascot,” 40.

[10] Occhi, “Kumamon,” 13.

[11] Long, “Japan’s Next Top Mascot,” 35.

[12] Christine R. Yano, “Wink on Pink: Interpreting Japanese Cute as It Grabs the Global Headlines,” The Journal of Asian Studies 68, no. 3 (August 2009): 683.

[13] Long, “Japan’s Next Top Mascot,” 38.

[14] Long, “Japan’s Next Top Mascot,” 39.

[15] Yilin Liao et al. “Analysis on the Marketing Strategy of Regional IP Brands,” Journal of Simulation 9, no. 1 (2021): 3.

[16] Helen Xilun Pang and Maria Kathryn Tomlinson, “The trivialization of sexual harassment in Japanese mascot culture: Japanese audience responses to YouTube videos of Kumamon,” Feminist Media Studies (2022): 1, https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2022.2126872.

[17] Pang and Tomlinson, “The trivialization of sexual harassment,” 2.

[18] Pang and Tomlinson, “The trivialization of sexual harassment,” 3.

[19] Pang and Tomlinson, “The trivialization of sexual harassment,” 12.

[20] Pang and Tomlinson, “The trivialization of sexual harassment” 10.

[21] Pang and Tomlinson, “The trivialization of sexual harassment,” 2.