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Barely-a-bear Kumamon could be the next faker to shock Japan

by Amy Chavez

Japan’s “deaf composer,” Mamoru Samuragochi, has turned out to be an imposter. Wow, who’s next? Well, I’ll tell you.

For years, I’ve suspected there’s something different about Kumamon the bear. I think soon we’ll be reading the following news about Japan’s most popular mascot and major tourist draw for Kumamoto Prefecture:

It has been discovered that Kumamon is not really a bear. People first started suspecting the bear was not genuine when it was revealed that he was not from Kumamoto Prefecture and that, in fact, he came from Hiroshima.

Born in March 2010 and employed to help promote tourism to the mountainous Kyushu prefecture, Kumamon has been the most successful character in Japan’s yuru-kyara (soft character) boom.

He was celebrated as a bear genius, appearing in YouTube videos and dancing for the Emperor and Empress. The phenom used his power of cute to amass a Twitter fan base of 300,000 followers, and his star appeal won him praise, seeing him lauded as Japan’s modern-day state-of-the-art Ursa Major.

The mascot’s barely-a-bear black figure is pear-shaped. He has wide white eyes and fire-engine-red cheeks. His overall figure has been described as “doughy.” Like most yuru-kyara in Japan, people wouldn’t know he was a bear if they hadn’t been told. When every character imaginable has already been imagined, it’s no wonder new icons look nothing like real animals; the idea is to invent new ones.

The mascot’s name was derived from the first kanji of the prefecture name, kuma, which means bear. So endearing is the mammal, you’d expect to find him donning ice skates and touring with a holiday show on ice.

Unless you’ve become a cute-aholic like the Japanese, you may consider the Kumamon craze unbearable and find yourself exclaiming, “Oh, bother!”

But for the past year, fans have been worried Kumamon might go the way of other soiled characters who have fallen victim to poor fame management.

Recent blundering characters include Totto-chan, a green bird who started representing Tosu city in Saga Prefecture in 2004. The bird was accused of making cheep comments and lewd references on a late-night radio program. In addition, Hyakuman-san, the psychedelic Daruma doll-like mustachioed mascot of Ishikawa Prefecture, has been panned for being “just plain ugly.”

So some figured it was only a matter of time before the young Kumamon, just entering puberty now, got into trouble and did something to smear his own reputation, such as getting caught speeding down the street in a Lamborghini.

Then, as if on cue, a prominent zoologist wrote an op-ed article in a Japanese newspaper suggesting Kumamon was a fraud. You’re probably thinking, “WTF?”— “Why the fraud?”

Suspicions arose when, on an Asiana Airlines international flight, the flight attendant noticed the ticketed bear wasn’t on board and that instead, a human was sitting in Kumamon’s designated seat. The fur costume had apparently been stowed in his check-in baggage.

In his article, the zoologist noted that Kumamon had abandoned the diurnal instincts of a normal bear and that he was no longer hibernating in winter, suggestions indicating the unthinkable: that he was really just a human inside a suit.

In a nation long captivated by cute mascots, fans reacted with outrage when Kumamon admitted he was a human. Anger turned to disbelief when he publicly stripped off his bear suit in front of fans, including young children.

The public accused the ersatz bear of using the power of cute to dupe people and win over hearts for Kumamoto Prefecture. Twitter users have started criticizing the ursine pretender using the hash tag “#humamon” (meaning “human thing” in local Kumamoto dialect).

“We want Kumamon to explain his behavior,” said a Japanese newspaper, while admitting that “the media must also consider our own tendency to fall for cute characters.”

Much of Kumamon’s appeal was in his inspiring life story, in which he told of having lost his parents, members of the prominent Ursidae family, due to the logging of Japan’s forests. The tale was gullibly swallowed by a country fascinated by soft characters, where international homegrown superstars like Hello Kitty and Doraemon are the source of great pride. When Kumamon won the 2011 Yurukyara Grand Prix award, a soft-character contest that drew over 1,000 entrants, most Japanese were convinced of his authenticity. They rushed out to buy Kumamon-endorsed products and character goods.

For Japan’s struggling prefectures, Kumamon offered some rare respite from declining sales of local goods. The Kyushu prefecture has benefited to the tune of ¥120 billion from Kumamon’s prodigious racketeering, including from tourism and sales of local goods.

“With hindsight, we should have seen it coming,” said the prefectural governor. “The bear was famous for activities such as bungee jumping and dipping into hot springs. As the sales manager for Kumamoto’s agricultural products, he gave press conferences, ‘lectured’ at Harvard University and flew to France for an Expo. He’s not your average bear.”

Once revealed, several victims stepped forward to press further charges against the creature. They claimed the character moonlighted for an online dating agency, and then pressured bear-lovers he met through the job into purchasing luxury condominiums in downtown Tokyo for extortionate prices to benefit the firm. Once the property had been purchased, the animal disappeared, leaving only a small stuffed likeness of himself on their new doorstep.

Kumamon also admitted he had operated a long-running scheme to inflate earnings for the prefecture, and irregular accounting practices were uncovered in the beareaucracy.

Repercussions have been felt around the nation. The organizers of the Yurukyara Grand Prix have stripped Kumamon of his award. Baccarat has recalled its crystal figurines made in his likeness, and several books written about the character have been pulled from the shelves. Local bakeries in Kumamoto Prefecture are letting their Kumamon-emblazoned pastries and breads go moldy in store windows in protest.

“Kumamon is deeply sorry as he has betrayed and disappointed his fans,” the prefecture said in a statement released along with a photo of the costumed bear bowing deeply.

Kumamon was arrested for falsifying his identity and has now been handed a suspended two-year sentence.

The slap on the wrist by Japanese authorities set off criticism among other soft characters that the bear had been let off too lightly, and highlighted the tendency for criminal soft characters to avoid individual blame.

OK, so Kumamon being an imposter is pretty far-fetched. But so is a “deaf composer” who isn’t deaf. Samuragochi and other unscrupulous racketeers serve as reminders that there will always be those who live in the glory of their own lies, and that only the discerning will prevent themselves from becoming one of them.

Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Jenny

    This article was trending online today. Even Google News picked it up. Fun column, as usual!