From Mosaic 20 July On 14 April , a 6. Hundreds of aftershocks — one an even stronger 7. News spread immediately around the globe on social media. Kumamoto is a city of , in a largely agricultural province in south-western Japan. But what, or more precisely who, is Kumamon? And why in the wake of an immense natural disaster did concern for earthquake victims focus on him, specifically? It is 12 March , one month before the earthquake. Kumamon bounds onto an outdoor stage at the opening event of his birthday party in Kumamoto.
About guests — mostly women — cheer, clap and whistle. He has black glossy fur, circular red cheeks and wide, staring eyes Kumamon waves and bows. He is about 1. One woman in the crowd holds a Kumamon doll swaddled in a baby blanket.
Another has dressed her doll in a grey outfit matching her own. She says it took her a month to sew. A number of fans have pasted red paper circles on their cheeks to mimic his. Those in the first row arrived at 3am to snag their prime spots to greet the object of their intense though difficult-to-explain affection. She slept in, showing up at 6am for the 10am kick-off, so had to settle for a seat in the last row.
A representative from Honda, which has a motorbike factory nearby, gives him its Kumamon-themed scooter. An Italian bicycle maker unveils a custom Kumamon racing cycle.
Plus a new exercise DVD, on which Kumamon leads the workout. View image of Cute characters adorn planes, and various other forms of transport Credit: Getty Images So what is he then? Kumamon has a far wider field of operation as the yuru-kyara for Kumamoto Prefecture a prefecture is like a state in the US or a county in England.
He has become more than a symbol for that region, more than merely a strategy to push its tourism and farm products. He is almost regarded as a living entity, a kind of funky ursine household god it is perhaps significant that the very first licensed Kumamon product was a full-sized Buddhist shrine emblazoned with his face. View image of Credit: Into the vacuum came hundreds, then thousands of drawings, posted by everyone from children to professional manga artists, not only from Japan, but from Thailand, Hong Kong, China.
They waged an impromptu campaign of drumming up support for earthquake relief using the bear. Kumamon was depicted leading the rescue efforts, his head bandaged, lifting stones to rebuild the tumbled walls of Kumamoto Castle, propping up tottering foundations, enfolding children in his arms.
Is appreciation for cuteness hardwired in human beings? What does it say about our society? What is happening here? Not only does kawaii include the army of Japanese mascots, but a world of fashion that has adult women dressing as schoolgirls and schoolgirls dressing as goth heroines or Lolita seductresses, giving rise to ero-kawaii,or erotic kawaii, a mash-up of cute and sexy.
What about it causes us to open our wallets and our hearts? And where do our concepts of cuteness originate? Alamy Babies are our model for cuteness. He was a Nazi psychologist writing during wartime, exploring their loathsome eugenic theories — a reminder that the shiny face of cuteness invariably conceals a thornier side.
For decades, scientists focused on what babies perceive, what they think. But in the 21st Century, attention turned to how babies themselves are perceived, as cuteness started taking its first wobbly steps toward becoming a cohesive realm of research. Experiments have demonstrated that viewing cute faces improves concentration and hones fine motor skills — useful modifications for handling an infant. Rex Features These emotions are triggered chemically, deep within the brain.
Experiments have demonstrated that viewing cute faces improves concentration Women appear to feel this reaction more strongly than men. It mattered, she found, whether the person designing the rectangle was in the US or South Korea. Cuteness is nothing if not culturally specific, and that itself has become a rich focus of inquiry.
Alamy Cuteness is so associated with Japan that the actual country — mile after mile of unadorned concrete buildings alternating with rolling green fields and periodic densely packed cities — can come as something of a surprise. The Tokyo subway is jammed with hurrying businessmen in dark suits, rushing women in paper masks, racing kids in plain school uniforms. Cute characters such as Kumamon can be hard to spot, and to expect otherwise is like going to America and expecting everyone to be a cowboy.
Still, there are pockets of cuteness to be found: But not everywhere, not even in most places. Exit from the Shinkansen bullet train at Kumamoto station and there is nothing special on the platform. Not so much as a banner. In the city, his face is spread across the sides of an office building, with birthday banners hanging from the semi-enclosed shopping arcades that are a feature of every Japanese city. There is an active volcano, Mt Aso, nearby, and a s reproduction of a dramatic s-era castle that burned down in Kumamoto residents believed there was nothing in their city that anyone would want to visit.
The region is largely agricultural, growing melons and strawberries. Alamy But in , Japan Railways was working to extend the Shinkansen bullet train to Kumamoto, and the city fathers were eager for tourists to use it.
The exclamation point logo was a red blotch, resembling the sole of a shoe. The designer, seeking to embellish it, and knowing the popularity of yuru-kyara, added a surprised black bear. Kuma is Japanese for bear. Kumamon was voted the most popular yuru-kyara in Japan has a national contest, the Yuru-kyara Grand Prix, held in November. The most recent one was attended by 1, different mascots and nearly 77, spectators.
Millions of votes were cast. But the Kumamoto governor was a fan and cannily waived licensing fees for Kumamon, encouraging manufacturers to use him royalty-free.
Go into a grocery store and Kumamon smiles from every punnet of strawberries and honeydew wrapper. He was there to greet the first scheduled train, a moment recreated during his birthday fest. The journalists posed respectful questions. Alamy For every Kumamon, for every popular yuru-kyara, there are a hundred Harajuku Miccolos. A 5ft-tall yellow-and-brown bee, Harajuku Miccolo stands on the pavement, celebrating Honey Bee Day by finishing up three hours of loitering in front of the Colombin Bakery and Cafe, greeting passers-by — or trying to.
Most barely glance in his direction and do not break stride, though some do come over and happily pose for the inevitable picture. There is no line. Harajuku Miccolo is cute yet obscure, the common fate for most yuru-kyara. The city of Osaka has 45 different characters promoting its various aspects, who must fend off periodic calls for them to be culled in the name of efficiency; one administrator piteously argued that the government officials who create these characters work hard on them and so would feel bad if they were discontinued.
Harajuku Miccolo is trying to avoid that fate. Getty Images Humanity has always embraced household gods: Often people of both sexes are alone in the world. Teddy bears exist because the night is dark and long and at some point your parents have to go to bed and leave you. There is real comfort in cuteness. It fills an emotional need, writes Christine R Yano , a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the author of Pink Globalization: When a society needs to heal, it seeks comfort in the familiar.
In the weeks after the Kumamoto earthquake, Kumamon was so necessary that in his absence his fans simply conjured him up themselves, independently, as an object of sympathy, a tireless saviour, an obvious hero. Three weeks after the 14 April earthquake, Kumamon visited the convention hall of the hard-hit town of Mashiki, where residents were still sleeping in their cars for protection as 1, tremors continued to rumble across the area.
The visit was reported on TV and in the papers as news, as if a long-sought survivor had stumbled out of the wreckage alive. The children, many of whom had lost their homes in the earthquake, flocked around him, squealing, hugging, taking pictures. Their friend had returned. If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.