When a 6.2 magnitude earthquake hit Japan’s Kyushu island in April, concerned citizens around the world hurriedly took to social media to ask about the health of a mysterious figure named Kumamon — which had ominously gone silent after the first shockwave hit.
“Earthquake just happened,” Margie Tam posted from Hong Kong. “R u ok kumamon?”
“Pray for Kumamoto & Kumamon,” wrote Ming Jang Lee from Thailand.
What with the immediate concern for his wellbeing, one would think Kumamon would be a beloved celebrity. But Kumamon isn’t a human — in fact he’s not even real.
Kumamon is a “yuru kara” or a loose character and is the official mascot of Kumamoto Prefecture. The round-faced bear is about 5 feet tall with bright red check spots and provides a touch of “kawaii” (cuteness) to the serious business of saving the environment, promoting cuisine, tourism and even collection of taxes. The mascot even has its own active Twitter feed with over 500,000 followers.
The life-size Kumamon is an honored guest at about 2,000 events each year.
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The mascot which was first created by the government of Kumamoto Prefecture in 2010 is the undisputed mascot king of the region. In just a few years, Kumamon has had his image plastered from everything to cookie bags to hotel suites.
Online stores offer Kumamon merchandise like T-shirts, lingerie, chopping board, bed sheets, Q-tips and everything else under the sun. And in 2013, when the German plush toy company had a joint venture with Kumamon and created 1,500 stuffed black bears for a whopping price of 29,400 yen ($276), they reportedly sold out in just five seconds.
Sales of the popular black mascot reached 2.5 billion yen ($23.5 million) a year in 2011 and climbed to an astounding 29.3 billion yen ($275 million) in 2012.
“We’re just a bunch of humble civil servants from the backcountry,” laughed Hisao Wakasugi, the manager of the six-person team that runs Kumamon. “But my motto is, if we’re in doubt about a new idea, if it’s a new frontier, we go and just do it.”
The red-cheeked mascot owes its commercial success to an ingenious (and unusual) marketing strategy. Kumamoto does not ask companies for a fee to use Kumamon’s image. The company simply fills out a form and gets permission to use it from the prefecture and the government only request they add something that promotes Kumamoto, be it a single ingredient or a line endorsing the region.
The simple process has prompted stores, companies, hotels and even other prefectures to ride on the mascot’s coattails.
“While we don’t know in hard numbers how much we profit, we do what we can to gain recognition for Kumamoto prefecture,” Wakasugi said.
“He doesn’t look like much,” a fan commented on the Kumamon website, “but somehow, he captures your heart.”