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Steinberg: A break from politics, sort of, with Japan’s top bear

Kumamon sold $1 billion worth of merchandise in Asia last year. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

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“Tell the world about our Kumamon,” urged Hoei Tokunaga, as we shook hands goodbye after a weekend together last March. That one sentence, so sincere, almost beseeching, somehow summarized my week in Japan.

Tokunaga’s title is assistant deputy director of the Kumamoto prefectural government. In reality he is a coat holder for a teddy bear, one of 20 functionaries wrangling the massive business dealings, intense media interest and hectic publicity schedule of Kumamon, an imaginary black bear with red cheeks that is among the most popular mascots in Japan.

Kumamon’s handlers claim he is on his way to becoming bigger than Mickey Mouse or Hello Kitty. So I might as well introduce him to you, given that he is almost unknown in this country. In Asia, Kumamon sold $1 billion worth of merchandise last year.

You may have noticed we are not talking about politics. That’s intentional. If President Obama’s passionate evocation of the power and glory that is America left you unmoved Wednesday, if Hillary Clinton’s address Thursday only intensified your doorjamb-biting hatred for her, what am I supposed to do? Politics is a 24-hour hobbyhorse and sometimes, to remain sane, a person should get off and let it rock by itself for awhile. Friday, the gateway to the weekend, is the perfect day to take a break. The bad dream that is Election 2016 will be waiting for us Monday, right where we left it.

In the spring, London’s Mosaic web site sent me to Japan to explore cuteness studies. Seventy years ago, Konrad Lorenz first described how the faces of babies — big head, eyes and cheeks, small nose and jaw, wobbly manner — formed a universal template that sparks nurturing in humans. Recently, cuteness as a field of study has taken off. I spoke with academics in Tokyo and Hiroshima, and timed my visit to be in southwestern Japan for Kumamon’s three-day birthday festival. If you need a lift — and at this point who doesn’t? — turn off CNN and watch Kumamon’s official video on YouTube. Though I warn you, the tune will ring in your head for a week.

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Besides testifying to the human ability to forge attachments with inanimate objects, Kumamon is an amazing business success story. He was created in 2010 when the Japanese National Railway extended the bullet train to Kumamoto, a rural nowhere of strawberry fields and volcanoes that would be shattered by an earthquake shortly after I visited. Imagine if Amtrak decided to run a 175 mph express to Springfield, except a Springfield with volcanoes. Kumamoto officials wanted to lure tourists and designed Kumamon as the region’s mascot. These cuddly ambassadors represent not only Japanese towns but airports and prisons.

Usually manufacturers pay upfront to license the characters — if I wanted to make a Kumamon doll, I’d write a check first. But Kumamoto prefecture cannily decided to give away Kumamon’s image, free, provided permission was secured and the products were either made locally, used local materials or pushed their tourism. So the box of a Kumamon toy truck carries photos of noteworthy sites around Kumamoto.

It worked. Six years later, Kumamon has appeared on 100,000 products, from stickers to airplanes. Honda makes a Kumamon motorbike. Leica sold a $3,300 Kumamon camera. A Tokyo jeweler crafted a solid gold Kumamon statuette and offered it for $1 million. There is a Kumamon bar — the KumaBar — selling Kumamon beer and sake made in Kumamoto.

Besides pushing products, Kumamon makes appearances. Fans line up for hours. I went to one event that began at 10 a.m.; those in the front row had arrived at 3 a.m. Quite a fuss for a guy in a bear suit. Which leads us back to the election. I won’t say the candidate hardly matters — you can’t, when the choice is so stark. I will say, there is the individual and then there are our hopes and fears, the complicated meanings we layer upon that individual. Those can be very different things.

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