Two of Japan’s most iconic creators shared the stage at Rakuten Optimism in Yokohama last month for a discussion on branding: Writer Kundo Koyama and art director and creative director for Samurai Inc., Kashiwa Sato.

Koyama is best known globally for the cult classic TV program Iron Chef, along with the Academy Award-winning film Departures. He was recently appointed branding advisor for Kumamoto Prefecture in western Japan, where he played a significant role in the production of one of Japan’s most beloved and recognizable regional mascots: Kumamon.

Kumamon (right) made an appearance in the exhibition hall at Rakuten Optimism, much to the delight of both merchants and customers.
Kumamon (right) made an appearance in the exhibition hall at Rakuten Optimism, much to the delight of merchants and customers.

Kumamon: branding for an entire prefecture

“There was actually a time when I lost sight of what Kumamon was supposed to be,” Koyama related. “I had previously thought of a brand as something that tried to sell a certain image of itself to the people. I feel like that’s the Western way of doing things. But do you know what the very first Kumamon product was? A butsudan. A household Buddhist altar.”

The Kumamon character was created to draw tourists to Kumamoto following the opening of a new bullet train line, but the brand had no coherent strategy.

“[I thought], there is no way a brand this lax could ever succeed. But here we are.” Writer Kundo Koyama talks about the incredible success of Kumamoto Prefecture’s regional mascot, Kumamon.
“[I thought], there is no way a brand this lax could ever succeed. But here we are.” Writer Kundo Koyama talks about the incredible success of Kumamoto Prefecture’s regional mascot, Kumamon.

“We basically gave the rights away for free to anyone in Kumamoto that wanted to use it, and the first business that came knocking was a merchant of Buddhist articles,” Koyama recalls. “I asked one of the members of the Kumamoto branding team, why is Kumamon’s first product a butsudan? He said, well, we couldn’t think of a reason to say no. I thought, there is no way a brand this lax could ever succeed. But here we are.”

This highly organic approach to branding catapulted Kumamon from relative obscurity to superstardom, creating one of the most popular regional mascots in history and contributing significantly to the revitalization of Kumamoto Prefecture’s tourism industry.

The ‘Hello Kitty model’

Renowned designer Kashiwa Sato has made his mark with a number of different iconic Japanese logos, including those of 7-11, UNIQLO and — since 2003 — Rakuten.

“I think brands like Rakuten, UNIQLO and 7-11 are really concentrations of all the good things about Japan,” commented Sato. “When these brands think about global branding, they really need to think about it in terms of branding for Japan as a whole.”

Sato also compared the brand strategies of Rakuten and other Japanese companies to brands in other countries. “Mickey [Mikitani] throws so many different ideas and businesses my way, it’s not easy to bring them all under one brand,” he laughed, highlighting Japanese brands known for their highly diverse portfolio of products.

“Brands like Rakuten, UNIQLO and 7-11 are really concentrations of all the good things about Japan,” said Kashiwa Sato, art director and creative director, Samurai Inc., who has worked with Rakuten since 2003.
“Brands like Rakuten, UNIQLO and 7-11 are really concentrations of all the good things about Japan,” said Kashiwa Sato, art director and creative director, Samurai Inc., who has worked with Rakuten since 2003.

“Western branding tends to follow the ‘Disney model.’ They manage every part of the brand, all the way from Mickey Mouse down to the fine details,” he explained. “Hello Kitty, on the other hand, has a really interesting brand strategy. They have just a few rules on where not to go — like politics, violence and adult content, for example. Anything else is on the table. Everything from luxury brands to regional mascot branding. That’s the Japanese approach, and the approach I thought would best fit Rakuten as well.”

Brands and the stories behind them

A seasoned TV writer, Koyama is always on the lookout for new stories to tell. He spoke about his love for Rakuten Ichiba’s unique product pages, which are left completely up to merchants to customize and tell their stories.

“You know how you sometimes go to a restaurant, and they’ve listed up the long history of the chef or the owner and their culinary journey? I’m the kind of guy who reads those,” he told the audience. “You’re already in the restaurant, so it’s not like they’re trying to pull you in, but reading those stories always draws me in closer to the brand.”

It’s these stories that give value to products, Koyama said. “For example, the matcha (green tea) cups used in tea ceremonies are incredibly expensive. Yet functionally, they’re the same as any teacup you can find at the dollar store. What’s the difference?” he posed. “It’s about how the user feels. That’s where that additional value comes from.”

Sato agreed: “That’s really all that branding is. Functionally, the cups can be exactly the same, but with the right brand and story, the value of that cup could be completely different.”

The courage to start something new

Koyama left the audience — among them many Rakuten Ichiba merchants—with a story about courage.

“Japan broadcast its very first weather forecast around 1884,” he began. “Today’s forecasts are really accurate — it’s going to be exactly this many degrees at this exact location. But the first forecast went something like this: winds across the country, changeable conditions, possible rain. Just three lines broadcast to all of Japan.

“Looking back it seems laughably rough, but that was the absolute limit of what they were able to predict back then. Whenever you try and start something completely new, it might seem laughable how little you can do at the beginning. But it’s only thanks to you taking that laughable first step that someone else is then able to take the next step, and at some point in the distant future your idea will have blossomed into something incredible. I think there is value in trying anything new, no matter how laughable it may seem.”


Learn more about the Rakuten Optimism event held in Japan from July 31-August 3 here

For more information about the upcoming Rakuten Optimism event in San Francisco on October 23, please visit this site.