The Kumamoto prefectural government has set up KumaLab, a team of experts who strategically plot future paths for the mega-famous mascot Kumamon. (Shigeo Ohata)

KUMAMOTO--Kumamon rules. A household name in Japan, the bear seems to have his paws in everything, especially in his home prefecture of Kumamoto where he served as a flag-bearer for relief efforts after a series of earthquakes ravaged the region last year.

But local officials are worried.

They fear the mascot’s become so big that its popularity may soon peak and then begin to slide. A classic old plot is being hatched to deal with such an unbearable scenario--world domination.

The KumaLab research group was set up Sept. 1 to mastermind the mascot’s next moves, with anime stardom high on the agenda.

“There isn’t much room left for Kumamon’s popularity to grow in Japan. We want it to depart from being a local mascot and instead make anime for a worldwide audience and then to milk that for all it’s worth,” said Tomoko Takahashi, an anime producer at leading advertising agency Asatsu-DK Inc. and KumaLab member.

KumaLab has noted that the mascot is also incredibly popular with foreign tourists and that’s why the bear is likely to start being pushed more into fields such as information technology and anime.

The KumaLab experts have a rich diversity of backgrounds. The 12-member team includes Atsushi Hiyama, a lecturer at the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, who will work on virtual reality technologies involving Kumamon. Representatives from Hong Kong’s major retailer Yata Ltd. and Thai apparel company I.C.C. International Plc have also joined forces to raise Kumamon’s profile in their respective areas.

The number of Kumamon-related licensing contracts handled by the Kumamoto prefectural government has hovered at around 300 a month. This is nearly double the figure before the earthquakes struck the prefecture in April last year, but it was because the use of Kumamon increased to help efforts to rebuild the quake-hit areas.

Prefectural officials, however, are concerned that once reconstruction work-related demand slows down, Kumamon’s business dealings may eventually peak out, at least in Japan.

Sales of related products have been increasing year on year since hitting store shelves in 2010, with the merchandise pulling in 128 billion yen ($1.16 billion) in 2016. The prefecture’s economy relies on Kumamon when it comes to promoting its agricultural products, processed food and many other items from various fields.

The Kumamon Square, which is an exchange facility in the city’s Chuo Ward where fans can meet and greet the bear, has attracted 1.6 million visitors in the past four years. Recently, it is estimated that nearly half of the visitors are foreign tourists.

Popularity of a character can be fleeting, and in many cases, its popularity nose-dives once it is deemed a has-been.

“It is necessary for us to take on new developments and challenges to make (Kumamon) beloved for a long time,” an official said.

Making use of the efforts made by KumaLab, the officials are eager to tap into fields that have never before been explored.

“We want to make Kumamon be cherished not only by people in Kumamoto but also by people across the world,” Governor Ikuo Kabashima said.