Iconic mascot Kumamon, a cuddly Japanese black bear-like character that has gained worldwide fame, marked his 10th birthday Thursday, although celebrations scheduled to be held on the weekend have been postponed in light of the coronavirus outbreak.
"Even if we can't meet now, our hearts are connected. I am hoping we can return to our normal lives as soon as possible," a message attributed to the popular mascot said.
Kumamon, a representative of Kumamoto Prefecture in southwestern Japan, has been holding off on making physical contact, such as giving high-fives or hugs, with fans since Feb. 5, while shows that had been held daily at Kumamon Square, a tourist information center in his home prefecture, have also been canceled since Feb. 22.
But the coronavirus has not stopped Kumamon from posting to his official Twitter account, with his over 800,000 followers getting a stream of photos into their feeds daily.
Mascots like Kumamon are collectively known as "yurukyara," which translates literally as "loose characters." Their laid-back attitudes garner them followers who help them promote their regions and businesses in Japan.
Kumamon was initially created in March 2010 to promote Kumamoto ahead of the launch of the Kyushu shinkansen bullet train service the following year.
But the opening ceremony and other promotional events were canceled after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, a day before the service was due to commence, with character used to support fundraising activities for the disaster instead.
When Kumamoto was devastated by deadly earthquakes in April 2016, the much-loved mascot also played an active role in promoting reconstruction efforts and lifting people's spirits in affected areas.
In recent years, his profile has increased overseas, particularly in other parts of Asia.
Products bearing his image racked up sales of at least 157.9 billion yen ($1.5 billion) in 2019, according to the local government.