Japan imperial couple meet man-sized bear

He is instantly recognised all over Japan, generates millions of dollars of merchandising sales, and has 300,000 Twitter followers. Now Kumamon, an oversized cartoon bear, has a new fan: the empress.

Michiko and her husband Emperor Akihito got what was almost certainly their first taste of the adult-sized mascot when they met him on a visit to his home city of Kumamoto in southern Japan.

Kumamon -- whose name blends his birthplace with the local dialect word for "person" -- performed a dance for the imperial couple, reproducing the steps he performs in a video that has already garnered nearly two million viewings on YouTube.

"Thank you, Kumamon-san," said the 79-year-old empress.

The ruddy-cheeked bear is the most popular of Japan's ubiquitous "yuru-kyara" ("laid back character"), mascots that are pressed into service to represent everything from regions to companies or even prisons, in a country where cute is king.

Since his birth in 2011, Kumamon has become the official marketing manager for the local government, charged with boosting sales of regional produce and attracting tourists.

His monthly schedule, posted on his official website, indicates he is a character in demand, showing up at promotion and charity events throughout the nation and even travelling abroad.

In September, Asahikawa Prison in Japan's far north unveiled "Katakkuri-chan", a nearly two-metre (6 foot 6 inch) humanoid with a huge square face and an enormous purple flower for hair, aimed at softening the image of the jail.

However, "Fukuppy", the winged egg introduced by a refrigerator-maker, drew a collective titter from English-speaking Internet users earlier this month, who pointed out its name sounded like a description of the hapless handling of the disaster at Fukushima nuclear plant.