I can't quite recall the first time I came across these beings, but I remember seeing flashes of these "Mickey Mouse failures on TV when I first came to Japan, their unbalanced figures waddling about, their bodies so large that they can just about wiggle their hand to and fro in a pathetic wave, attempting to promote their prefecture.
Because that's what they are. "Prefectural Mascots", which are characters that are created in an attempt to increase tourist crowds in their homelands.
My first impressions of them were not exactly impressive. First, it made me smile that everything in Japan has to be "kawaii" (they have characters for everything, from health insurance companies to your local petrol station). Secondly, they appeared to me as cheap, lamer versions of our well-known folk at the land of Mr. Walt, as mentioned above. Most of them weren't particularly that cute anyway for Japanese standards, and though kids would squeal with joy and mums would snap away at them on their keitais, they simply stood there doing...sod all, really.
Except for Kumamon.
He is something quite, quite different.