Are you big in Japan?

September 13, 2023 • 12:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

Or perhaps, a better question, are you small in Japan? Japanese artists and technology are known for their skill in the production of miniatures and portable electronics, and small things feature prominently in both domestic material culture and in what is aimed at visitors. I’ve visited Japan only once, but my daughter lived there for a couple of years, and this summer, she, her husband, and my wife visited again, and brought me back a wonderful selection of small things that are big in Japan.

Here’s the haul, all spread out on a Yomiuri Giants face towel.

Finely detailed plastic animal miniatures are readily available in Japan. This saltwater crocodile came with an information card, in both Japanese and English.

Saltwater crocs are not found in Japan; they occur further south, in the tropics. One of my favorite Japanese animals occurs only in the far southern subtropics of Japan, the Iriomote cat, found only on the small island of Iriomote in the Ryukyus.

This frog is slightly less detailed, but it’s meant to be put on a pen or other narrow diameter object, so that created some design constraints. Nonetheless, note that it is portrayed with paired vocal sacs, while others in the series have the appropriate kind of vocal sacs as well.

I could not, however, identify the species from the miniature. Perhaps a reader who knows Japanese can let us know what its label says.

The next two are stickers, not of Japanese species, but of species popular in the pet trade, both in Japan and America. The bearded dragon below is originally Australian, but is now bred for the pet trade.

The red-eared slider, from the southern U.S., has become established in Japan, and features in Japanese material culture more prominently than native species. I saw them during my visit to Japan.

Japan seems full of vending machines of all sorts, and one kind vends small plastic animals in plastic containers. This whimsical frilled lizard has an Elizabethan collar for a frill. The booklet accompanying it shows that there are five different frilled lizards, all with whimsical collars (including a “cone of shame”), so you have to keep buying till you get ’em all! This one was a gift from a colleague at the Field Museum, who also visited Japan during the past year.

From a whimsical lizard we pass on to legendary animals. These shisa— guardian lions or lion-dogs– were brought back from Okinawa by my daughter several years ago.

Japanese miniatures can be incorporated into foodstuffs– note the pokemon faces on these snacks.

Japan is well known for making quality pens, both for every day use and special occasions. My favorite item is this fine, high quality pen, which features a miniature natural landscape that incorporates several traditional Japanese thematic elements. Note the exquisite detail of the cranes flying over the river below Mt. Fuji.

Finally, the towel on which they were all spread. The name on the towel is Kobayashi Seiji, the Giants’ catcher. My wife didn’t know which player’s towel she was getting. Given that my whole family are great Star Trek fans, it was karmically satisfying that the player’s surname was Kobayashi.

16 thoughts on “Are you big in Japan?

  1. The labels says akameamagaeru, which most likely is a combination of aka (red), me (eye) and amagaeru (tree frog), hence my guess is that it’s a red-eyed tree frog.

    1. My thanks to Mathis and Sean! Red-eyed tree frogs are in the pet trade, and could be the inspiration for the “pen frog”. But red-eyeds have a single median vocal sac, not paired sacs. The model could, of course, just be inaccurate, but I’m going to go through my Japanese herp field guide to see if there is a Japanese tree frog with red eyes and paired vocal sacs.


  2. The baby red-eared slider turtle brings back strange memories of my early childhood, where we regularly had at least one of them. Common in pet stores back then, but I hope it’s not common any more. They lived for a time, then all mysteriously disappeared. I never asked questions about their fate.

    1. Noticeably in the 70’s, toddlers started getting salmonella poisoning from putting baby red-ear sliders in their mouths, laws were passed (don’t know if federal or state) that the turtles needed to be bigger than a toddler’s mouth…I think 4″ was the determined size. But sliders are still common in pet stores around here in WA state, just not their hatchlings and youngins, and they’re always 4″ or larger. It takes a few years for a slider to make it to 4″, so I doubt it’s a profitable enterprise. If you want a hatchling and have an internet connection, I imagine they are easily procured. I visited NYC in 2007 or so, and I saw many hatchlings for sale in China-town sold by street vendors. Obviously impossible to regulate in a massive metropolis like NYC.

      The hatchlings that died when you were a child was typical…they need a clean environment for a long time to survive. Doesn’t happen in a turtle bowl that we all had back in the day…them swimming in a soup of rotten food and their own wastes…they need fresh water every day (like a dog or cat) and no one bothered. What a pain! The pet trade is sort of depressing…

  3. Oh – your cat is [merely] a subspecies of Leopard cat – the distribution of which suggests to me a comparatively recent spread, not being found on more islands in SE Asia… very nice though.

    1. Yes, it is a derivative of the Leopard Cat. There’s another subspecies of Leopard Cat that occurs on the island Tsushima, between Korea and Japan, and also on the Korean mainland. The Iriomote Cat does seem to be a relatively recent offshoot, which is part of why it’s interesting: Iriomote is not on the continental shelf, and thus the cat would have to have gotten there overwater, unless it’s a much older relic than it appears to be.


  4. Former resident of Tokyo and Japanese speaker here. I tell what I tell anybody who visits Japan (WWAAAAY more these days, in the last few decades): Visit a stationary store.
    Japanese culture and society is advanced on many fronts – you wouldn’t think office supplies and student needs, home art, etc. But you’d be wrong. GO!

    I notice our host hasn’t been to Japan yet…. (hint hint)

    I remember growing up in the 1980s in Australia they reported on the frill lizard being hugely popular in Japan. Our 2 cent pieces with them on it got big collector bucks then!


    1. I should have mentioned that the real frilled lizard, on which I presume the toy frilled lizards are based, is indeed a familiar (to herpetologists) Australian lizard. And, besides the pen, note the other stationery item, the field paper notebook.


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