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.

Readers’ travel photos

May 24, 2021 • 8:00 am

Travel counts as wildlife, so remember that when you send in your good photos. Today’s contributor is regular Joe Routon, whose captions are indented. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

here are a few of my international street shots. In Tokyo, here’s a kannushi, a Shinto priest, who’s burning incense. The use of incense in worship was developed in China and eventually carried to Japan in the 6th century.

A group of Buddhist monks on holiday in India.


In Florence, Italy, with the Ponte Vecchio in the background, this shows a nontraditional stance for photographers.


A tarantula seller in Cambodia, where fried tarantulas are a delicacy. On the street you can buy them plain or rolled in garlic or sugar. I tried one plain and regretted it.

A popular board game in China is Xiangqi, their version of chess. Instead of bishops, knights, pawns and the like, Xiangqi has cannons, chariots, and elephants. As in chess, the object is to capture your opponent’s king.

Here are young Buddhist monks in Myanmar who are performing ablutions before their one daily meal.

Returning to the US of A, here are a father and son who have just completed the Rocky run up the Museum of Art steps in Philadelphia.

A real commercial for Trumpybear: your conservative teddy

November 12, 2018 • 12:15 pm

Grania sent me a tweet with this “Trumpybear” commercial in it and said that it was a real commercial for a real product, as verified by Snopes.

And, sure enough, Snopes says it’s a genuine product for sale. The details:

Exceptional Products, the Texas company that markets Trumpy Bear on television, also uses infomercials and television advertising to promote products like Hairdini, Save a Blade and Plaque Attack.

In October 2017, the commercial began running on 10 TV networks, including Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel, according to the advertising and media news web site Ad Age.

The product consists of the 22-inch tall stuffed animal and a 28-by-30-inch American flag blanket that can be stored in a zipped pouch inside Trumpy Bear himself, according to the product web site. Trumpy Bear costs $39.90, which can be paid in two installments of $19.95.

We asked Exceptional Products about sales of Trumpy Bear, but the company declined to provide any details. Nonetheless, we know people have been buying the toy, in particular as a Christmas present according to several social media posts.

And yes, “President” Trump was born on Flag Day in 1946.

The world has gone insane when you can’t tell the difference between a Trumpybear commercial and a Saturday Night Live skit.

My Handicat!

March 10, 2017 • 7:00 am

Last Caturday I highlighted the “Handicat” finger puppet, and told you where to order it.  Well, a kind reader named Michael (THANK YOU!) sent me a Handicat in the mail, and it’s quite funny. This morning I entertained my office cleaner with a little puppet performance; she was pretty amused.  Here’s my new toy:

Look at those toes! The cat has a very realistic face, too.  Highly recommended as a stocking-stuff for your cat-loving friends.

Readers’ childhood plushies

November 12, 2014 • 9:30 am

I didn’t expect such a big response when I asked readers to send in photos of their childhood “plushies.” And even after the first post, featuring a dozen bears, turtles, and so on, I continue to receive them. I attribute this to the “Madeleine Effect,” expressed by the equation “Bear = Memories.”

So, in lieu of “Readers’ wildlife photos” today, here’s installment #3 of “Readers’ plushies.”

Reader Alex has a bear in surprisingly good condition:

Big Bear has been with me since my birthday in 1969.  There is some sort of mechanical device inside Big Bear that gives off a “baaaaah” sound when he is turned upside down – and it still works perfectly.  Big Bear is likely in such pristine shape because of the unselfish sacrifice of Wa-wa, another bear (not pictured) who was chewed upon incessantly.
Big Bear now sits in my daughters’ room watching over them.

Reader Leo sends a bonus: a toy and a cat:

These are Druil and Druil, two of our domestic animals.  Druil on the right is a dog.  He has been with me since I was little. (He was a lot more fluffy back then; through the years he underwent several makeovers.)  His name is short for “Druiloor”, which is probably best translated as “Droopy”.  He was the most important dog in the world for me, hence he got the title “boss of all dogs”.

Druil on the left is a former stray cat that we took in when she was only about two months old.  My wife named her after my former teddy-dog to endear me to the idea of having a cat in the house.  Apparently she succeeded, because now we have six!

You can imagine that it is not an easy task for a little cat to be the boss of all dogs, but she is doing the best she can, even though she sometimes shies away from all too large underlings she encounters in the yard.  However, she is a little afraid of Druil the dog; I had to take the picture while she was sleeping.


Reader Kimberley has a rather frightening d*g:
“Spotty D*g,” a toy Dalmatian whose gaping red mouth somewhat diminishes his overall cuteness (but not my fondness for him), was my mom’s childhood companion. She passed him on to me when I was born, and he’s still in pretty good shape although I had to do a little surgery on his right front paw years ago to keep the spherical rattle embedded therein from escaping.
Thanks to my mom, the “Spotty D*g” family has had several new additions over the years. Spotty is pictured with one of his newer, cleaner (and nameless) family members.
Reader Lynn sent a whole menagerie, including a very aged bear. This is the third toy panda that has been imaginatively named “Panda”!
I recognize I am late to the picnic, but attached is a picture of Teddie, Bunny, Elephant and Panda. Yes, I was equally imaginative as the majority of readers. Teddy is 60+ and technically my brother’s bear. I adopted him at a young age and as you can see, never gave him up. Panda was a gift from said brother when I was 8 in an attempt to make me give Teddy back. Not being furry, he didn’t quite cut it. Bunny was much loved and had to be re-stuffed, remade and dressed by my Mother after my older brothers strangled her on one of our many family road trips. My mother lovingly dressed Teddy and Panda  as pirates for me, though much of the clothing was lost over the years. She had a huge collection of stuffed bears which she tried to disguise by ostensibly giving them to me, and later keeping them in my childhood room. I, however, did end up with the same addiction and my own collection.

Moar bears

November 9, 2014 • 5:18 am

Even after the bear post was up, people continued to bring out their teds. What else can I do except put these precious (and often decrepit) childhood relics on display? I will put these up today in lieu of “Readers’ wildlife photos”.

Reader Nick Hiltner sends a “traveling bear”:

In 1991, an aunt gave me and my siblings stuffed bears. Since she had traveled to see us, she called them “traveling bears”. Once, when we were driving (to Poland!) with the windows down, I snuck my sleeping brother’s bear away from him. Then I rolled up my window and woke him. He saw his bear in my hand, and watched as I chucked it at the passing fields. He screamed and lunged, but was restrained by his seatbelt, his bear bouncing back into his lap.
My sister and brother retired their Traveling Bears long ago, but mine still travels with me.

My good friend Andrew Berry, who teaches at Schmarvard, sent an essay on his toy panda (like the one in the last post, also named “Panda”), which turned into a musing on mortality:

Panda and his owner have been through a lot together.  And over a long period: like many treasured soft-toy companions, Panda is about the same age as his owner.  He had a rough start to life, being, you might say, overly loved.  The results were one ear being rather larger than the other (from being dragged around by it) and what might be termed mild alopecia of love — hair/fluff loss.  More problematic, however, was the connection between Panda’s head and his body.  Being dragged around by your ear is hard on your neck, especially if you don’t really have one.  Panda’s head and the rest of him started to separate, necessitating emergency surgery.  A tricky procedure, and one that has resulted in Panda being permanently rather well dressed (by naked panda standards, anyway). He wears in perpetuity a tartan tie, which must never come off (for fear of his head coming off with it).
Panda’s owner, being the product of bourgeois English parents, was sent off in 1976 to boarding school at the age of 13.  A traumatic parting for all involved.  Panda’s owner recognized that it would be rather unmanly to appear at his single-sex boarding school accompanied by a rather raggedy, tie-wearing Panda.  Panda would have to stay at home. Aargh…, the separation! A (partial) solution: on a pre-boarding school trip to Wales, Panda posed on a dry stone wall and allowed himself to be polaroid photographed (a technology that was all the rage at the time).  The photograph accompanied his owner to school, and Panda headed home to an empty childhood bedroom.  But Panda has never been neglected or forgotten.  For example, he followed his owner across the Atlantic for a new life in the US, where Panda ponders the ideas de jour such as the shortcomings of his thumb (well, in his case, the complete lack of one).
Below are a couple of photos of Panda and his owner, including a scan of the original 1976 Panda Polaroid. Panda and his owner represent a nice example of what should perhaps be called Dunnet-Fulmar Effect.  George Dunnet (1928-95) was a Scottish ornithologist who was photographed in 1950 with one of the seabirds he was working on, a fulmar.  Forty-two years later we have another photo of Dunnet with the same bird. The bird is unchanged, Dunnet is not unchanged.  In comparing the 1976 photos of Panda and his owner with ones taken this year, we see the same pattern.  Panda, fulmar-like, is enigmatically ageless; his owner is in a state of headlong decay.

Reader Sarah Crews sent a pair of tigers:

So, the tigers in the pic…While I was doing my post-doc in Australia in 2009, my aunt Mary Lou (a family member I regularly spoke to) was diagnosed with bladder cancer and it had spread and the prognosis was not good. I ended up leaving a few months early from Australia (note, I did finish everything and publish on time etc). She slowly got somewhat better and things seemed to be going ok until this year when there were multiple problems and the doctors said surgery would be too complex and “not worth it” (I said she should see other doctors).
She passed away about a month ago and my sister went to help clean out her house.( My aunt was a bit of a hoarder.) She always liked cats and dogs and when we would go to Ohio for easter or Thanksgiving when I was 3-5, I would go in their house, play with their beagle, Buddy and then go under the bed and spend the day with Cocoa, the 18 lb calico cat [JAC: a live cat.] Like I would just hang out under there all day until forced to come out. On the bed were two stuffed tigers. I think one may have been my aunt or uncle’s when they were children and the other was won at a fair or carnival, or maybe they both were. Anyway, before cleaning, my sister asked if there was anything I might want. I said, well, it’s a long shot, but there were these two tigers…I got the package last week. I hadn’t seen them for over 30 years and they were just like I remembered. I don’t remember the two little cats that were also sent, but I suppose those are probably something my grandmother made a long time ago.
Bed tigers

Mary Bierbaum has an especially beat-up bear, a real gerontocrat:

This is Bobby Bear. He belongs to my husband and he estimates that Bobby is 70 years old. He originally belonged to his oldest sister but he became the owner when he was about 8. The jacket, now seriously moth-eaten was made by his mother for one of his sisters’ Barbie Doll but he claimed it for Bobby. Bobby has become a family mascot and is the official bear of the Bierbaum Family Reunion. His eyes are long gone and so is his fuzz and his nose is completely squished due to the redistributing of his stuffing.


Reader Hetta has a battered bear who evolved an exaptation:

I got this guy from my grandparents before I was born. There are hundreds of stories about him.. He’s been through al ot over the years…

When I was was around 5 years old, the back of his head got a big tear. The tear kept growing and growing until it turned into a big hole and there was too much teddy tissue missing for him to just be sewn back together again..

But one day, my dad decided he would surprise me. He took an extra long lunch hour, went home and very carefully stitched him togethe rwith what little fabric was still there to sew in.

When i got home and saw him sewn back together I got really upset. By sewing his head back together, the shape of his face and head had changed..  making him look …. really stretched.. Kind of like a person who’s had too many face lifts.. Teddy style.

I thanked my dad and then, with a pair of scissors, removed every single stitch.

This is what he looks like now, 18 years later. Now in charge of my contraceptive pills.

And he still has a big hole in the back of his head.

Note: the first photo is of the front of the bear:



If you have a childhood plush toy you haven’t sent it, go ahead and do it. If there are enough I’ll make one more post. Thanks to all for sending in their teddies, tigers, and so on.

Pinkah bear!

November 8, 2014 • 12:43 pm

Here’s a late arrival in the Bear Chronicles. At my request, Steve Pinker forwarded what I believe to be the first photographic documentation of Wilfred, the bear he uses as an example in his undergraduate psychology classes. (Remember our contest about Pinker’s bear? See here and here. )

His note:

My ex-wife, Ilavenil Subbiah, is an avid bearophile, with a family of well over a hundred bears. When we first dated she was appalled to learn that I was living in a studio apartment with nothing in the way of bear companionship, so she brought Wilfred into my life. When we split amicably almost a decade ago, there was no question as to who would get custody of Wilfred, and he has been at my side ever since.

The caption: “Wilfred J. Bear at work” (I have no idea what the “J” stands for):

Wilfred J Bear at work


More bears to come: the readers’ photos are still trickling in.

Readers’ wildlife photos

November 8, 2014 • 5:23 am

It’s Pie Day today: the annual pie-baking drive for the local elementary school, so look for a stuffed Professor Ceiling Cat this afternoon and some nice pie photos tomorrow. In the meantime, we got your wildlife.

First, two meese from Stephen Barnard:

A couple of moose (Alces alces) helping themselves to my alfalfa, and three youngsters taking a break.


And reader Ed Kroc documented some animal behavior:

I wanted to send along a series of photos of two adult male Glaucous-winged Gulls (Larus glaucescens) wrestling each other on a balcony ledge some twenty storeys above downtown Vancouver.  I have seen gulls do this to both establish or defend a territory, as well as to vie for a potential mate.  I do not know if females engage in similar behaviours.  I haven’t witnessed it personally, although I don’t think that should be taken as evidence against the proposition: I freely admit that I am drawing from an extremely small and nonrandom sample of local gulls (and I also couldn’t really tell the sexes apart at a glance until about a year ago).

Anyway, what is odd to me is that I’ve usually observed this behaviour in the late winter and spring months, when the gulls return to their nesting sites or look to establish new ones.  These two were going at it in September though (notice the dirty streaking on their necks and heads – that’s the winter hood coming in).  The gull on the right in these pictures engaged the one on the left.  They wrangled each other for about a minute, with the attacker seeming to have the upper hand (he has the other’s beak firmly clamped in his own for most of the struggle).  I captured the last few seconds on video, after the wings had stopped flapping and the defendant looked to be considering submission.  A third male interjected himself though and scattered the pair before they could finish the skirmish.

GW Gulls wrestling 1
GW Gulls wrestling 2
GW Gulls wrestling 3
GW Gulls wrestling 4

And as lagniappe, I’ve included a photo of one of several stuffed animals I was devoted to as a child.  This is William Everett Alligator, or just William Everett, and he was acquired when I was about five years old when on a family vacation to Florida.  He’s not in bad shape, although his nose has seen better days.  He keeps watch over my apartment from one of the living room bookshelves.  Looking at him now, I actually think his plush morphology is more suggestive of a crocodile than an alligator, but he is what he is.

(By the way, did you know that Canadians call stuffed animals “stuffies”?  I just learned this a couple months ago, and I’ve already incorporated it into my lexicon.  It’s such a better term than the rather clunky sounding “stuffed animal.”)

Isn’t a “stuffie” some kind of British foodstuff?
William Everett Alligator