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.