Her Japanese Nurse Friend’s Favorite “Character”

Yes, my girlfriend actually has a friend who is a Japanese nurse. (Get your minds out of the gutter, all you naughty people.) The real question that came to my mind is this: what the heck is a “Miffy”?

Calls out from the wilderness to Google, the Keeper of All Knowledge.


Oh, that. Okay. Pan-Asian Cartoony cutesy character thingamadoodle. That was what I thought when I googled Miffy. That gave me pause.

Why are these things so popular in Asia? I can understand a cultural difference in which people came to like “cute” things much more unabashedly here — I don’t feel a need to criticize that, though the cuteness is sometimes so overboard I feel a little dizzy or ill. But what I wonder is, are there cultural artifacts which predate the cutesy cartoon character?

I might be wrong in thinking the contemporary cartoon character is a Western import — even if, as with Japan, they’ve remade it in their own imaginative image. But I haven’t seen a lot of traditional art in Korea that is cartoon-like, not at all. Brush art, yes; line drawings of stylized people? Yes, but usually with adult features and proportions. I can’t say I’ve ever run into anything like a proto-cartoon in traditional Korean art.

Of course, I suspect that the Japanese cartoon character is the basis of the Korean one, but I wonder if cartoons in Japan — “cartoons” here meaning not simply stylized sketches, but stylized sketches of humans and animals with overly childlike proportions and features, designed to be more “cute” than realistic representations of the same — have a traditional Japanese predecessor, or whether they’re purely an adopted foreign form of “art” (to use the word loosely).

It often pays, when thinking about such things, to turn to the West for a comparison. In Western Art, I am not sure but I think the “cartoon” in the larger sense of the word is older than Disney; I remember reading through copies of issues of the British magazine Punch dating back to the middle of the nineteenth-century which had carticatures of exmplary national characters and such. But as for when the adorable critter/kid style of character first appeared, I have no idea. Were I pressured to guess, I would hazard Mickey Mouse as the first extremely popular one, though I would also suspect I was wrong, and that at least one major precedent existed in Western art.

But what’s more interesting the conceptual precedent. If you look back — way back — you find Aesop humanizing animals in his fables. And of course, before that, you have the vast oral traditions filled with often-animist conceptions of the world, animals thinking and behaving like people would, in all kinds of situations. We humans have been imagining motivations and desires into animals forever, and it is only natural, for it is out overdeveloped ability to emulate the thoughts, feelings, desires, and motivations of other humans which makes us such inescapably social beings. So rendering animals into “characters”, with humanlike interiorities, that is really one of our oldest methods of conceptual depiction. One could argue that the cognitive anthropomorphizing of animals in our stories leads logically to the visual anthropomorphizing of the same: in other words, The Grasshopper and the Ant leads to Jiminy Cricket rather naturally.

However, this overlooks a very important facet of the cartoon, which is the first thing that I mentioned above: the cuteness. The Grasshopper and the Ant aren’t any more cute than Cain and Abel or Odysseus and Telemachus. In fact, if you look at older representations of characters across a broad range of cultures and literatures, “cuteness” has never really been a major characteristic considered of value. Handsomeness, yes; beauty, yes; steadfastness, strength, cunning, and generosity are all traits which have time and time again shown up in representations of characters as good thing.

To discover why cuteness came to the fore, it makes sense to think about what exactly constitutes “cuteness”. What makes Miffy, Mickey Mouse, the Simpsons, and almost any other mainstream cartoon character you can mention, so very “cute”?

Largely, it’s childlike features:

  • Excessively big eyes. This is especially striking in Japanese manga, where one might expect a more realistic representation of the more common single-eyelidded feature. However, even in Western characters the eyes are exaggeratedly, unnaturally big for the character’s face.
  • An oversized head and short limbs, resulting (in animations) in a childlike style of movement.
  • Very little in the way of secondary sexual characteristics, the lack of which is made up for mainly in the character’s clothing, demeanour following stylized gender codes, and occasionally specific physical characteristics like eyelashes or hair length.
  • General shortness and smallness, often accompanied by pudginess.
  • Exaggerated facial expressions and a general lack of subtlety and sophistication in the conveying of emotions and other inner states.

Some might think that such characters were first made to appeal to children, and it may well be the case. Certainly, there is some psychological sense in this: children naturally recognize the traits which determine children as distinct from adults, and it seems natural to imagine they’d be drawn to characters like themselves; this is the logic of the funny papers and the Saturday morning cartoon; that in some way, the cartoon character is a kind of imaginary childlike playmate-in-media.

But there’s something else to consider, which is that our whole understanding of children has changed over the last millennium or so. If you look at Medieval European depictions of children, you will find something startling: they all look like adults. Plenty of baby Jesus have adult faces, but it’s not strictly a religious assertion of His inner nature or anything like that: kids were routinely depicted as miniaturized adults. This follows with the Medieval European understanding of childhood as not all that distinct from adulthood. The Medievalist Georges Duby wrote fascinatingly — in some book the title of which I cannnot now recall — about how plenty of second and third sons in noble French houses were barred from marriage in order to safeguard the family fortune in the line fathered by first sons; what was fascinating was the lives of those second and third (and later) sons. Barred perpetually from marriage, they were termed juvenes — “youths” regardless of age. In their thirties and forties, they were still juvenes. Meanwhile, anyone who analyzes the lineage of kings notes that children were married off at rather startlingly young ages, and that teenagers have sat on national thrones more times than seems remotely sane to us living now.

This suggests that the difference between adults and children, for the medieval mind, was largely one of position, responsibility, and relationships. Physical size — the difference of which would have been less anyhow, given the kind of nutrition people were enjoying and the resultant average height — was something that probably mattered to some degree, but beyond a certain level of growth, it seems that children and adults were not routinely distinguished from one another in dress, in speech, in diet, and in social spheres: adults sang bawdy songs, and children sang along, while sipping ale.

How different the world is now: we have invented childhood. It is not that childhood never existed, of course, but whatever it actually always has been is not the same as what we now say it is. Childhood, for us, is cute. It is adorable. It needs to be protected from ale and bawdy songs, at least for a while, and it needs to be barred from marriage and rulership. None of this is objectionable to me, but it just seems to me that the cartoon in some way acts as a kind of encyclopedia for all traits of childhood. The silliness, the physical scrapes, the bully-victim relationship, the class clown, the childhood play group, the way kids look (and the features which are most of interest and value to us as a modern society) all seem to have been sedimented into the cartoon.

The cartoon, in other words, seems to be a kind of assemblage of the triumphal invention of a kind of childhood, suggesting certain attitudes and necessary treatments. In a way, one could even call it a kind of propaganda for the notion of modern North American childhood. Which, you know, given its popularity in North East Asia (and around the world) is really quite a very interesting thing.

I’ve still got no idea why cartoons of this “cute” type are so popular in this part of the world, though. That, I think, would require a lot more research and interviews with many, many people. Sounds like a kind of PhD thesis topic. Uh… for someone else, I think.

Caveat emptor, for all of the above: I just came up with all of this right now. I may be faaaaar off the mark. Right now, I’d love to get my hands on a history of cartoons and comics, but I have a sneaking suspicion that neither of the University libraries in my city will have such a book. Perhaps some websurfing tomorrow or something shall have to suffice for now.

10 thoughts on “Her Japanese Nurse Friend’s Favorite “Character”

  1. Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay on the neotenization of Mickey Mouse. I can try to figure out which book in the next couple of days.

    Heck, the essay may be published on the web…. (I’ll try to dig up the exact title of the essay when I go looking for it.)

  2. Miffy is Dutch, created by Dick Bruna. Nijntje is her real name actually, and in English she’s not “a miffy”, she’s “Miffy”!

    According to my parents, I wanted to name my little sister after her.

    Dick Bruna wrote created Miffy over 40 years ago. He wrote 15 Miffy books. He only used primary colours, with a tiny amount of grey, green and brown. Never bloody PINK!

    Didn’t you grow up with Miffy Gord? (Mouffe)

  3. Nope, I did not grow up with Miffy, or even hear about it until the moment I saw Lime’s post on the subject. I did grow up with the Barbapappas, which are these obese little cartoon fellows I adore, but the only rabbits I knew as a kid (aside from those in my Dad’s books of African folktales) were Brer Rabbit and Peter Rabbit, from the Beatrix Potter books.

    I have a feeling a lot of characters popular in Korea are imported, actually. Some guys were telling me how Mashimaro isn’t actually Japanese: it’s Korean in origin, but the thing didn’t sell well in its home country till it was popularized in Japan. (Big surprise there.) To my mind, that makes Mashimaro effectively a Japanese import. Don’t know if that story’s even true.

    And it hardly surprises me that someone pinkified Miffy. It had to happen eventually!

  4. Barbapappas! They had completely disappeared from my mind until now. Those cartoons were weird. I used to love them as a kid. :D

    Interesting post, anyway. I’ve kind of noticed the same but I haven’t really stopped to think about it. I’ll be interested in the end-result if/when you evolve this line of thinking. :)

  5. Barbapapas rocked.

    Not sure I’ll follow it too far, as I’m far from interested enough to be an expert, and it seems Stephen Jay Gould excavated a lot of what I was interested in already. But if I ever do find myself having to teach a class back in North America, I’ll consider it a one-week subject in a “reading comic books as literature” course.

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