Culture : ‘Doll Wars’ Challenge Female Ideal : Japan likes ‘cute.’ America likes ‘sexy.’ So, Barbie and Licca duke it out in toydom.
She’s blonde and busty, with a waspy waist and endless legs, just the kind of sexy American girl long idealized as the perfect 10.
Barbie’s glamorous look may be why she reigns as queen of the world’s fashion doll industry. But it’s also why she has been stood up by Japan’s consumers, despite three previous tries to enter the market over the last 30 years.
What’s wrong with sexy? Gauche about glamour?
Take a look at Japan’s own No. 1 fashion doll, and the difference is clear. “Licca” is shorter, her chest flatter, her eyes bigger and her overall look the decidedly innocent air of an elementary schoolgirl.
Licca has parents and grandparents and picnics with her family. Barbie has a boyfriend, dashes around in a Ferrari, frolics in Hawaii and parties in black vinyl with her fun-loving friends.
Japan’s Licca and America’s Barbie are the only two fashion dolls in the world that have lasted more than 25 years. But as Barbie’s maker, Mattel Inc., plunges in for its fourth try to grab a piece of the world’s second-largest toy market, it is clear that the company faces more than the usual challenges that inevitably cause trade friction between Japan and America--a convoluted distribution system and cozy relations between domestic manufacturers and retailers that are difficult for newcomers to penetrate.
The El Segundo-based company also faces what one Japanese doll researcher calls “ bunka masatsu ,” or culture friction, between the sexy, adult culture of America and the cute, childlike culture of Japan.
Just as America was producing Madonna in the early 1980s, for instance, Japan was worshiping Seiko Matsuda, a wide-eyed and innocent-looking teen ingenue.
“Americans like sexy and Japanese like cute,” said Shuichi Masabuchi, a doll researcher. “In the doll market, those values of sexy and cute collide.”
Ted Fukudome, president of Mattel’s wholly owned Japanese subsidiary in Tokyo, agrees to a point. “Some mothers here still say Barbie’s big breasts are too sexy and provocative for innocent kids,” he said.
But Fukudome and Mattel are confident that times are changing here. Last year Mattel rolled out a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign aimed at Japan’s $3.3-billion toy market. They are so confident, in fact, that they have dispensed with previous attempts to change Barbie into a more girlish doll specifically for the Japanese market. Instead, they have reintroduced her in all of her original va-voom , glittering glory.
Their betting may be on the mark. Mattel’s Fukudome says that widespread overseas travel--more than 10 million Japanese vacationed abroad last year--has made the public more receptive to foreign styles. On the business side, legal changes affecting large retail stores have given foreign products greater inroads into Japan’s distribution networks.
Equally significant for Barbie may be a noisy revolution sweeping through the fashion, entertainment and media worlds of Japan: the culture of cute is crumbling.
Pop idols have changed from the doe-eyed Matsuda or an impossibly cute singing duo, Pink Lady. Today’s media sensations are young women such as pinup queen Rie Miyazawa; Fumie Hosokawa, a singer and actress best known for her “F-cup” bra size, and the “CC Girls,” a quartet of entertainers who favor black leather and bikinis. The newest craze is a group called the “T-Backs”--five young women who take their name from the revealing, T-back underwear they model.
In the world of fashion, young Japanese women are beginning to strut their stuff--and they have more to strut. Changing diets and lifestyles, primarily sitting on chairs instead of the floor, legs tucked underneath, have elongated women’s legs and amplified their busts over the last 20 years, according to a survey this year by Japan’s largest lingerie maker, Wacoal.
While many women modestly pushed themselves down in the past, buying bras one size too small, this season’s hottest seller was the “Good Up Bra.” The imported “Hollywood Bra,” adding a helping pad, has likewise sold well.
Japan’s voracious media, which picks up and circulates trendy information perhaps faster than any other in the world, are weighing in. Talk shows discuss “How to make your bust look big using lingerie.” Quiz shows feature questions such as “Sexy is what?” Fashion magazines counsel: “To be ashamed of a big bust is old thinking. A bust is a woman’s individual weapon that needs to be asserted.”
Mattel would hardly want to identify the CC Girls with Barbie, although the doll does come with her own lingerie assortment. “We don’t want Barbie to be a sex symbol,” Fukudome said. To Mattel, Barbie is “pink, frilly, lots of glitter and glamour,” Mattel spokeswoman Donna Gibbs says.
Still, “in this environment, Barbie is going to do pretty well,” said Kiazuhisa Kimura, whose resume lists him as a “trend watcher.”
Osami Fukui, who created Licca for the Takara Co., says the firm is confident that Barbie will not pose a threat to its dominance of the fashion doll market. It currently claims a 90% market share, divided mostly between Licca and another doll called Jenny.
(Nevertheless, in what Nikkei Trendy magazine suggested was a defensive move after Mattel reintroduced Barbie in June, 1991, Takara introduced a new doll with longer legs and tanned skin called Eri last November.)
Still, Fukudome agrees the challenge won’t be easy. Mattel has concentrated on building up its distribution outlets in 2,000 large department and toy stores rather than the 20,000 individual mom-and-pops that remain loyal to Takara and other existing toy makers. Even within the large retailers, however, Licca still commands prime location and three times the display space afforded Barbie.
Mattel’s vigorous marketing seems to be paying off. Although Fukudome declined to disclose specific figures, the Sankei newspaper estimated in September that Barbie sales have quadrupled every month since July, after the “Totally Hair” model was introduced in Japan. In at least one major Tokyo outlet, the Hakuhinkan toy store in the Ginza, Barbie sales now outstrip Licca’s, while she has grabbed nearly a 40% share in trendy Harajuku’s Kiddyland and Chiba’s Sogo department store.
Manabu Yoshida, a Mattel promoter at a recent exhibition in the Tokyo suburb of Saitama, said young children showed none of the resistance to Barbie that had plagued previous efforts. He, like others, credited that to the gradual opening of not only the Japanese market, but also the Japanese mind.
Meanwhile, analysts say the Japanese market is waiting to see whether Mattel will hang in for the long term, instead of pulling out as it has three times in the past. Fukudome recognizes the challenge.
“What is needed here is not overnight success with a weak foundation, because then people would tend to regard it as a fad,” Fukudome said. “We’re just trying to make solid, steady growth.”
Megumi Shimizu, a researcher in The Times’ Tokyo Bureau, contributed to this report.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.