Miniature Culture

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Takuji Yamada

    Main guest

    Takuji Yamada was born in 1959. He started making models for fun as a child and won a local contest each year. After working at a model production company, he started freelancing as a professional modeler in 1987. Yamada participates in plastic modeling contests and has won the national championship four times. He is a recognized diorama artist in Japan and abroad. He won a gold medal at a military model competition held in the United Kingdom.

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March 27, 2018

Miniature Culture

*You will leave the NHK website.

Japan has a serious fondness for doing things in miniature. Whether it's capsule toys, model trains, dioramas, or more, the country has a knack for extremely detailed, picture-perfect scaled-down representations of reality. How—and why—so much attention is paid to miniaturized detail, and what connection the love of miniatures has to Japanese society at large, is the theme of this edition of Japanology Plus.

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This sampling of miniaturized food looks good enough to eat.

It goes without saying that miniatures, in the form of toys, models, etc., exist around the world. The word "miniature" itself comes from the 16th-century European fad of tiny, portable portraits. "Miniare," the Latin word from which miniature originates, means "to color with red lead," and refers to the red lettering on said portraits. (Incidentally, the word miniature, and its abbreviation "mini," have become a standard part of the Japanese lexicon.)

Model trains, a popular form of miniature, also originated in Europe: specifically, as we learn on the program, in the UK. Early models ran on steam and had no tracks, simply running across the floor. Because many were built in Birmingham and tended to leave a trail of water in their wake, these early trains were nicknamed Birmingham Dribblers.

But while miniature art and design exists all around the world, Japan seems to have a special knack for shrinking things down to size—there's definitely no dribbling to be found here. One kind of miniature mentioned on a previous edition of Japanology Plus is capsule toys. These toys—which typically go for around 300 yen—are small and inexpensive, yet incredibly detailed. There are many more examples of modern miniatures, which we get a look at over the course of the program.

Miniaturization in Japan stretches back hundreds of years—certainly long before the Western word "miniature" came into play. One example we're introduced to on the program: netsuke.

Netsuke, as we learn, are fasteners used to secure pouches to kimono via the obi sash. All the rage 400 years ago, netsuke feature tiny, intricate carvings of historical figures, deities, demons, animals, and more.

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On Plus One, Matt Alt gets a look at Japan's miniature trains.

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An example of the attention to detail that goes into Japanese miniatures.

Commonly carved from either wood or ivory, netsuke were practical but also fashionable, and could even serve as markers of one's place in society. It's been written that in the Edo period, intricately-carved netsuke were a subtle way for merchants to show off their wealth.

Another example of Japan's long-standing devotion to tininess can be found in the miniature trees called bonsai. The cultivation of these mini trees is said to date back to the Heian period (794-1185), and the practice is still going strong today, with trees created by bonsai masters selling for millions of yen. Bonsai are generally considered a hobby for older people, but a recent trend called manbonsai has seen young folks combine bonsai with diorama miniatures—imagine the tiny figurines that usually adorn a model train set huddled under a towering bonsai tree, and you'll get the idea.

Why are Japanese miniatures so intricate in the first place? Expert guest and model sculptor Takuji Yamada cites the attention to detail that's a part of the Japanese mindset. Indeed, a connection between smallness and attention to detail can be found embedded in the Japanese language itself. The word "komakai" has a dual meaning: on the one hand, it means small or fine—but on the other hand, it simultaneously refers to something that's detailed, minute, or meticulous.

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The fingers here give an idea of the tiny scale of these miniature shellfish.

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Expert guest sculptor Takuji Yamada goes into detail about detail with host Peter Barakan.

Though the examples of miniaturization featured on the program, like model trains and dioramas, are largely for fun, the same skillset—and mindset—required to make them is a vital part of the Japanese economy. Major exports like electronic equipment and motor vehicles are filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of precision parts which require the same care and attention to detail as bonsai trees and netsuke. Japan's love of the miniature has made it a world player on a scale that's anything but small.

*You will leave the NHK website.