Japan’s ‘Kawaii Culture’ Owes Debt to Pioneering Artist Hijikata Shigemi

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Sato-chan welcomes visitors at the entrance to “Hijikata Shigemi’s World,” an exhibition in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.

A reunion of adorable characters from the early days of Japan’s “kawaii culture” of cuteness is now making museum visitors light-hearted and nostalgic in Kanagawa Prefecture.

The exhibition “A Pioneer of Character Design: Hijikata Shigemi’s World” is being held at the Yokosuka Museum of Art in Yokosuka in the prefecture.

The exhibition features many rare original drawings by Shigemi Hijikata (1915-86), a graphic designer born in Hyogo Prefecture.

There is a remarkable variety of adorable characters with an array of poses and expressions: piglets, a fluffy white bear, a mouse, an elephant and many more.

Hijikata’s first notable work was “Boo Foo Woo,” which aired from 1960 to 1967 as part of NHK’s long-running “Okaasan to Issho” (With mother).

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Dolls designed by Hijikata are exhibited with his original drawings.

The TV show, performed by people in animal suits and based on the famous children’s story “The Three Little Pigs,” spawned other shows featuring costumed performers that continue to this day.

The piglets, voiced by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi and Nobuyo Oyama, are the stuff of legend, as they are said to have been a childhood favorite of the Emperor, who was born in 1960.

Design sketches hand-drawn by Hijikata contain detailed instructions for the characters’ movements and facial expressions, indicating that he had a clear image of how they would look when brought to life in three dimensions.

Hijikata also designed the characters for later costumed-character productions, such as “Datto-kun” and “Tonchin Kobozu.”

To commemorate its 70th anniversary as a TV broadcaster, NHK is releasing video of the program’s shows on the internet at

https://www.nhk.or.jp/archives, which should add to the enjoyment of watching it.

Hijikata also designed corporate mascot characters, with Sato Pharmaceutical Co.’s “Sato-chan” elephant standing out as one of his masterpieces.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A doll of Asahi Breweries’ bygone mascot character Horoniga-kun

Visitors can enjoy the spectacular “Sato-chan World,” a collection of 300 dolls of various sizes, including the first doll created in 1959.

Sato-chan remains a beloved character of this company, but some other characters have unfortunately disappeared.

Asahi Breweries Ltd.’s “Horoniga-kun,” an anthropomorphic mug of beer, became too popular with children because of his cuteness and thus sparked controversy. Now that even adults openly admire kawaii characters, we would love to see a revival of Horoniga-kun.

The exhibition also displays ningyo ehon (doll picture books) for which Hijikata designed the dolls, props and backgrounds. Using dolls and props, doll artists created three-dimensional diorama in line with his design, which were then photographed to produce the books’ illustrations. The books have been translated and exported to other countries and are highly acclaimed abroad.

After graduating from Tama Imperial Art School (now Tama Art University), Hijikata worked on numerous movie and stage posters for Toho Co.

It was playwright Tadasu Iizawa who introduced Hijikata to the world of children’s art.

Furthermore, Kihachiro Kawamoto, Jusaburo Tsujimura, and Yuki Atae were among the noted artists who turned Hijikata’s designs into dolls.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Pinocchio doll picture books exported to countries around the world

This exhibition, which could ride the wave of the “retro boom,” is worth seeing because it touches on the history of Japanese art and culture. The exhibition runs through April 9.