Alice in Japan: A wonderland of cultural adaptation

When I was in elementary school, my class staged “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” I remember very little about the experience, except for many of the boys rushing around during rehearsals in high spirits shrieking, “Off with their heads!” The girl who played the Queen of Hearts was in contrast more restrained but sufficiently regally aggressive in her execution demands. I was one of four Alices. Our teacher told us she needed this many because of Alice’s changes in height throughout the book, but I suspect she was at least equally motivated by a desire to avoid disappointing more girls in our class than necessary — a wise move, I’d say.

Our version of Alice in Wonderland was, I believe, essentially faithful in its rendition of Lewis Carroll’s work, albeit with some simplification. Such is not always the case. As “Alice” and its sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass,” have assumed their place in global popular culture, far transcending Carroll’s Victorian England, adjustments have occasionally been made along the way that serve local cultural aims, interests and traditions. Scholars in Japan have tracked Alice here, investigating how the novels, and in particular Alice herself, were adjusted to suit the Japanese readership and general populace.

Alice first arrived in Japan in 1899 with a translation by Tenkei Hasegawa of “Through the Looking-Glass,” titled “Mirror World,” which appeared in eight installments in the children’s magazine Shonen no Sekai. According to Amanda Kennell, a scholar of Japanese literature, it’s not clear why “Looking-Glass” came first, or indeed whether those involved in the project were aware of Carroll’s previous book.

The unfamiliarity of Japanese readers with chess, which plays a major role in the novel, presented a fiddly challenge, which Hasegawa dealt with by substituting shogi for chess. But this was only partially successful as a translation strategy, since the story centers on Alice’s progression from pawn to queen, an unviable proposition in queen-less shogi. Hasegawa solved the issue by cutting the final chapters of the novel and replacing them with an ending based on Japanese folktales.

It was not until nine years later that “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” was published in Japan, but it quickly took precedence over the sequel. A second translation of “Looking-Glass” was not published again until 1920, at which time where were already 13 editions of “Alice’s Adventures.”

At this point, Alice’s name itself had been taken on board, following earlier versions of the novels in which the main character had been given various Japanese names. By 1920, Alice had become a popular girl’s name in Japan, and Kennell notes that a popular contemporary website for parents to choose baby names lists a colossal 135 ways to write Alice in kanji.

Along the way of Alice’s induction into Japan, certain modifications were made. In the 1920 translation of “Alice’s Adventures,” ham sandwiches were sufficiently familiar to remain untweaked, but the Queen’s tarts were reconfigured as manju steamed buns.

Such a shift may marginally alter the image, or indeed “flavor” of the novel, without significantly impinging on Alice’s essential Aliceness, but Kennell’s careful comparison of various translations and the original reveal other subtle but suggestive shifts.

For example, in a translation by Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Kan Kikuchi, the sibling relationship is recast. Alice is bored because she has nothing to do despite sitting with her sister, while Carroll’s original reads, “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do.”

Likewise, their Japanese Alice is not self-indulgent. While Carroll’s Alice considers the pleasure of making a daisy chain, Akutagawa and Kikuchi have Alice contemplate the activity to ward off sleepiness. In such delicate ways, the Japanese Alice is ever so slightly more agreeable and assiduous.

Japan latched onto Alice, and her popularity has proven long-lasting. Masafumi Monden, a Japanese cultural studies specialist, points out that including reissues, there were almost 200 editions of “Alice’s Adventures” and “Looking Glass” published between 1908 and 2004. Yet Monden suggests that the importance of Alice in Japan is not so much as a literary figure but as a quintessential shojo, focused on the fashion of Alice, and serving as a means to redefine kawaii cuteness with greater agency.

As one piece of evidence of Alice’s influence in fashion, Monden notes that the October 2007 issue of So-en, the first fashion magazine in Japan and the longest-enduring, featured a whopping 22 pages dedicated to Alice-related fashion.

Monden further focuses on three Japanese female pop singers — Alisa Mizuki, Tomoko Kawase and Kaela Kimura — who have co-opted Alice fashion but made it edgier and darker. Each has a music video that includes at least one of the following motifs from Carroll’s novel: a rabbit (appearing in all three videos), falling into a dark place, a cookie that increases the eater’s height, sitting on the floor but with her head almost scraping the ceiling, a tea party, or live playing cards.

This imagery makes it impossible not to interpret their fashion as that of Alice, but, as Monden remarks, it is not the Alice of John Tenniel, the original illustrator, or that of the Disney film. Mizuki’s apron dress is black, not blue, Kimura wears an Alice-like dress in terms of length and puffiness but with a cardigan, not an apron, and Kawase’s apron dress is gray and tight-fitting. All three wear black boots in place of the original Mary Janes. To Monden, the result is a “parody of cuteness,” in a “delicate revolt” against binary representations of girlish innocence and sexual objectification.

In one of the most famous passages in “Alice’s Adventures,” Alice asks the Cheshire Cat which way she should go, to which the Cat replies, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” When Alice explains she doesn’t care where she gets to, but she wants to get somewhere, she receives the feline’s reassurance that she will certainly manage that, “if you only walk long enough.” Japan perhaps did not know which direction Alice was headed when it introduced her here, but she has most certainly gotten somewhere, far from where she started but equally full of curious fascination.

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.