How “Alice” Grew Big in Japan

Lewis Carroll’s works as Taishō nansensu and beyond (DeDisneyfication, Part 7A Addendum C/ Taishō, Part 5)

Lewis Carroll’s Alice books hold a unique place in Japanese culture. The appearance of these works coincided with a key moment in the modernity of the island nation. They went on to become central, not only to the canon of children’s literature, but literature writ large, as well as other cultural forms such as film, comics, animation, electronic games, and fashion. Many of Japan’s cultural elite have produced translations and adaptations of Alice, including renowned authors such as Mishima Yukio (三島 由紀夫), and Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (芥川 龍之介) and Kikuchi Kan (菊池 寛), and award-winning artists like Yayoi Kusama (草間 彌生).

Translations into various languages appeared thick and fast following Lewis Carrol’s books’ English publication; today they include 175 languages. But there are far more in Japanese than any other. Including both Alice in Wonderland (AiW) and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (TLG), there have been a whopping 425 translations. Furthermore, Japanese editions of these books are far more numerous than those in any other language, running to 1,271 of AiW alone.¹

Sadly, the Victoria & Albert’s (V&A), “Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser”, virtually ignored the important place Carroll’s works have reached within Japanese culture. The show featured only marginal mention of the impact of Lewis Carroll’s books in Japan. The show literally included a loli (ロリ, short for ロリータ, rorīta, the kanaization of Lolita) dress, a manga (漫画), and a poster for the Japanese release of the 1931 US film.

The two Alice books have had a strong presence in Japan since the turn of the last century, oddly beginning with Hasegawa Tenkei’s (長谷川 天渓) translation of TLG as Kagami Sekai (「鏡世界」, “Mirror World”), published in serial form throughout 1899. AiW was first translated nine years later, in 1908, by Shizu Nagayo (永代 静雄) as Arisu no Monogatari (『アリスの物語』, Alice’s Tale). There were also translations in 1910, -11, and -12, and apart from a wartime gap, when the government had a tight rein on printing in general, they have continued regularly until today.

The reasons the Alice books resonated with the Japanese beginning at the turn of the last century—and beyond, as we shall see—are many and varied. And, for the most part, quite different from those that made the works popular in their native tongue and in other places around the world.

One element comes from how these works were translated. As one might imagine, translating Carroll’s works with all their historical and contemporary Victorian cultural references, puns, parodies, and nonsense into any language presents a high degree of difficulty. Even in relatively closely related languages and cultures such as those of Europe, the first translations—into French and German—didn’t appear for four years. 

Difficulties were compounded in Japan, lacking such cultural and linguistic relatedness. Particularly given that the books were—at least ostensibly—intended for children, accessibility had to be a concern. Indeed, the very notion of children’s literature was new to Japan in the Meiji era (明治時代, 1868–1912), so these works were necessarily pioneers in this new genre. These issues together meant that the early translations were really‌ adaptations, with material either omitted or significantly altered. The level of challenge in translating Carroll’s works can be seen in the fact that in more recent years it was taken on by Naoki Yanase (柳瀬 尚紀) who has also done so for works by James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges.

A variety of strategies were used to make the Alices more acceptable to a Japanese audience, including altering the main character’s name. Hasegawa changed it completely, to Mii-chan (みいちゃん, where -chan is a title affix for children), as did Maruyama Hakuya (丸山 薄夜), to Ai-chan (愛 being a standard Japanese name meaning “love”) in 1910’s Ai-chan no yumemonogatari, (『愛ちゃんの夢物語』, Ai-chan’s Dream Story). There were still others, including Ayako-san (綾子さん) in a translation by Niwa Goro (丹羽 五郎), Kodomo no yume (『子供の夢』, Children’s Dreams), in 1884, and Aya-chan (あやちゃん) in Saijo Yaso’s (西條 八十) 1921 “Kagamikuni Meguri” (「鏡國めぐり」, “Mirror Country Tour”), and in the same year, Sukko-chan (すゞ子ちゃん) was used by Suzuki Miekichi (鈴木 三重吉) in his “Chichū no sekai” (「地中の世界」, “Underground World”). Despite all this, eventually, Arisu (アリス) won out as the protagonist’s name, even becoming a commonly used Japanese girl’s name from 1920 on.

Illustrations of the Carroll books show the common pattern where foreign forms were borrowed during the Meiji era, but discarded in the Taishō era (大正時代, 1912–1926) in favor of Japanese ones, whether newly created or traditional. For example, in Ai-chan no yumemonogatari, an Art Nouveau style reminiscent of Alfons Mucha is apparent, though Ai-chan has dark eyes and hair. A later one appearing in a 1911 collection called Kodomo no yume: Chōhen otogibanashi falls back on more traditional imagery; even though Alice wears a bob, she’s dressed in a kimono, and amenbo (飴棒, water striders) populate the pool of tears.²

This type of strategy continued to be employed. For example, a 1952 Disney picture book presenting an episode from AiW made even more connections to Japanese culture. These included the Kojiki (古事記, “Records of Ancient Matters”, ca. 711) a collection of myths, legends, and semi-historical accounts, and specifically the Hare of Inaba (因幡の白兎 Inaba no Shirousagi), giving him a river to cross to match the folktale, where none exists in AiW. Also, describing one of her size-changing episodes, it includes the passage:³

Suddenly, her height, she thought, grew tall like an obake [お化け] […].

Obake, meaning roughly “shapeshifter”, is a type of yōkai (妖怪), a class of spirits and monsters in Japanese folklore. Although these creatures were written about since antiquity, from the Edo era (江戸時代, 1603–1868) on, they became increasingly popular. Including this type of material made the work much more acceptable to a Japanese audience.

The first true translation wasn’t published until Kusuyama Masao’s Fushigi no kuni of 1920, which included both of the Alice books. By this point, Japanese audiences were much more familiar with Western culture, using katakana to render terms such as “Anglo-Saxon” and “ham sandwich” (アングロ・サクソン, Anguro Sakuson and ハム・サンドウィッチ, hamu sandōitchi), and even provided footnotes regarding words Carroll had invented.⁴ Yet even this work:⁵

[E]mphasizes a hybridized Arisu, a figure who retains Western properties augmented with elements that suggest Japaneseness.

The Meiji era, in which Carroll’s works were first introduced to Japan, was not only an opening in physical terms—where people and goods moved freely between the formerly isolated country and other nations—but also in terms of education, where new ideas and ways of learning were also coming in from the West. Nor was this a passive exchange: Japan’s pursuit of Western knowledge and culture was nearly a mania.

With respect to education, the dominant paradigm in Japan prior to the Meiji era was Confucianism, and more particularly, Edo era Neo-Confucianism (known as 朱子學, shushigaku). Whereas this philosophy saw humor as useless folly, early contact with Western learning challenged that view. One textbook nearly any Japanese university student of English in the Meiji era would have used stated:⁶

[The] degradation of any dignified object, whether animate or inanimate, which has hitherto inspired us with feelings of admiration and awe, tends to awaken the ludicrous emotion […].

Therefore, they would have been presented with this legitimization of humor as a literary strategy, as historian Junji Yoshida notes, thus:⁷

Meiji learners of English rhetoric were […] impelled to reflect on, if not to renounce, their former denigration of laughter as mere frivolity.

Once the Confucian stigma had been so removed, intellectuals were free to explore humor in all its forms.

But even in the midst of the freewheeling Meiji era, there was a growing backlash to the expanding freedoms of the individual. One of the forms this appeared in was a crackdown on political speech thought dangerous to the ruling class. Already in 1869, there was a Publication Ordinance (出版条例, Shuppan Jōrei) providing for review and censorship ahead of publication. This was still not enough to satisfy conservative elements of the government, so the Libel Law (讒謗律, Zanbōritsu) and the Press Ordinance (新聞紙条例, Shimbunshi Jōrei) were implemented in 1875. The latter was so severe, it forced the shutdown of radical presses such as the Hyoron Shinbun (評論新聞, literally, “Critical Newspaper”, but styled The Review in English). Restrictions in the subsequent Taishō were still more strict:⁸

The draconian Public Security Preservation Law of 1925 (治安維持法), put in place only two months after universal manhood suffrage, marked the biggest reversal of the Taishō Democracy. It was intended to suppress political dissent, specifically targeting socialism and communism. Under the law, an Orwellian thought police was formed, the Tokubetsu Kōtō Keisatsu (特別高等警察: “Special Higher Police”, often shortened to Tokkō), whose mandate was the criminal investigation of political groups and ideologies representing a threat to public order. They arrested over 70,000 people during the time the law was on the books, 1925–1945.

One such venue was satirical magazines in the mode of Punch, which made their way to Japan. This was literally the case for the Japan Punch (ジャパン・パンチ) which was founded in 1862 by Charles Wirgman after working for the original British publication and immigrating to Japan. Kitazawa Rakuten (北澤 楽天) also founded Tokyo Puck (東京パック) in 1905. And just as Punch originated the modern sense of the term “cartoon”, Rakuten was also the first to use “manga” with its current meaning. Yet another word, ponchi-e (ポンチ絵), was derived from the magazine’s name to describe a subgenre of ukiyo-e (浮世絵) featuring humorous or satirical themes.

Nonetheless, there was also a veritable explosion of publishing in Japan of the time for sensors to deal with. From 1923 to 36, there was nearly a tripling in the number of books published. The government necessarily had to focus on large-circulation items, such as newspapers, while smaller ones could often escape censorship.

Many political radicals also became kōdanshi (講談師 “storytellers”), who were far less easily regulated. Through this medium, they could use humor to communicate subversive political ideas, in talks termed jiyū kōdan, (自由講談, “freedom lectures”). Other media too proved less prone to governmental interference, and so the use of humor-masked radicalism spread to these, which included folk- and pop songs, the latter of which became a national craze, Asakusa Opera, as well as such unlikely means as folk dance.

To summarize the effect of Japan’s modernity on its relationship with the works of Carroll: The country was actively seeking engagement with the cultural products of the West, and Great Britain in particular. The Alice books could only be thought of as legitimate literature, as they were often cited in the British papers, as Dodgson’s nephew noted:⁹

With the exception of Shakespeare’s plays, very few, if any, books are so frequently quoted in the daily Press as the two “Alices.”

So, the books could not be dismissed as frivolous topsy-turvy, but instead their rhetorical use of humor had to be considered. In particular, the use of satire as a covert and subversive medium for political commentary was increasingly explored. Carroll’s books, with their connections to Punch via John Tenniel, as well as the use of satire and absurdity in the text, became notable for this rhetorical mode, especially as exemplars of how seemingly harmless children’s books could be so thoroughly subversive.

Another important avenue of the impact of Carroll’s works in Japan was through women and girls. From the earliest translations, Alice was directed toward girls. Arisu no Monogatari, which I mentioned earlier as the first translation of AiW, was published in newly created girl’s magazine Shōjo no Tomo (『少女の友』, Girls’ Friend), and even the translator’s pseudonym, Sumako (須磨子), is a woman’s name. Six years later, in 1918–19, the first actual female translator, Kako Yuko, produced a version of Carroll’s work which ran in a magazine aimed at adult women.¹⁰ Translations by women became a trend, with at least six in the first decade of the postwar period and eight in the decade after that. In the decade spanning 2004 to 2013, there were 30 translations by women.¹¹

In addition to appearing at a pivotal point in the modernity of the Japanese cultural milieu, Alice also coincided with the creation of a media image of idealized girlhood, termed shōjo (少女), in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the many reforms of the Meiji era was the Girls’ High School Order (高等女学校令, Kōtōjogakkōrei) of 1899. The improvements thus provided in education for women worked together with the other key elements of the time—Westernization, modernization, and industrialization—to create the concept of the shōjo. In earlier times, women were children, then brides. But now there came to be an intermediate period when girls from the middle- and upper classes were at school instead.

To serve this new readership, several magazines sprang up featuring the term shōjo in their titles, including Shōjo-kai (『少女界』, Girls’ World) in 1903, and in 1906, Shōjo Sekai (『少女世界』, also Girls’ World), and Shōjo no Tomo, which I’ve already mentioned as—uncoincidentally—where the earliest AiW translation was published. As many magazines of the time did, these presented serialized novels, but featuring female protagonists. Single-page manga began to appear within these magazines, eventually increasing in length and sophistication until they simply became shōjo manga. As a side note, this is the same audience, Kobayashi Ichizo (小林 一三) was aiming for with his Takarazuka Revue (宝塚歌劇団, Takarazuka Kagekidan).

The images and manga in shōjo magazines were foundational to the kawaii aesthetic (可愛い, “cute”) which has not only become a well-known aspect of Japanese culture, but a worldwide phenomenon. While it may seem innocent, there’s a strong current of revolt in kawaii as Sharon Kinsella, a lecturer in Japanese visual culture, notes:¹²

[Y]oung women […] desire to remain free, unmarried and young. Whilst a woman was still a shōjo outside the labour market, outside of the family she could enjoy the vacuous freedom of an outsider in society with no distinct obligations or role to play […]. [A]s young women get older and particularly in the period immediately prior to marriage, their fascination with and immersion in cute culture becomes still more acute.

And further:¹³

Women [criticized] as infantile and irresponsible began to fetishize and flaunt their shōjo personality still more, almost as a means of taunting and ridiculing male condemnation and making clear their stubborn refusal to stop playing, go home, and accept less from life.

Fashion, as one of the more important purveyors of the cute aesthetic, also shows the impact of Alice. Women’s views of sexuality, their own bodies, and their culture—including acceptance or rejection of it—all intersect in this field. As Japanese cultural studies scholar Masafumi Monden notes.¹⁴

Arguably, in Japan, Alice has been more influential because of her fashions, which reflect her age and spirited personality, than because of her literary adventures […].

There are a variety of images of Alice that can be seen as influencing fashion. This can easily be seen in loli attire, which refers to Carroll’s works both directly, through the use of calf-length dresses and pinafores, as well as through a general aesthetic of Victorian frills and lace together with accessories like gloves and parasols. A few recent examples of this influence are Emily Temple Cute, a Japanese fashion brand, whose 2009–10 winter collection, was called “Wonderland” and SO-EN (装苑), one of the oldest fashion magazines in Japan, which ran a 22-page Alice-themed fashion spread in 2007.¹⁵

And just as Alice, a cute, female protagonist on the brink of womanhood and rebelling against the arbitrary structures of the society she is meant to fit herself into, was appealing and relatable when she was first introduced to this audience, continues to be. Indeed, she has become more important to the culture—an icon thereof.

And this is the broad and deep context behind the items from Japan in the exhibit the V&A provided none of. There’s not AN Alice manga, rather there’s a spectrum of them. There’s not AN Alice loli dress, rather Alice is a touchstone of the Japanese fashion industry. As I’ve already described, there is a plethora of books and manga that are translations or adaptations of Alice, and as we’ve also seen, the image pervades fashion in Japan.

But it’s still more far-reaching. Alice appears in television, such as 2020’s Squid Game (《오징어 게임》, Ojing-eo Geim) -esque Imawa no Kuni no Arisu (『今際の国のアリス』, Alice in Borderland). In pop music, the works remain a repeated point of reference, as in Iwasaki Yoshimi’s (岩崎 良美), “Watashi no na wa Arisu”, (「私の名はアリス」, “My name is Alice”) of 1980, Matsuda Seiko’s (松田 聖子), “Jikan no Kuni no Arisu” (「時間の国のアリス」, “Alice in Time-Land”) and Kobayashi Asami’s (小林 麻美), 「Lolita Go Home」, both in 1984, and Nakagawa Shoko’s (中川 翔子), 「Through the Looking Glass」, in 2009.¹⁶ Games have appeared regularly as well, spanning diverse genres, including, 1991’s『Alice』, 2005’s, 『Are you Alice?』, based on a manga of the same name, 2007’s Haato no Kuni no Arisu〜Wonderful Wonder World〜 (『ハートの国のアリス』, Alice in the Country of Hearts). And above and beyond the possibilities offered at Tokyo Disneyland, there are dozens of Alice-themed shops, particularly bars, restaurants, and cafes scattered throughout Japan, often including Carroll-inspired menus and costumed servers.

Finally, Miyazaki Hayao’s (宮崎 駿) 2001 film, Spirited Away (『千と千尋の神隠し』, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) contains so many similarities to the Carroll books that many point to it as an adaptation thereof. Beyond the obvious, the movie strongly incorporates a number of tropes we’ve seen here: food that causes metamorphoses, a world parallel to reality with obtuse logic, references to the Meiji period—specifically in the architecture—figures from Japanese myth and folklore, and social commentary. Not only was it a massive success in Japan, the film was well received internationally, even collecting the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003.

It should be clear from all this that an exhibition only covering Alice in Japan could easily be assembled. While this was not the specific remit of the V&A show, it was intended to speak to the influence of Carroll’s works, so it seems like a pretty significant miss. And I definitely begrudge them the space taken up by their VR experience, which my correspondents assure me was just as terrible as I imagined.

Read subsequent articles in the DeDisneyfication series

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than

Read previous articles in the DeDisneyfication series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: Trouble with “Tarzan”

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7A Addendum A: Curious Curation

Part 7A Addendum B: “Alice” in Revolt

Read previous articles in the Taishō series

Part 1: Japan’s Turbulent Taishō

Part 2A: Epochal Architecture

Part 2B: When Tokyo Moved West

Part 3A: Asakusa Movies

Part 3B: Asakusa Opera

Part 4: The Mysteries of Zūja-Go


  1. Jon Lindseth and Alan Tannenbaum, Alice in a World of Wonderlands, 2015.
  2. 『子供の夢長編おとぎ話』( Children’s Dreams: Feature-Length Fairy Tales), 1911. My information on this work comes from Samantha Johnson, “Chasing the White Rabbit in Tokyo: 100 Years of Alice in Japan”, 2017.
  3. 『ふしぎの国のアリス』(Fushigi no kuni no Arisu , Alice in Wonderland), 1952. Though it uses the by then standard name for Carroll’s book, it actually presents a translation of a book called Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland Meets the White Rabbit (A Little Golden Book), retold by Jane Werner, adapted by Al Dempster, original story by Lewis Carroll, 1951. Quoted in ibid.
  4. Kusuyama Masao (楠山 正雄), 『不思議の国』 (Fushigi no kuni, Wonderland), 1920, details from Amanda Kennell, “Alice In Evasion: Adapting Lewis Carroll In Japan”, 2017.
  5. Sean Somers, “Arisu in Harajuku: Yagawa Sumiko’s Wonderland as Translation, Theory, and Performance”, Alice Beyond Wonderland: Essays for the Twenty-first Century, 2009.
  6. W. D. Cox, The Principle of Rhetoric and English Composition for Japanese Students, 1882, quoted in Junji Yoshida, “Shifting Meanings of Humor at the Dawn of Literary Modernism in Meiji Japan”.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Hedlund, “Japan’s Turbulent Taishō”, Deru Kugi, June 2017.
  9. Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll (Rev. C. L. Dodgson), 1898.
  10. Kennell, 2017. The translator’s name is not given in kanji, nor is the name of the work or the publication in which it appeared cited, and I was unable to locate these details. In fact, the translator’s identity is the subject of some debate, as is their gender.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Sharon Kinsella, Cuties in Japan, Women, Media and Consumption in Japan, 1995.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Masafumi Monden, “Being Alice in Japan: performing a cute, ‘girlish’ revolt”, Japan Forum, 2014.
  15. Details from Ibid.
  16. Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: