Posted by: ferge22j | December 2, 2014

Reading Alice in Japan: How a Weak Translation Birthed a Subculture

Isabella’s comment about the inefficacy of Alice in Korean reminded me of my forays into the world of the Japanese translation. I speak of the “world” of the translation because isn’t just one Japanese translation but dozens, and because the inefficacy of these translations didn’t prevent them from inspiring an obsession so intense that Alice might be considered one of the most important influences of modern Japanese culture. Japan was the first Asian country to translate Alice – the first edition was published serially in 1908 – and dozens of other attempts proceeded over the following decades. However, most translators concern themselves with presenting a story that a Japanese child would understand rather than attempting to convey Carroll’s wit or wordplay. The 1908 version added conventional Japanese morals and made Alice marry a king as reward for her bravery at the end, and even the most recent translations convert all the feet and miles to the metric system. Without the linguistic complexities of the original, the dominant features of Alice in Japanese become surrealism (which in Japanese sometimes veers into unhinged nonsense, as in a phonetically-rendered “Jabberwocky”) and the perfect Western “cuteness” of the protagonist. “Alicemania” in Japan focuses primarily on the latter feature.

Illustrations from a Taisho-era edition of Alice.

While Alice is remarkable in the West in that it is a book about a girl that isn’t inherently a girls’ book, in Japan it has been intrinsically connected to shoujo (girls’) culture since its 1908 publication in the magazine Shoujo no Tomo (Girl’s Friend). Among the many 20th-century shoujo works that draw from Alice are Pandora Hearts, which features Alice as a godlike controller of worlds, and Alice in the Land of Hearts, which features a teenage Alice meeting attractive male versions of all the Wonderland regulars. Beginning around the 1980s, shoujo culture birthed kawaii culture, an aesthetic devoted to everything cute that often includes a heavy dose of Alice imagery. For example, the official birthplace of Hello Kitty, the central icon of kawaii culture, is England, which Sanrio states is an homage to Alice.

Hello Kitty in a 2014 Alice-themed musical show.

Kawaii culture perhaps manifested most dramatically in a youth fashion subculture inspired by Alice’s famous outfit: knee-length dresses puffed out with crinolines, frilled pinafores, stiff headbands, stockings and Mary Janes. The style has been most widely known as “lolita” since the 1990s, when the crossdressing pop star Mana compared his crinolined groupies to that other literary prepubescent, but both the designers and wearers of the style maintain homage to Alice. All of the seven leading lolita brands (Angelic Pretty, Baby the Stars Shine Bright, Moi-Meme Moitie, Innocent World, Metamorphose, Victorian Maiden, Mary Magdalene) have released at least one design named after Alice. One wonders what Carroll would have thought of these thousands young women in their late teens and twenties – perhaps his least-favorite age – traipsing around Tokyo dressed as his muse.

Image from Innocent World’s 2013 catalog.

Metamorphose’s Alice-themed collaboration with Disney.

Quebecois lolita Fanny Bissonette in a Mary Magdalene dress.

At this point I realize that a short blog post is really not the place to try to delineate all the intricacies of Alicemania in Japan. I haven’t even mentioned the Alice-themed restaurants in Tokyo or the size of the Alice section in Tokyo Disneyland or Miyuki-chan in Wonderland, celebrity shoujo author CLAMP’s  sexploitation-esque farce about bikini-clad versions of Wonderland characters propositioning a bemused Japanese schoolgirl. Alicemania probably reveals something profound about post-Perry Japanese culture, but for now I have only the following conclusion: there is something about the immortal seven-year-old that fascinates Japanese audiences, but it’s something more superficial than Carroll’s linguistic acrobatics.

Montgomery, Lall D. “The Eastern Alice.” Literature East & West 7.1 (1963).

Suzuki, Michiko. Becoming Modern Women: Love and Female Identity in Prewar Japanese Literature and Culture. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 2010.

Wakabayashi, Judy. “Foreign Bones, Japanese Flesh: Translations and the Emergence of Modern Children’s Literature in Japan.” Japanese Language and Literature 42.1 (2008): 227-55.

Yano, Christine Reiko. Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek across the Pacific. 2013.

Monden, Masafumi. “Transcultural Flow of Demure Aesthetics: Examining Cultural Globalisation through Gothic & Lolita Fashion.” New Voices: A Journal for Emerging Scholars of Japanese Studies in Australia 2.1 (2008): 21-40.


  1. It’s interesting that you bring up those manga series (all of which I remember reading in high school, ahaha), and I’m curious to know whether you’re familiar with this one entitled “Are You Alice?”. The protagonist, interestingly enough, is actually male. The story is also a bit darker and more violent, somewhat like Pandora Hearts. Which also leads me to think of the series that actually takes place in the Victorian era (supposedly), Kuroshitsuji (Black Butler).

    That aside, I wanted to comment and say that it’s interesting that you bring up how the Japanese seem to focus on the cuteness of Wonderland, and I agree. In fact, I would even go so far as to argue that this could be branched out to China and South Korea as well. I’m afraid I know very little to how the concept of cuteness spread to these countries, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Japan played a role, since these three countries have influenced one another in terms of pop culture. It would be fascinating to see what people would think if they read the original and discovered Carroll’s wit, as well as how disturbing the story actually can be at times. I imagine if it were even remotely possible to translate English wordplay into their respective languages, perhaps Alicemania wouldn’t be a thing. Or maybe it would still exist solely because the protagonist is female (which wouldn’t entirely surprise me).

  2. […] [2] Ferge22j blog, December 2, 2014,… […]

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