And now the Japanese affinity for anthropomorphism is being taken to a whole new level.
From today's Asahi Shimbun:
NO LIMIT TO TREND OF GIVING OBJECTS HUMAN FORM
By Keishi Nishimura, Staff Writer
From ancient times, personification has played a major role in Japanese culture.
The Choju-giga (animal caricatures) picture scrolls that portray anthropomorphized animals are believed to have been drawn during the 12th to the 13th centuries.
In modern times, giving human properties to inanimate objects is as common as Mickey Mouse, or, more locally, Anpanman.
But somewhere along the way, anthropomorphism took on a life quite unexpected: Now characters are being created to portray subway stations, a town--and even charcoal.
Representative of this trend are the characters from "Miracle Train," an anime that features a group of handsome men, each of whom represents a Tokyo subway station.
Each character has his own personality traits and back story that reflect the characteristic features and history of the stations and surrounding areas, along with other trivium.
The characters were created by the Miracle Train Seisaku (production) Project, a group of four women who work at an IT firm. One of the members, who is a railway fan, came up with the idea. She said she wanted to make everyone feel closer to train stations they use on a daily basis.
The group started posting manga and short stories on a website. An animated TV series based on the characters went on air in 2009 after an anime production company fell in love with the concept.
Before the anime was aired, train cars for the Toei Oedo Line were decorated with life-size decals featuring the anthropomorphic characters.
About 90 percent of "Miracle Train" fans are female, ranging from teenagers to those in their 40s. Some even organize tours on their own to visit the subway stations.
"I think that the project has been well-received because people can learn about the stations as they are escorted by the characters," said Miyuka Kidachi, a project member in charge of publicity.
A similar project is under way in Tottori Prefecture. A drama titled "Ashitamo Kokode" (Here again tomorrow) features a story revolving around a group of four handsome anthropomorphic male characters who represent different areas in the central part of the prefecture. Each character has its own personality traits based on the area they represent.
The civic group LOHAS Togo was commissioned by the Yurihama town office to produce 1,000 copies of a CD on the drama. They put the anime on sale in anime shops in Tokyo and bookstores in the prefecture in April.
Of them, 500 copies were sold, with many of the buyers being women in their teens to 30s.
"It made me want to visit the places, so I'm planning to go on a trip," a 21-year-old woman in Tokyo said.
The civic group is now planning to design personified characters based on Nijusseiki brand pears for the second installment of the project.
According to Yu Ito, a 36-year-old researcher at Kyoto International Manga Museum in Kyoto's Nakagyo Ward, personification is deeply rooted in Japanese culture.
From karakasa obake (spirit of parasol) in ancient times to Anpanman, a cartoon character based on an anpan sweet bun, Japanese have been familiar with anthropomorphic characters based on animals and objects who act as humans.
But "the latest trend of personification is characterized by the fact that characters leave no traces of the forms upon which they are originally based and completely take on human forms," Ito said.
Ito added that this trend has been set by Bincho-tan and her friends--a group of cute girlish characters representing Japanese bincho charcoal first introduced over the Internet in or around 2004.
In 2003, an illustrator at Alchemist, a game publisher based in Tokyo's Koto Ward, conceived the idea for Bincho-tan. When he was playing with words, he thought of tan, a diminutive suffix originating from chan that is used to describe an endearing person. "Tan" also means charcoal in Japanese.
The illustrator then came up with illustrations of Bincho-tan and her friends, which were later posted on the company's Web site. The characters became wildly popular and were turned into a manga series.
The following year, the Minabegawa forestry cooperative in Minabe, Wakayama Prefecture, decided to use the characters as mascots for the organization. The town is home to Kishu binchotan charcoal producers.
They once organized a hands-on experience tour involving tree planting and charcoal making to celebrate the DVD release of the animated series.
Then, the organization took reservations for the tour of a maximum of 50 participants in just a matter of several minutes.
Anime fans who are mainly in their 20s continue to visit Minabe on weekends and holidays.