For the millions of little girls who had the original Licca-chan doll, assembled in 1967, they probably noticed a tiny little dent in the right nostril but didn't give it a second thought.
Chioko Fukao, 47, was shocked, however, when she heard the inside story during an in-house training course. Fukao is a member of the Licca-chan development team at Tomy Co., Japan's leading toy manufacturer, headquartered in Tokyo.
The secret was revealed by Yasuhiro Kojima, 71, a former senior managing director at Takara Co., the predecessor of Tomy.
Kojima was the de facto "parent" who brought the fashion doll Licca-chan into the world. And of course, Licca-chan went on to become the company's poster girl. Kojima confessed that he had accidentally dropped the original Licca-chan prototype mold, which was made of clay, onto his desk. And Licca went straight into production, with a miniscule, telltale dent.
Even after he left the product development scene, Kojima continued to be involved with Licca-chan, lending advice as needed. Kojima challenged Fukao and her colleagues "to always develop products from the child's perspective."
It was the philosophy that Kojima lived by, and it still remains the founding philosophy of the product development team.
Takara traces its origins to a tiny vinyl processing plant in Takara-cho, Katsushika Ward, in Tokyo. When the factory was founded in 1953, it consisted of a single six-tatami mat room. The company grew steadily, with hits such as the Dakko-Chan, the inflatable doll that could be attached on the arm, in a hugging pose (dakko).
Dakko-Chan became a runaway hit in 1960. Still, the bulk of sales came from seasonal summer toys, such as inflatable swimming tubes. The company needed a toy that would sell throughout the year.
Kojima was in his mid-20s, when company founder, Yasuta Sato, in December 1966 gave him an assignment to develop a new product that would help the company become a full-fledged general toy manufacturer in its own right.
At the time, American dolls like Barbie were on sale in Japan. Kojima was told to develop "a house to carry around dolls."
But considering the size of the Japanese household, a dollhouse for Barbie seemed way too big. So Kojima set out to come up with "a small doll and its very own house, for Japanese girls."
Another key concept behind the creation of Barbie was to feature a "fashion doll" whose wardrobe could be changed to match the fads of the times.
Japanese girls were all into "shojo" manga magazines such as Nakayoshi and Ribon that target a young female audience. Kojima dug into the manga with gusto. In his book, "Licca-chan Umaremasu (Licca-chan is born)," published by Sobisha Inc., Kojima wrote: "I hit on a great idea. 'Why not create a three-dimensional replica of the dreamlike shojo manga world?' "
The fanciful world of shojo manga was carefully plotted out. Licca's father was a Frenchman--who was missing; her mother, a fashion designer. Details regarding her family and her personality were developed and fine-tuned.
Katsushika Ward had always been the center of celluloid processing, dating to the Taisho Era (1912-1926), and the area had a concentration of toy manufacturers. Kojima went to Kamijo, a mold and die maker, in the neighborhood, for the face mold. He brought cutouts from manga magazines as reference material to help explain the image he was after. It was Shiba, a factory dealing with plastics in Edogawa Ward, which actually manufactured the doll. Thus Kojima was finally able to realize his dream doll with the help of skilled traditional craftsmen.
Licca-chan went into mass production at the Taihei Shoyu (now Taihei) factory, an old soy sauce maker, in Sosa, Chiba Prefecture. The long-established brewery was trying to diversify its business and had set up a new department for toy manufacturing. Women from nearby farms, clad in overall aprons, would work on Licca-chan.
"We would draw the features by hand," reminisced Taihei's director, Yoshiko Hanazawa. "It's not easy to get the two eyebrows balanced, just so. But I must say we had some master painters."
Licca-chan had delicate limbs and chestnut brown hair. She had a sweet face, but her features had a whiff of lingering melancholy. The doll was named "Licca Kayama" and went on sale on July 4, 1967. It became a huge hit, selling 43,000 units in the first month alone.
Rika Kayama, 51, is a real-life psychiatrist who assumed the name as her alias--a play on the Licca doll. As a girl, Kayama owned and played with Licca-chan.
"In real life, kids in elementary school weren't supposed to have any love life," Kayama said. "But Licca had a boyfriend! She was the existence that led 'the other life I couldn't live.' "
"Licca-chan Club 67" is set up inside the Hakuhinkan Toy Park in Tokyo's Ginza, where all Licca models, from the original to the very latest, are on display. The shop draws a wide range of fans from all age groups. The number of visitors this December grew by 50 percent over last year. Some days, there is a line waiting to get inside.
Yukie Goda, 49, from Wakabayashi Ward, Sendai, is a survivor of the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake. She found her Licca-chan pinned underneath a fallen piece of furniture in her home. She fixed the crushed body and brushed out Licca-chan's hair.
It gave her much comfort. The doll was packed with her mother's love and memories from the time when she was a little girl.
"Licca-chan saved me, when I was thrust deep in anxiety and confusion," Goda said. "It made me realize what was really precious to me."
LICCA-CHAN's VITAL STATISTICS
Officially, Licca-chan is 11 years old. Her birthday is May 3. In the beginning, there were three people in the Licca family; mother, father and Licca. A big sister, Rie, who works as a flight attendant was added in 1972; then came the twins, Miki and Maki, in 1974; baby triplets, Kako, Miku and Gen, were born in 1987. In 1989, papa Pierre, who was supposedly missing, showed up. His appearance inspired a lot of discussion related to the equal employment opportunities law that was enacted in 1985, prompting women's social advancement, and the loving "family man" phenomenon that was in vogue.
By 2007, an accumulated total of 53 million Licca-chan units had been sold. Even now, about 1 million units are sold each year. The current Licca-chan is in her fourth incarnation, which appeared in 1987. The doll is 22 centimeters tall. Her boyfriend, the fifth generation, is Ren. There's a special "Mote-Kawa Curl" Licca-chan edition that lets you play with her hair.
COMMENTS FROM FOUNDER YASUTA SATO
Licca-chan was the first project as head of the company that I worked on from scratch that actually went on to create a boom. Before the launch, we showed samples to a group of girls in the fifth grade. Their response was, "I'm going to die!" They were that excited. Now they would probably say "Cool!" They really liked Licca's pretty girl look. Remember, these were times when dolls were all round and chubby, like Kewpie dolls; or else, they came with milk bottles. We got scathing ratings from grownups, who couldn't shake the existing image for dolls. At the launch, I was bluntly told, "It will never sell," which made me quite angry. But I was confident Licca-chan would be a success. So I just went ahead with it.
Children are better equipped with the intuitive power to pick out beautiful objects. I call it, "the light, drop and reach." This is what happens when a really fascinating toy is placed before them. Their eyes light up in excitement, their neck drops forward, and they reach out with their hand.
There was the big question of "Who was Licca-chan modeled after?" It is interesting that even now I get comments that Licca looks like my wife, in her youth. I didn't really aim for her image.
Later on, I tried to get Mattel Inc., the company that came up with Barbie, interested in Licca-chan. But they couldn't understand the whole Licca-chan concept, a world that involves Mommy and Daddy and all that stuff. That's when I realized that Licca-chan was a uniquely Japanese toy based on a family theme. I just hope that Licca-chan will continue to inspire the spirit of family and love.