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An American Icon, Made in Japan
Barbie has a secret: she may have been dreamed up in the US, but she came to life in a Tokyo hotel room.
The Barbie doll is inextricably associated with ideals of fashion and femininity in modern society. She’s “both a relic from another era, and a bellwether of changing ideas about women and work, sex, and men,” as the The New Yorker once put it. In other words, she’s a character as American as apple pie.
So you might be surprised to learn that she was, in fact, made entirely in Japan.
Ruth Handler, co-founder of the toy company Mattel, came up with the idea for Barbie in 1956, but at the time the firm lacked the know-how to manufacture it. Mattel engaged a Japanese company called Kokusai Boeki Kaisha (“International Trading Company,” or KBK for short.) KBK served as a middleman, linking Mattel with local factories capable of manufacturing dolls to their specifications.
The bodies were plastic, popped out of molds in batches. But each and every one of Barbie’s outfits needed to be sewn by hand. Eventually, an army of Japanese needleworkers would be enlisted for this task. But first, they needed samples from which to work. The task of creating them fell to American fashion designer Charlotte Johnson and her Japanese assistant, the seamstress Fumiko Miyatsuka.
Despite the key role she played in helping launch Barbie, Miyatsuka’s name has never appeared in any English history of the dolls. In fact, Japan seems to have been written entirely out of the official history altogether. “Ruth and her designers worked hard on the doll until she was just right,” explains a 2017 picture-book sponsored by Mattel on the topic. “Mattel introduced Barbie at the 1959 toy fair… She sold out everywhere!” Ruth is even portrayed cutting doll-clothing patterns in the 2023 “Barbie” movie, which doesn’t mention Japan, either.
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In reality, Barbie’s story starts in 1956, when Handler encountered a doll called Bild Lili while on vacation in Switzerland with her family. The doll was based on a sexy starlet from a popular German newspaper cartoon and intended purely for grown-up fans. But Handler’s teenage daughter said she wanted one to decorate her room. This triggered an epiphany. The conventional wisdom was that girls only wanted toy babies to nurture. Handler believed that there was an untapped market for a doll that was older than the consumer – a doll, in other words, that was aspirational. Only maybe not quite so sexy. In fact, she should be downright wholesome. So Ruth really did work hard transforming naughty Lili into nice Barbie. But she didn’t actually make Barbie. Japanese artisans did.
First, let me set the historical stage. It is no coincidence that Germany and Japan play roles in Barbie’s birth. Toys have been big business globally since the late 19th century, when Germany took the lead in supplying the children of the world with dolls, rocking horses, and cast-iron soldiers. But the chaos of World War I knocked them out of the game.
Japanese toy companies swooped in to replace them. They proved so adept that by 1934 US toy companies were petitioning the government for tariffs to help stem the “invasion of the American market by Japanese toys.” Soon after, the Second World War put an end to Japan’s designs on the global toy industry, seemingly forever. But then something interesting happened. The Allied occupation forces enlisted Japan’s toymakers to help rebuild the nation’s war-battered economy, transforming makers of playthings into unlikely saviors.
This is, not coincidentally, where the story of Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World begins. Toys and silks were the first products that America allowed Japan to export after war’s end. The very first shipments weren’t sold; they were shipped as compensation for desperately needed American grain. In other words, toys literally helped keep the nation from starving. As Japan slowly recovered from war, toymakers once again began flooding US marketplaces with their products. They may not have been as well made as those of their American rivals, but they were made well enough, and far cheaper than American toys to boot.
It was one of these toys that attracted the attention of Mattel staff: a baby doll made by the Japanese firm Masudaya, spotted in a Japanese department store on an early research trip. It was essentially a cheaper version of the “Betsy Wetsy” doll, capable of “drinking” from a bottle and then “urinating” the contents out. (Side note: if I told you that Betsy Wetsy was next on the Hollywood movie development slate, would you believe me? Hold on to your diapers: it’s true.) What most impressed them about the baby doll was the quality of its clothing. This was key, because Barbie was a fashion doll, and precise sewing would be required to make her clothing fit in a stylish way.
In her 2011 memoir Baabii to Watashi (“Barbie and Me”), Miyatsuka writes with great pride of her role in Barbie’s genesis. In the winter of 1957, Mattel sent a three-person team to Japan, consisting of the engineer Seymour Adler, the bilingual Frank Nakamura, and clothing designer Charlotte Johnson. KBK dispatched Miyatsuka, then a twenty five year old new hire, to meet them at Haneda airport.
The occupation of Japan had ended only five years before. Miyatsuka was a self-described “country girl from Saitama.” These were the first Americans outside of military uniform she had ever seen. “I was so nervous, but Ms. Johnson took me under her wing, and Mr. Adler and Mr. Nakamura treated the two of us so kindly,” she writes. “There was never any hierarchy. They saw everyone as being on the same team.”
Even still, this was the Fifties, and the men and the women worked separately. Adler and Nakamura headed to KBK to find a dollmaking facility that could mimic the Lili doll body. Miyatsuka accompanied Johnson to her suite on the third floor of the Imperial Hotel. It had two rooms, one of which was outfitted with sewing machines and many bolts of cloth. For the next year, this is where Miyatsuka and Johnson worked. (Aside: I don’t know what a suite at the Imperial went for in 1957, but they start at 100,000 JPY a night now, meaning a year’s accommodation would be something like thirty-six million yen, which is a quarter million USD. Oh, to be on a Mattel expense account.)
Miyatsuka didn’t speak English; Johnson didn’t speak Japanese. “We had a stack of English-Japanese dictionaries," recalls Miyatsuka, “but I don’t recall us ever using them. We were focused on the task of making Barbie’s dresses, so we could make ourselves understood with simple words, ‘like this?’ We both worked with our hands, so we had a kind of simpatico. It was so, so fun working together.”
Like many women of the era, Miyatsuka learned to sew growing up. But she didn’t know the first thing about American fashions. Nor had she ever made clothing for dolls. Johnson tutored her in Western dressmaking. The pair paged through stacks of Vogue magazine for inspiration. Sometimes, they experimented by pinning fabric to a doll body. Other times, Johnson would spontaneously devise a pattern on her own.
“Ms. Johnson did the cutting. I did the sewing,” recalls Miyatsuka. “But the doll’s chest was huge compared to the size of the body, and no matter how much we measured, things wouldn’t fit right. So we’d cut, pin to the doll, sew darts, and eyeball it, over and over.” Once Johnson approved a design, Miyatsuka would disassemble the outfit, using the pieces to make paper patterns that would guide the factories.
A pair of cardigans proved particularly difficult. Johnson worked on a strict nine-to-five schedule based on American business hours, but Miyatsuka would take material home and continue working long into the night. By the time work started on the cardigans, summer had arrived, so she knit dozens of tiny sample sweaters beneath a mosquito net at her home in Saitama. These would eventually become one of the early line’s best-selling outfits, the #976 Sweater Girl ensemble. Mattel packaged it as a sweater Barbie had made herself, including doll-sized knitting needles and balls of yarn.
As the date for Barbie’s launch approached, “I was working on two or three hours of sleep a night, but I didn’t find it hard at all. It was work, of course, but it was work I enjoyed and I felt like others were depending on me,” writes Miyatsuka. “And this was demanding work. You can’t start thinking, ‘it’s just a doll, so this is good enough.’ The minute you did, the clothes would stop fitting right. So I was incredibly strict with myself.”
“The first time we fit the finished sample outfits on a Barbie doll, I just cried,” recalls Miyatsuka. “It was as though Barbie was saying ‘look how pretty I am!’ to us. She looked so proud. Radiating with confidence, full of personality and spirit, even though she was just a doll.” Barbie may have been dreamed up by an American, but she came to life in a room in the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.
Samples were one thing; Barbie and her outfits needed to be made in massive quantities. (For big sellers, like the cardigans, those numbers could exceed half a million sets.) At one point Miyatsuka accompanied Johnson to the factory where the bodies were being made. “I watched in amazement as she fearlessly engaged this craftsman from [factory] Yamaichi Shoten in deep conversation. He was a serious man with these huge hands, but she had a heart to heart with him, even though he couldn’t speak a word of English. All of us were focused on the task of making Barbie, and that let her make herself understood.”
Over the course of a year, Johnson and Miyatsuka produced twenty-two dresses and a swimsuit for Barbie in their makeshift studio in the Imperial Hotel. The patterns were then sent to factories across Japan, which hired housewives to painstakingly copy them on assembly lines: some cutting fabric, others stitching the pieces together, and still others packaging them.
“Japan was the perfect place because of the patience of the workers,” recounts a Mattel employee in Forever Barbie, a (highly recommended!) 1995 expose on the series. “The dolls and clothes were delivered by bike and by pickup truck. They were handled five, six times. And they never got dirty. It’s amazing. I don’t think there’s any other country where you could do that.” The finished dolls were delivered to America just in time for Ruth Handler to showcase them at the winter 1959 American Toy Fair in New York City.
Barbie may be an American success story, but she isn’t an all-American one. It’s hard to imagine Barbie arriving to such fanfare without a big helping hand from Japan. After the launch, “Frank Nakamura said to me, ‘Thank you, Fumi-chan, I couldn’t have done this so quickly with just one person,” writes Miyatsuka. “And Ms. Johnson even called me her 'Japanese collaborator.' This made me very happy.”
It’s a shame that Mattel leaves Fumiko Miyatsuka, and the many hardworking women who helped bring the first incarnation of Barbie to life, out of their official history. But there is a happy end to this story. Miyatsuka ended up doing very well for herself, becoming a pioneering female entrepreneur. In 1963, she left KBK to launch her own company, Miyatsuka Hosei (sewing), which produced clothing for many hit toy products in the decades to come – including Barbie’s Japanese rival, the Licca-chan doll, which ended up proving even more popular in Japan than Barbie had.
Postscript: I reached out to Ms. Miyatsuka, now 91, for comment through her publisher. They passed along a message from Ms. Miyatsuka’s family, saying that her memory has deteriorated to the point that she isn’t able to respond to interviews, and requesting privacy.
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