Barbie’s First Wardrobe Was Made In Tokyo

Barbie’s First Wardrobe Was Made In Tokyo

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A Barbie doll in front of a pink background with Barbie written in Japanese, alongside the words "Japanese origins"
The global hit film "Barbie" is making its way to Japan in a few scant weeks. But did you know that Barbie has an early connection to Japan?

Barbie Timelapse For Japan

As of the time of this writing, it’s only been a week since Barbie came out on July 21st in the US. And yet, the film which was dubbed the most anticipated movie of the summer by TIME has already broken seven box office records, including the biggest-ever opening by a female director.

Meanwhile, the wait for Barbie to open in theaters will continue for another two weeks here in Japan. The premiere on August 2nd will bring director Greta Gerwig and producer David Heyman to Japan. Also attending the Japan premiere is actress Takahata Mitsuki (高畑充希), who is the voice of Barbie in the film’s Japanese dubbed version.

An appearance that will be missed is none other than star Margot Robbie. On July 25th, she canceled her attendance at the Japan premiere due to the SAG-AFTRA strike, according to an official statement by Warner Bros.

Although Margot’s pink carpet look in Japan won’t take over social media, as have her looks from other premieres, Barbie‘s pink ink will color Tokyo’s consumer culture.

The major shopping center Lumine is setting up Barbie-themed pop-up stores and photo spots until August 31st.

Barbie Land’s hot pink hue is here to stay for the hottest summer on earth.

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Japanese Barbie movie poster, with Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in pink convertible car.
Japanese poster for the upcoming movie.

Is Barbie, Technically, Japanese?

Could there have been a hot pink kimono in Margot Robbie’s closet that she was supposed to wear to Barbie‘s Japan premiere?

Unlikely. But not because of the fear that Barbie might get canceled for cultural appropriation, like with Katy Perry’s geisha stunt.

In Japan, Margot would surely have worn Mattel-inspired vintage Barbie looks as she has at previous press tour events. It only would have made sense. The world’s first-ever Barbies, after all, got their clothes from Japan.

All these Margot Robbie press tour looks have one thing in common. The 1959 Black-and-White Bathing Suit Barbie, the 1960 Sparkling Pink Barbie, and the Solo in the Spotlight Barbie were all designed and made in a hotel room in Tokyo by American Charlotte Johnson and Japanese women skilled in the art of sowing.

“Most people think that Barbie is an American doll. But really, during the first ten years since the Barbie doll’s debut in 1959, the dolls and dresses were all being produced in Japan,” says Sekiguchi Hasuhiro (関口泰宏), a Japanese world-class Barbie collector.

Design for the Solo in the Spotlight Barbie.

Tokyo: The Original Barbie Land

It was 1957, and the American toy company Mattel had made a deal with the Japanese wholesale distribution company Kokusai Boeki Kaisha, Ltd. (株式会社国際貿易) to import Japan-made Barbies to the US.

Mattel strategically chose Japan as its production site for the doll.

The Japanese yen was weak as Ryan Gosling’s Kenergy jokes. One USD was 138 JPY in 1957. You got to love cheap labor.

Paying as little as legally possible to laborers, Mattel wanted to use the surplus budget to buy high-quality fabric for Barbie’s clothes.

Another reason that made the Japanese ideal “elves” (Mattel is Santa in this analogy of course) was the high level of craftsmanship in the local textile industry. And Kokusai Boeki Kaisha, Ltd. was in that business.

Barbie’s Imperial Designs

Miyatsuka Fumiko was a 25 year old dressmaker. Her passion was making clothes for people, not dolls.

“I owed it to the person who recommended me, so I went to the interview,” says Miyatsuka.

Miyatsuka was reluctant to interview with Kokusai Boeki for a job making Barbie dresses. But she got the job, and ended up taking it.

Soon after joining the Japanese Barbie force, Miyatsuka went to Haneda Airport to pick up Johnson, with whom she would spend more than a year completing Barbie’s first closet. The lineup included twenty-two dresses and the black-and-white bathing suit.  

Johnson stayed at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Imperial, the old main quarters of today’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. It was in Johnson’s hotel room where she and Miyatsuka would work from 9 AM to 5 PM every weekday brainstorming designs, sowing pieces of fabric together, and making paper plans of each dress. They did all this sans a common language.

Miyatsuka had prepared five English dictionaries, but says that the two ended up getting buy with just gestures.

From Japanese Living Rooms to American Doll Houses

Johnson and Miyatsuka’s design plans would then be distributed to “factory workers.” What this really meant was Japanese housewives who had a sewing machine and wanted a side hustle.

The epitome of femininity at the time was to have a sewing machine. And when sewing from home became profitable thanks to Barbie, women jumped at the opportunity.

Japanese living rooms were Barbie sweatshops. And the Barbie naishoku (内職), or indoor side hustles, kept workers on their toes like the doll herself.

Quality control was strict. The stitching had to be perfect. Offsets of more than 0.5 millimeters were unacceptable.

Miyastuka, at 78, looked back at the days when she also partook in the homebound Barbie factory. “I worked about twenty-two hours a day. I now weigh 54 kilos, but couldn’t keep my weight above 39 kilos at the time.”

Quality Control

But the Barbie sewers were tough women. And they wanted to take on the hard work.

When Mattel wanted to cut costs on production materials, it angered the Japanese housewives who were dedicated to their craft and Barbie’s quality.

The material Mattel wanted to skimp out on was nylon tulle which was used for preventing threads from loosening.

The women protested to protect the quality of Barbie’s closet. They said, “If that’s the case we’ll give up a portion of our wages for that (nylon tulle). We want to use the tulle as we’ve always done.”

Johnson and Miyatsuka led the team that gave the world Barbie’s iconic, everlasting looks before going their separate ways. Johnson returned to the US. And Miyatsuka became the factory chief responsible for checking every dress for errors.

Miyatsuka left after seven years, founding her own sewing business – where she’d take on projects for making Barbie dresses, too. She authored the book “Barbie and Me” which was published in 2011. In it, she details how her female squad elevated the reputation of Japanese manufacturing from “cheap and bad” to world-class quality.

Cover of Miyatsuka Fumiko's "Barbie and Me" with an early Barbie doll.
Miyatsuka’s book detailing her early involvement with the doll.

Sources

[1] The 30 Most Anticipated Movies of Summer 2023. TIME

[2] Barbie Movie Box Office: Every Record Broken So Far. The Direct

[3] 『バービー』マーゴット・ロビー来日中止 ワーナーが正式発表. Yahoo! ニュースJAPAN

[4]フォトブースやネイル体験などバービー気分味わえるスポットが登場!映画「バービー」x LUMINE3館 合同開催. PRTIMES

[5] Barbie x Barbie: All of Margot Robbie’s Mattel-Inspired Red-Carpet Looks. Vanity Fair

[6] Barbie Doll Vintage Clothes Identified 1959-1963. Doll Reference

[7] Vintage Barbie Enchanted Evening. Fashion Doll Guide

[8] Vintage Barbie Solo In The Spotlight. Fashion Doll Guide

[9] Katy Perry’s geisha-inspired AMAs performance stirs controversy. TODAY

[10] 日本人は知らない、バービーが「日本のドール」と言える意外な理由. 現代ビジネス

[11] 私がインスパイアされたもの バービー人形服の縫い子さんのお話し. ayurcloth

[12] バービーと関わった半生. 定年時代

[13] 過去から現在、そして未来へ 〜ライト館開業100周年〜. 帝国ホテル東京

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