The Barbenheimer battle took place across cinemas worldwide this past week, with Barbie coming out strong against Oppenheimer. But you might be surprised to know that Barbie was – and still is – a huge loser in Japan.
If you ask Japanese kids, Barbie has nothing on their local favorite Licca-chan.
Barbie’s smash success
It was the box office battle of summer 2023–––Barbie vs Oppenheimer.
The two began warming up the crowd last year on social media. In April of 2022, the word “Barbenheimer” surfaced on the internet. By gameday July 21st, it had gone viral.
More than a week has passed since the Barbenheimer battle opened in cinemas worldwide.
The results are in. Barbie’s pink Corvette ran over Oppenheimer before he could nuke her.
On Friday, Barbie directed by Greta Gerwig hit $578.7 million and is expected to reach the worldwide $600 million benchmark this weekend. Oppenheimer was reported to cross over $300 million on Friday, half of the prize Barbie’s taking home.
Meanwhile, in Japan, the battle of Barbenheimer hasn’t happened yet and we don’t know if it will.
Barbie will premier in Japan on August 2nd and hit Japanese theaters on the 11th. Meanwhile, her opponent pic Oppenheimer still has no release date.
Local distributor Toho-Towa (東宝東和) is leaving Japanese audiences hanging on when Oppenheimer will come to theaters.
Critics speculate that a release period may not be announced given Japanese sensitivities to the subject matter of atomic bombings. Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings’ 78th anniversaries fall within the same week of Barbie‘s release. At any other time of the year, the Japanese may have wholeheartedly welcomed a Barbenheimer economic boom.
But in the Japanese arena, Barbie will have the stage for herself.
Barbie’s rough start in Japan
Barbie is without competition in Japan–––in cinema, that is. In toy stores, she’s the underdog. The champion in every Japanese Toys “R” Us is Licca-chan (リカちゃん).
Barbie started her career first in Japan. In fact, she was born in Tokyo contrary to popular belief that she’s an American creation. Her US parent company Mattel came to Tokyo in 1957 and outsourced Barbie’s production to Japanese distribution company Kokusai Boeki Kaisha, Ltd. (株式会社国際貿易). You could say that Mattel was the biological parent and Kokusai Boeki Kaisha, Ltd. was the surrogate.
Barbie made her debut in US markets in 1959 before finding her place on Japanese toy store shelves in 1962. But she didn’t sell well in Japan. Her 30 cm height was too big for little kids to carry around. And her Western features were too unrelatable for dark-haired, black-eyed Japanese girls.
Mattel felt bad. So, it gave Barbie a makeover so that her hairstyle and outfit could cater to Japanese taste, which resulted in a gradual increase in sales.
Barbie’s archenemy Licca-chan
Just when Barbie was finding a foothold in the Japanese toy market, Tomy Company Ltd., a Japanese rival of Mattel, birthed Licca-chan in 1967.
Licca-chan was an instant success. What Barbie lacked to connect with Japanese girls, Licca had, which boiled down to relatability.
Licca was (and always will be) 11 years old, making her closer to her playmates than 19-year-old Barbie. She also resembled the heroines in Japanese girls’ comics. At a price of ¥600 Licca became every Japanese girl’s best friend, leaving nobody for Barbie.
Barbie’s sales plummeted, leaving her homeless. She left Japan, but not for good.
Barbie And Licca-chan as stepsisters
In 1980, former archenemies Mattel and Tomy partnered up like a hate-to-love couple. Barbie and Licca were practically stepsisters.
The marriage of the US and Japanese companies was aimed at bringing Barbie back to Japan.
Past lessons had already taught them that for Barbie to work in Japan, she had to go local. So, in 1982, Tomy obtained a license from Mattel to create its own original Barbie oriented towards the Japanese market. Tomy took full advantage of the custody it gained over Barbie and renamed her “Takara Barbie” and changed her age to a 17-year-old high school girl.
The change worked. Takara Barbie rose to fame and basked in the spotlight with her stepsister Licca-chan for some time.
Divorce and court battles
Their parent companies were profiting from their children and living happily. Then, in 1986, Tomy lost custody of Barbie due to the expiration of a licensing contract. No one knows why the companies failed to renew it.
Mattel and Tomy’s joint-parenting relationship ended and Tomy was left with a void to fill from losing Barbie.
As expected, Tomy popped out a new sister for Licca-chan. Her name was JeNnY (ジェニー). Meanwhile, Mattel moved on to a new relationship with another Japanese company BANDAI. The two companies merged and became MaBa Corporation.
And just like Tomy grieved the loss of Takara Barbie, Mattel wanted to find a replacement for its own Licca-chan. So, with BANDAI, Mattel welcomed their Japanese Barbie whom they named “MaBa Barbie.”
MaBa Barbie looked just like Licca-chan. Tomy took offense at that and filed a lawsuit against Mattel for creating a clone of their formerly shared daughter. No joke, it was called “the doll trial,” or ningyosaiban (人形裁判) in Japanese.
Ultimately, MaBa Corporation altered the looks of MaBa Barbie and shook hands with Tomy. But they dissolved the company after Barbie sales took a steep dip in 1989. By 1991, Japanese Barbies disappeared from shelves, leaving only Mattel’s original Barbies on their own.
Mattel and BANDAI cut ties in 2003. Mattel International alone sells Barbies in Japan today.
There is no Licca-chan movie to date, but who knows? Maybe Licca and Barbie can go toe-to-toe at the box office sometime in the future.
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