Miffy is a girl rabbit?” asks Martine, a Dutch friend of mine, as we talk over beers outside a local pub in Amsterdam. “We Dutch grow up with Miffy as a part of our childhood, but I just presumed it was a boy rabbit.”
Martine turned to her wife, who nodded. “Yes, I always thought Nijntje was a boy too,” she said, referring to the rabbit by its Dutch name (pronounced something like “nin-che”). They both seemed genuinely surprised to hear that Miffy is female. Or is she? And what about the proverbial flowered dress the rabbit wears, such as the one on the cover of “Miffy’s Birthday”?
A few days later I was hot on the trail of the gender-bending bunny, a path that led me through the city streets of Utrecht, Nijntje’s hometown in Holland. Soon I was hopping over canals, shimmying through traffic and scampering through the old museum quarter until I finally spotted the city’s famous lagomorph. After taking a selfie with the oversize bunny with lengthy ears, round full-stop eyes and a recumbent letter X mouth, I entered the adjacent Centraal Museum, on the prowl for the curator and “Studio 9.”
An aficionado of children’s books since I became an adult, what interested me most about the Centraal Museum was the reconstructed writing studio of Dick Bruna, author and creator of Nijntje. Called Studio 9, it was the counterpart to an additional space across the street that houses the rabbit’s namesake experiential learning center for children, where exhibits are translated into only two languages: English and Japanese.
At the museum, I was particularly keen to uncover not just the mystery of the rabbit’s gender, but what it is about the character that has made Japan one of the largest markets in the world for Miffy books and merchandise.
Thirty-two of Dick Bruna’s titles have been translated into Japanese, says Marja Kerkhof, managing director of Mercis, the company that manages Bruna’s business interests and worldwide copyrights.
Kerkhof shared with me the figures from Fukuinkan Shoten, the Tokyo publisher of Bruna’s books, indicating that a whopping 50 million picture books have been sold in Japan. “Miffy at the Zoo” is the most popular in the series, having sold almost 2 million copies. “Miffy in the Snow” runs a close second with 1.9 million, and the original “Miffy” sold 1.89 million books, proving that rabbits do indeed multiply.
Bruna, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 89, started out as a young artist doing pen-and-wash drawings, using sepia or tea to make color. Like writing in a basic, simple prose style that favors leaving more to the imagination of the reader, Bruna applied this same pared-down style to his art. The artist is said to have been greatly influenced by the straightforward line-drawn art of Henri Matisse and Fernand Leger. It is Bruna’s uncomplicated approach to creating his characters that proved to make them so endearing.
Bruna drew his first Miffy character in 1955, and it was during his tenure at his father’s publishing house designing book covers that he first got a shot at publishing his own work.
Soon he was simplifying and honing the skills that would elucidate his particular style of characters with big heads. The rabbiteer defined his technique by using paper cut-outs for his characters, cutting out the patterns with scissors without drawing them out first. He never used a ruler, preferring to use the thick, soft hand-drawn lines. He streamlined his color palette by adhering to just three tints of five main colors: an orange-red, a mustardy yellow, a dark shade of blue, a verdant green and black. Other well-known Bruna characters are Cow, Poppy Pig and Boris Bear.
As I strolled around Studio 9, a Japanese mother and her child were perusing original books, photos and videos subtitled in Japanese. The little girl had her picture taken sitting in one of Bruna’s favorite chairs, called the “Wink armchair” and designed by Japanese Toshiyuki Kita, where Bruna relaxed and read books for inspiration. The artist shared the Japanese passion for punctuality and liked visitors to his studio to be on time.
When Nijntje made her first appearance in Japan in 1964, she was called Usako-chan, which means baby rabbit in Japanese (usagi + ko + the diminutive chan), a near-translation of the contraction Nijntje in Dutch (konijntje means “little rabbit”). It would seem this would have solidified the rabbit’s gender, since Usako is a distinctly female sounding name in Japanese. The more international name “Miffy,” also with female undertones, was dreamed up by an English editor in 1964, Kerkhof told me.
But the gender-neutral Dutch version of the rabbit was still nibbling at my conscience. Why would my friends, who grew up in Holland, where Nijntje is a part of nearly everyone’s childhood, think Miffy was a boy?
It turns out that it wasn’t until 1970, when Bruna first dabbed a flower onto the rabbit’s smock, that Nijntje officially became a Dutch girl bunny. So anyone born before then would have assigned the gender of their choosing to the rabbit.
After a good hour spent in Studio 9, I crept down the stairway to the Centraal Museum shop, which offered a bevy of Miffy souvenirs, several oriented toward the Japanese market: money trays, bento boxes and key chains.
As I emerged from the museum warren, having purchased over €70 worth of Miffy rabbit-alia, I reflected on why Bruna’s long-eared creation had infinitely more appeal for the Japanese compared to those from some other countries. Surely one factor is that she is easy for children to draw. Japanese primary school students learn to draw basic forms of animals. Like Hello Kitty, Miffy complements this habit of replicating characters. I dare say you’d ever find a Japanese first-grader who could draw Peter Rabbit, for example, yet I’ve seen kindergartners draw their own version of the conceptually easy-to-grasp Miffy.
I was further impressed by how much a man who hardly ever left his own office could have so much influence in countries as far away as Japan. It was as if he managed his characters by remote control from his small studio among the canals of Utrecht.
Japan Lite appears in print on the fourth Monday of the month. Your comments and Community story ideas: email@example.com