The tale of little Ms Kawairashii

Why has Beatrix Potter country been besieged by Japanese teenage girls? Peter Popham explains
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The grounds of Hill Top, the Lake District Cottage which was Beatrix Potter's home, are being churned to mud by tens of thousands of Japanese visitors. Jeremy Fisher has fled into his pond, Mrs Tiggywinkle is hiding under the ironing board, Peter Rabbit is quaking inside the potting shed. Still they come, a monstrous regiment.

Now the National Trust is to publish appeals in Japan urging them to go elsewhere. The effect will probably be to make the place more fascinating than ever.

Adrian Marklew, assistant regional public affairs manager of the NT, believes the rabbit and Potter's other characters appeal to Japanese because they believe them to be "quintessentially English". Perhaps. A more plausible explanation is that they perceive them to be quintessentially cute, kawairashii in Japanese. Cuteness is something that today's Japanese - teenage girls in particular - cannot get enough of.

Other heroes of the English nursery have gone down a storm in Japan, too: Pooh, Paddington, SuperTed, Postman Pat and Jess, even the Thomas the Tank Engine. From the Japanese point of view, there is nothing conspicuously English about any of them them (Paddington Bear, of course, is an illegal immigrant from Peru). The important point is that they are all foreign.

To the insular Japanese, becalmed in their peaceful islands (sarin gas attacks notwithstanding), the outside world is both a challenge and a threat. It is full of unfamiliar menace, from airport officials to muggers and cheating shopkeepers. Peter Rabbit represents the outside world as it ought to be - cute, cuddly, naughty in a lovable way. Filling her bedroom with stuffed images of Peter, the Japanese schoolgirl may be expressing her yearning for a relationship with the outside world that poses no threat.

When Japanese flock to Hill Top, the World of Beatrix Potter in Bowness and the other sites, they are performing a sort of secular pilgrimage. It's the fashionable new idea for a holiday abroad. Several years ago, Japanese travel agents began to worry their increasingly blase clientele who were proving unwilling to visit a given country more than once or twice. The answer was to offer holidays with a special slant, involving trips to lesser-known places of special interest. The idea has caught on.

Lovable anthropomorphism is one of the few areas where England still has a palpable advantage over Japan. The modern Japanese imagination tends towards the grotesque and the murderously techno-sci-fi monsters like Godzilla, blank-faced robotic martial artists like the Power Rangers, which caused such a fuss when they were launched in the United States.

To find a Japanese rival to Peter Rabbit it is necessary to delve into the past: the archaic figure of Tanuki, a cuddly racoon dog whose pottery image stands on his hind legs, smiling gormlessly, outside country restaurants. But two of Tanuki's essential attributes will probably disqualify him from Peter-esque celebrity: the gourd at his waist, full of the sake to which he is addicted; and his furry testicles, so large that they drag along the ground.