Japan Glances

Japanese Figures: More than Just a Hobby

Society Culture

Collecting anime, manga, and other figures is a popular pastime allowing aficionados to create miniature worlds inhabited by their favorite characters. Figures are not limited to pop culture. They include famous architectural structures, well-known foods, and popular models of trains, airplanes, and other forms of transportation. For many, these collectables provide an opportunity to get lost in a world of one’s own making.

Spitting Images

Figures and scale models come in a wire range including characters from manga, anime, and video games, as well as specimens from outside the world of pop culture. These two- and three-dimensional replicas balance realism and imagination. According to Miyawaki Shūichi, president of the figure manufacturer Kaiyōdō, the perfect equilibrium between manga and the real world is around what he calls “2.8 dimensions.”

Caramels and other packaged sweets used to offer figures as special hidden prizes. Known as shokugan, these products were purchased as much for the thrill of discovering what figure waited inside as for the candy. Later, tiny collectables began to be used as promotional schemes by soft drink makers and were also staple fillers for snackmaker Furuta’s popular choko eggu (chocolate egg) series. According to data from the Yano Research Institute, in 2013 this had grown into a ¥30 billion industry including all sorts of creations.

Figure manufacturers generally specialize, with scenes from hit movies, manga and anime characters, celebrities, famous architecture, types of transportation, and food topping the list of popular genres. However, the variety of figures available in Japan and overseas runs the gamut of category and form. Palm-sized creations a few centimeters tall and standard desktop sizes are available, as are specially produced giant-sized replicas.

Figure makers such as Good Smile Company, Kotobukiya, and Volks offer finished models as well as do-it-yourself kits.

A giant robot from the Mobile Suit Gundam series on display outside Joypolis at Odaiba, Tokyo.

Going Shopping

The entrance to Nakano Broadway.

Figures can be easily purchased directly online from manufacturer sites and other vendors. However, many fans prefer to visit a shop and see items up close before buying them. Depending on the store, customers can inspect figures displayed in glass cases or pick them up for closer inspection, with the latter preferable to collectors who place a premium on scrutinizing a piece’s level of detail.

A popular spot for lovers of figures and other subculture is Nakano Broadway, a four-story shopping center outside the north exit of Nakano Station in western Tokyo. The establishment houses a wide variety of shops peddling manga- and anime-related items. It is also home to Bar Zingaro, a pop art café produced by famous artist Murakami Takashi.

A shop inside Nakano Broadway; figures on display at a store.

Another center for figures is Tokyo’s Akihabara district, which boasts several specialty shops including the Volks Akihabara Hobby Paradise, Kaiyōdō Hobby Lobby Tokyo, and the longstanding Kotobukiya Akihabara.

A figure from Cosmania 2013 in the Philippines.

Hooked on Gacha

Gacha vending machines.

Vending machines are another go-to source for figures. For ¥100 to ¥200 these contraptions, known as gacha from the sound they make when dolling out their goods, dispense capsules containing small figures or scale models. As customers are unable to choose which figure they get, attaining a sought-after collectable may require multiple attempts. One common way around this dilemma is to trade unwanted or multiple items with friends or to search for rare specimens on the Internet.

Gacha capsules.

According to Miyawaki, figures have the ability to “tell a story.” While collecting them is not for everyone, there is a strong appeal to those able to tune in to the tales that reproductions convey.


(Banner photo courtesy Carlos Emmanuel.)

Photo Credits:
Cosmania 2013 doll: Carlos Emmanuel
Gacha capsules: Kumiko

anime manga Murakami Takashi Akihabara vending machines Nakano Broadway