Japan's long-selling popular dress-up doll Licca-chan has proved to be a strong tourist magnet supporting reconstruction of Fukushima Prefecture from the 2011 nuclear and earthquake-tsunami disasters.
The beloved doll in the form of an 11-year-old schoolgirl, which first went on sale in 1967, is featured in a theme park in the rural town of Ono that the doll's maker Tomy Co. opened in 1993.
During Japan's Golden Week holidays in early May, Licca-chan Castle was packed with families and fans of what is often touted as the Japanese version of the Barbie doll.
The theme park is the embodiment of a dream by Yasuta Sato, Tomy founder and a native of neighboring Iwaki city, to "show children the process of manufacturing."
The castle not only showcases dolls from the original to the current fourth-generation versions but also allows visitors to observe how craftsman implant hair and color the doll.
After passing through a newly built garden commemorating the 50th anniversary of the doll, visitors are welcomed by a life-size Licca-chan.
Costumes are available for both adult and child visitors and some parents and children even wear matching dresses.
Chieko Aizawa, a 58-year-old woman who came to the castle with her granddaughter from Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, said she looked out for a Licca-chan doll of her "own generation."
The walls on the second floor of the building are filled with visitors' messages encouraging people to overcome the 2011 disasters such as "Stay strong, Fukushima," and "Our hearts are with you."
"At the time of the disaster, we were very worried about what would happen next," said Yoshino Hakata, a 48-year-old staffer at the theme park.
After the nuclear crisis, the castle, located around 40 kilometers from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant, was not designated by the government as belonging to an evacuation zone.
It therefore resumed operation about 50 days after the accident, but the number of visitors drastically fell to around 30,000 from some 100,000 a year, with many inquiring about radiation effects from the disaster.
To make visitors feel safe, the theme park set up an indoor play area and posted radioactive levels around the facility every day on a blog.
Thanks to such efforts, the number of annual visitors has recovered to about 80,000.
"I am helped by children's smiles. I feel rewarded for doing this," said Hakata.
The castle had been strongly tied to the town even before the earthquake and nuclear disaster. In 1993, Licca-chan was appointed as the "princess ambassador" for revitalizing the town with its ageing population. In front of the facility, illumination events have been held every year on a road named after the doll.
Following the nuclear crisis, the park opened its facility free of charge so that local children who were deprived of safe places to play could come to the site.
Licca-chan and her "family members" were also given special residence certificates by the town.
Those making donations to the town under the "furusato nozei" hometown tax scheme can now select gifts including a Licca-chan doll in a pink dress.
The gifts have proved popular, with only 45 dolls left as of Monday out of up to 500 gifts prepared since May 3. The national tax scheme allows people to make tax-deductible contributions to a prefectural or municipal government of their choice, usually for a gift in return.
"Licca-chan is an indispensable icon for the town. We want her to play active roles in various places," said Yasuhide Akasaka, deputy head of the town's industrial promotion.
The petite doll is named Licca Kayama but has become better known as Licca-chan, with a suffix attached in Japanese denoting endearment, usually to a baby or young girl.
2017.05.25 | Fukushima