A playful approach to Japan

Concept     Illustration      Product Design      Communication

51 Japanese Characters

What is an Otaku, a Jukensei, a Narikin or an Obatarian? Where does the name Yakuza come from, and what is special about Fugu? What exactly is Shintoism and what is Kabuki?

Japanese society is full of special expressions for certain strange, cute or funny characters and Japanese cultural phenomena. Being a Gaijin in Japan, I tried to lift the curtain and shed some light on the areas of Japanese society that are often perceived as being mysterious and closed. I wanted to know the exact qualities of an Obatarian, a Bosozoku or an Ikeike Onna.

I began to collect Japanese characters and cultural phenomena and searched for a way to portray Japanese society – the traditional and the modern part of it. Thus I combined the modern and playfull part of Japan, by turning the character-loving Japanese society itself into characters with the old and reduced style of the traditional Japan, by using one simple shape for all of the 51 characters, presenting them on a simple white background with nothing else than the characters itself. I limited the collection to 51, because in ancient times, the Japanese syllable alphabets Hiragana and Katakana used to have 51 characters – 51 Japanese Characters.

The result is an insightful collection of figurines showcasing several typical members and cultural phenomena of Japanese society — an easy and playful approach to Japan …

More than 100 000 people have visited the website yet. The Projekt was shown in various magazines like novum, PAGE, form, IdN Magazine, Computer Arts Projects, Global Innovation Report, urban etc. and was featured on drawn.ca, spiegel.de, cpluv.com, iza.ne.jp, netdiver.net, ehrensenf.de, trend.gyao.jp, delicious.com, ecrans.fr and many other websites and webzines.


During my studies at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, I received a full scholarship from the Nagoya Zokei University in Japan. I wanted to get to know the culture, learn the language and create a design project at the same time. In order to do all this, I had to find a way to combine my interests.

Idea & Design

Peter Machat


Vector Illustrations and Offset Print


Kannushi. He is a Shinto priest. Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion which believes in the existence of many gods known as kami. The kami live in humans, animals, mountains, rivers, objects and so on. At any time new kami can arise while others fall into oblivion. Japan was created by the Shinto gods Izanagi and Izanami who poked a spear into the sea – the drops that dripped back formed the islands of Japan.



Noh. He is an actor of the oldest Japanese theatre, the noh theatre. He wears the mask of a young woman – one of the 60 frequently used masks. All characters, even the women’s roles, are performed by men. The only role that is performed without a mask is the character of an older man. In the Edo era performing and watching the noh theatre was a privilege of the samurai.



Kabuki. He wears the costume of the Kabuki hero. Kabuki was founded in the early 17th century and was, in contrast to the No Theatre, the popular culture of the townspeople. Even though it was founded by a woman, all Kabuki actors are men and even the women’s roles are performed by men, called “oyama”. The individual kanji characters, from left to right, mean sing, dance, and skill.



Obosan. Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who lived about 563 to 483 BC and is known as the Buddha, the awakened or the enlightened one. Buddhism teaches followers to purify and train their mind, to perform good deeds and to avoid bad and harmful ones. The aim of these practices is to end the cycle of death and rebirth, called samsara, by reaching nirvana, the state of the absolute truth.



Cosplay. She loves anime and manga. Every Sunday she dresses up in the costume of her favourite anime figure and meets other cosplayers in Harajuku and the Yoyogi park. She likes people to take pictures of her and is very happy if she finds herself in one of her beloved cosplay magazines. She wants to be one of the big cosplayers in the increasingly international scene.



Yakuza. The name Yakuza is the slang pronuncia-tion of the numbers 8-9-3 which, in a Japanese card game similar to black jack, is a useless hand. The Yakuza generally can be seen as a Japanese mafia, which is in the entertainment, prostitution, drug and gambling business. Since the Yakuza was forbidden, visible signs such as his traditional tattoos, seen as a sign of strength, are vanishing.



Ninja. He is something like a secret service for security and espionage. Trained in ninjutsu he can move extremely quietly, hide himself and climb up roofs and walls. Using all sorts of special weapons including gunpowder, poison, smoke bombs, firecrackers and special combat techniques, he can fight very efficiently even against heavily armed opponents.



Matsuri. He wears a happi – the traditional Japanese matsuri dress. Matsuri is a form of holiday or festival which is held by a local temple or shrine. A matsuri is a big and lively event with games, street fairs, special Japanese festival food and usually a big procession, where a portable shrine, a mikoshi, is carried through the streets. Every region has its own matsuris with special local features.



Seppuku. All his life he has been loyal to his master. After losing his honor, there was only one possibility to regain it – seppuku, harakiri. It is the traditional Japanese form of honourable suicide. Before him many Japanese feudal warriors practised harakiri to avoid falling into enemy hands, as a privileged alternative to execution, after a private misfortune or out of loyalty to a dead master.



Geisha. She is the classical Japanese entertainer of men. She is a master of the traditional Japanese arts including music – especially playing the shamisen, dancing, singing and the traditional tea ceremony. Although rumors exist regarding prostitution of geishas in ancient Japan, she is certainly not a prostitute.



Samurai. He is a complete warrior. Loyalty, honour and obedience are his ideals. He is well educated, writes poems and believes in the ideals of Zen. During his whole life he tries to refine his skills in martial arts, sword, bow and spear fighting. He is not afraid to die and dedicates his life to his leader. He follows him into victory or death. He wears samurai combat armour. 彼は根っからの武将だ。忠義、名誉、主人への服従、それらが人生における彼の課題だ。詩を詠み、禅を極めた豊かな教養の持ち主で、剣・弓・槍の稽古に努め、たゆむことなく武芸に励み、彼は死などおそれない。人生を主人に捧げているのだ。「勝利か死」のどちらかしかない彼は、鎧兜に身を包む。