Readers Blog: goJefferson

Japanese know Milwaukee not for beer, but a raccoon?

Step aside, Gertie the Duck.  Did you know that a generation of Japanese might know Wisconsin and Milwaukee not for beer, but for a raccoon?

If you attended grade school in Wisconsin decades ago, a teacher might've guided you to the charming story of Rascal, a pet raccoon. The book "Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era" was published in 1963. It is the semi-autobiographical story of author Sterling North's adventures in adopting a baby raccoon at the turn of the century. It won several awards for children's literature in the years that followed. Walt Disney even made a movie version in 1969. You might've seen it on the "Wonderful World of Disney" a few years after it played in theaters. Sterling North grew up in Edgerton, pop. 4,000, roughly 75 miles west by southwest of Milwaukee.

If you were a kid in Japan back then, you knew Rascal, too. Japan's rough equivalent of Disney is the Nippon Animation Company. In the same way a Milwaukee family gathered around the big color TV on Sunday nights to watch the "Wonderful World of Disney," if you were a kid in Japan, your family was watching Nippon Animation's "World Masterpiece Theater." For more than two decades, each year Nippon Animation picked a classic children's book and serialized it as 52 episodes of a cartoon series.

In 1977, they chose "Rascal". The series was wildly popular. It was number one in its time slot, watched in almost 22% of Japanese homes. Rascal became the mascot of the company. Hundreds of Rascal spin-offs are still actively sold today: stuffed animals, lunch boxes, key chains, ringtones, Nintendo video games, even Rascal toilet paper. An editor of a major Japanese newspaper said recently that Rascal is more popular in Japan than Mickey Mouse. Rascal's popularity even led to a present-day ecological disaster outside Tokyo, as pet raccoons escaped and multiplied to ravage crops. The cartoon was translated to Spanish ("Rascal, el Mapache"), German ("Rascal, der Waschbär"), Italian, Chinese and even Tunisian. It is still played on children’s television throughout the world – but never in the United States due to Disney licensing prohibitions.

What's the connection to Milwaukee? In his book, North disguised Edgerton as "Brailsford Junction." In the Japanese cartoon, they mentioned a city name that was more familiar to Japanese ears. For years, the Sapporo Beer Brewery had an advertising catchphrase of "Munich, Sapporo, and Milwaukee." You can see this in episode four of the cartoon series, titled in Japanese as "Miruuookii no otsukisama" - which translates as "Milwaukee Moon."

Edgerton hosted a Sterling North book festival in the fall of 2006. For even more info, pictures, audio and movies, visit my "Rascal" web page as linked below.

(Oddly enough, the Valentine's Day 1978 episode of television’s "Laverne and Shirley" entitled "Bus Stop" includes a song called "Milwaukee Moon" as written and performed by Michael 'Lenny' McKean. If Lenny Koznowski was singing about the Allen-Bradley clock, I do not recall.)

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