When you travel the roads of Ōmi, your eye is sure to be caught by the figure of a boy running out into the road with apparently suicidal vigour. He’s everywhere. On some roads, you can find him running out from every crossroads.
Originally, the boy running out into the road was a figure placed beside roads that children use to get to school. It’s to alert drivers where children might inadvertently run into the road and be hit by cars. They’re set up with the aim of preventing accidents by raising the awareness of drivers. Some also serve as a holder for crossing flags.
There’s no official name for it, but it’s commonly called “the boy running out into the road”, or “Tobita-kun”, a once-popular boy’s name that suggests sudden appearance out of nowhere.
From around 1955, cars started to become common and thanks to the incautious piloting of early drivers, the expression “traffic war” was popularly used to describe the slaughter on the nation’s roads. In an effort to curb the enthusiasm of these early drivers, three dimensional figures were placed by roadsides. The most common were policemen with blue and white uniforms. Some of these can still be found in rural areas. But there were also figures of a small boy waiting to cross the road. Typically he served as a holder for crossing flags. There were also two-dimensional signs showing drawings of running children, placed by roadsides to alert drivers to the likelihood of real children appearing on roads. Those signs soon began to be replaced by cutouts in the shape of a running child, and these became the standard. They’re currently used all over Japan, but the numbers found in Shiga are staggering.
The idea for Tobita-kun was proposed by the Social Welfare Council of Higashiōmi and in June 1973, they issued a request to Hisada Yasuhei, owner of local sign maker Hisada Crafts. According to Hisada-san, the council asked him for something similar to the realistic three-dimensional crossing flag dolls made of pressed metal that were common at crossings then, but at lower cost. After walking around checking out various signs and figures, he created his first running out boy from plywood to replace the more expensive crossing flag dolls. He produced a number of running figures of boys and girls, which were placed beside roads in Higashiōmi.
These easily made but eye-catching figures quickly become popular. Local PTAs and neighbourhood associations are largely responsible for making and maintaining them, and they’re free to colour and embellish them as please. Soon, making a distinctive figure became a goal in itself.
It might reasonably be asked, does the ubiquitous Tobita-kun actually work? Has he reduced road accidents? The answer is, maybe. Road traffic deaths in Shiga peaked in 1969, while Tobita-kun proliferated since then, suggesting a possible correlation. Nevertheless, safer cars, a declining population, and the tendency for children to go outdoors less can’t be ignored as factors.
There are many designs featuring dramatic movement and bright, highly visible colours. Most are handmade, but there are also ready-made products sold at home centres. Designs have changed over the decades and by locality, and the handmade versions in particular are often different. Some feature popular cartoons and anime characters. You may also find vintage figures that are badly faded, or that have been repainted several times.
Tobita-kun has taken on a life of his own beyond road safety. He’s now become an icon of Ōmi, and there are many local designs associated with the characteristics of the area and with specific local businesses, accoutered according to specific trades. As his name suggests, most of the figures show a young boy, but some also show girls. And since old people are replacing young people these days, there are increasingly figures showing elderly men and women. Many of these feature the wheeled walkers that old people often use.
With the growing popularity of Tobita-kun as a character, various Tobita-kun brand goods are being offered for sale in Shiga Prefecture as souvenirs. Once you’ve got used to seeing Tobita-kun around Ōmi, you’re going to want one as a reminder of your visit and as a talisman against being hit by a careless driver whenever you run out into the road.
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