The Real Japanese Culture Behind 10 Animal Crossing References

How many did you catch?

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a game with untold global appeal. Millions worldwide are spending hours building bridges, collecting fish, trading turnips, and trapping so many tarantulas to sell to the Nook kids that you can’t help but wonder if ol’ Tom is secretly building some sinister spider-powered weapon in a hidden island bunker. Even as Nintendo makes every effort imaginable to broaden the game’s appeal across cultures, however, the fact remains that Animal Crossing: New Horizons was made in Japan. That means there will inevitably be some distinctly Japanese elements throughout the game.

The localization of New Horizons (and previous Animal Crossing installments) is so good that a lot of the “Japanese-ness” is likely unnoticeable to most Western players. But when you dig deep into New Horizons, there’s a lot of fascinating Japanese culture influencing its design. Let’s look at some of the ways Japanese culture is present throughout the game.

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1. Trading Fruit

One big thing you want to do when starting out in any Animal Crossing game, for instance, is traveling to other islands to bring back their native fruit — or have visitors from other islands bring theirs to you. This is likely inspired by omiyage, a Japanese tradition in which a person traveling will bring local food and goods to give as souvenirs to family and friends.

While the practice of bringing back local souvenirs after traveling isn’t totally foreign to westerners (why else do airports have so many locally-made food and knickknack stores?), it’s particularly deeply-rooted in Japan. And the focus is heavy on local foodstuffs. You’ll almost certainly find specialty shops at major Japanese airports and train stations offering some of the region’s best-known delicacies. Tourist-y places like Tokyo Disneyland will also cook up their own unique munchies to bring home to your loved ones. (Unfortunately, you can’t plant Mickey Mouse-shaped senbei rice crackers to grow your own like ACNH fruit.)

2. The Stalk Market

Of all the things to get rich off, why did the Animal Crossing development team pick turnips? The reason involves a multi-layered Japanese language pun. Turnips are called kabu in Japanese, but “kabu” has many homophones. One of which is a term for “stock shares.” The turnip-selling boar lady Joan’s name in the Japanese editions of the game is “Kaburiba,” a blending of “Kabu” (either turnips or stock shares) and “uriba” (selling place). As you might already know, Joan delegates sales duties to Daisy Mae in ACNH, where her Japanese name is simply “Uri” (to sell).  A baby boar is also called “uribou” in Japanese, which makes the name even more fitting.

Things like this show how challenging localizing a game like Animal Crossing can be, but Nintendo’s translation crew came up with a great English replacement for this pun. It refers to the turnip trade as “Sow Joan’s Stalk Market.” I don’t think I could ever come up with something that clever, so hats off to the Treehouse crew.

3. Star Fragments

Do those star fragments that appear on the beach after a night spent wishing look kinda… tasty? Well, there’s a reason for that. The star bits are modeled after a Japanese sugar candy called konpeito. The best way I can describe konpeito is “Think rock candy, but small and bumpy and super-extra-delicious.” Similar konpeito-themed star bits have appeared in other Nintendo games like Super Mario Galaxy and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. If you’ve ever felt an intense craving for sugar after playing… now you know why!

animal crossing stamp rally

4. Stamp Rallies

One event planned for May in Animal Crossing is a “stamp rally” at your island’s museum. You might have found yourself asking, “What the heck’s a stamp rally?” Well, it’s a common Japanese promotional activity used at festivals, museums, amusement parks, and train stations. During a stamp rally, you go around to various booths or exhibits, where each one will get you a special piece of paper stamped by an attendant — or a stamp booth nearby. Collect enough stamps and you can claim a special prize.

Stamp rallies are designed to increase engagement as way to get people to visit exhibits and places they might skip otherwise. Some of the most popular stamp rallies involve train stations, which encourage travel to areas you might not otherwise go (and where you’ll hopefully step outside and patronize the local businesses). The love for stamp rallies is said to originate from goshuin: the unique stamps from various temples across Japan that one could collect in a special book.

5. Manhole Covers (Seriously)

Let’s look at a couple of the objects you can buy, find, and build in-game. One of the early craftables you’ll get access to is a manhole cover. Nothing weird about that, right? Most of us have seen a sewer cover in our lives. If you choose to customize it, though, you may be surprised at the decoration options you have.

Most of us living in North America would never expect to see an ornate, decorated manhole plate, but these are all around Japan. They might not be ultra common, but they’re often used to mark places of historical significance, or commemorate something important to the local area.

The designs you can choose from in ACNH are also modeled after some famous real-life manhole cover designs (with key differences):

  • The “ship” design is based on manhole covers in Funabashi, Chiba prefecture.
  • The “mountain” design is similar to covers seen in Fuji city, Shizuoka prefecture. (As you might have guessed, it’s right next to Mt. Fuji.)
  • Finally, there’s the manhole cover that represents the historic Osaka Castle in Osaka city. It’s an iconic design loved by many Osakans, and the ACNH version is really close to the real deal… but just different enough.

6. Flashy Flower Sign

You’ll come across plenty more objects in Animal Crossing New Horizons, but one look at the “flashy flower sign” might have you saying, “Isn’t this a little much?” But the floral wreath is actually an object called a hanawa, and it’s not a particularly rare sight in Japan. You might see hanawa at events such as store grand openings or commemorative ceremonies. You can also see hanawa at a considerably less joyous event:a funeral. If you find a hanawa in Japan, make sure you know what it’s for before offering somebody your condolences or congratulations.

7. Kabuki (And His Catchphrase)

There are a lot of villagers in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, including several odd-looking citizens whose funny faces are based on unique Japanese cultural elements. The most obvious is likely Kabuki, a cat whose face is painted similarly to actors from traditional Japanese kabuki theatre. In a subtly awesome localization move, Kabuki uses “meooo-OH” as his catchphrase — based on the sound kabuki actors make during dramatic Mie poses. It’s not something a lot of folks in the West would know, but it’s pretty cool how subtly it was worked in!

8. Rizzo

If the mouse character Rizzo has appeared in your town, you might be wondering: what’s the deal with that weird perma-scarf tied under his snout? It’s actually a means of dress made popular by artwork of legendary Japanese thief Jirokichi Nakamura, a.k.a. Nezumi Kozo. Nakamura (according to popular art) wore a scarf over his hair and tied under his nose, similar to how our popular portrayal of Robin Hood features a man in a pointy, feathered hat.

“Nezumi Kozo” translates to something like “mouse/rat boy,” as his ability to sneak around was like that of an adept rodent. Thus, Rizzo is the Nezumi Kozo legend made literal. Whereas his English name is likely a reference to another rat from The Muppets.

9. Zucker

And then there’s Zucker, a freckled octopus that appears to have chocolate on his head. But that’s no sweet stuff! Zucker is a walking, talking piece of takoyaki. It’s a beloved Japanese snack made from octopus meat and topped with special takoyaki sauce and seasonings. Odds are you can even find these at some restaurants in North America. Take one look at a takoyaki ball and you’ll see where Zucker’s design elements came from.

coco animal crossing

10. Gyroids, Coco, and Their Troubling Implications

So yeah, Zucker is a walking, talking snack food who likely lives every day ready to be consumed by anyone hungry enough. That’s a bit morbid!

…But maybe not as morbid as Coco, a popular bunny villager with a constantly blank expression. Coco’s design is heavily inspired by artifacts called haniwa — not to be confused with the hanawa above. Haniwa are hollow terracotta statues with slit-like, empty eyes and mouths that were often found buried alongside the deceased in Japanese tombs dating from about 250-710 AD. The odd characters’ purpose is still unknown to this day. Spooky, huh? If the haniwa connection wasn’t obvious from Coco’s appearance, then her house — which is decorated very much like a mausoleum — should hammer the point home.

That’s not the only Animal Crossing reference to haniwa, either. Previous games in the series featured collectibles called Gyroids that flailed around and made noises when touched. Thus far, the only gyroid seen in New Horizons is donation-beggar Lloid, but who knows what future updates will bring?

You collected gyroids by randomly digging them out of the ground. Think about that for a moment… haniwa were often buried with the deceased, and you’re already digging up fossils daily. Your town is basically built on a massive burial ground for an untold number of dead creatures. Thinking about it like that puts your happy little village in a whole new light, huh?

There are plenty more examples of not-so-hidden references in Animal Crossing to explore, but we don’t have room to write about them all! Just ask yourself the next time you see something in-game if it has more history than you might immediately think.