It all started with a tweet from @haiyore_audio featuring a photo from his younger brother's English textbook:
Saw the English textbook that my little brother brought back from school. The characters are all so cute. Especially Ms. Ellen Baker. I think I'm in love with her.
The picture is from an English language textbook for junior high school students in Japan called "New Horizons" published by Tokyo Shoseki.
In the new edition out in 2016, all the stories and illustrations were completely updated, including the addition of a new character named Ellen Baker, who has become a sensation online in Japan.
"Ellen Sensei" quickly became a trending topic in Japan, and it didn't take long for fans to create a page dedicated to the character on a Japanese user-generated art site called Pixiv.net. (Which is SUPER NSFW. Be careful.)
Previous editions of the textbook featured more generic characters. Twitter user @remii814 managed to dig up an earlier edition of the textbook, and Ellen Sensei was missing entirely.
This is the old version of 'NEW HORIZON'. I used this one to learn English. Becky is so cute in the new version. I am jealous of your little brother.
BuzzFeed Japan had the opportunity to talk with the artist responsible for Ellen Sensei, Denchubo, to find out how he feels about his creation's new-found fame.
Was there any particular concept behind the illustrations?
"Well, when it came to designing the characters, there were no particular instructions from Tokyo Shoseki apart from their nationalities, so I was free to do whatever I wanted. I basically did my best to come up with characters that I myself would find cute. If I don't feel attached to a character, it's hard for me to make them come alive when I draw them.
I thought of Ellen Sensei as a big sister, who is older but sees things from the same perspective as the kids when they are having fun."
Was that also true for the other characters?
"Yes. For the students, besides their nationalities, I was only given information about the clubs they belonged to. I was just told to make them look like 'contemporary characters.' It was a pretty open-ended commission. So just like with Ellen Sensei, I tried to create characters which I was pleased with. Of course, I took into account the particular characteristics of the textbook contents, but I drew the characters without too many constraints."
Do you think these illustrations help make students more interested in their lessons?
"Yes! That was Tokyo Shoseki's aim when they originally came to me. It would be great if students who are initially attracted by the characters go on to discover an interest in the language that they speak."
However, Denchubo also shared his concerns…
"I'm really glad that they have become so popular; but on the other hand, when it comes down to it, these are textbook illustrations. I'm afraid that if they attract a lot of attention in any context that is too far removed from education, parents and guardians might get a bad impression..."