Banners for the boys

Exquisite craftmanship in Edo Period works

by Yoko Haruhara

Celebrated on May 5, Japan’s Children’s Day originated as an ancient Chinese festival from the old lunar calendar that marked a day to ward off evil spirits and pray for good health.

After the Tokugawa Shogunate came into power at the beginning of the Edo Period (1615-1868), the festival was renamed Boys’ Day, and, starting in the Genroku Era (1688-1704), samurai families set aside the day to celebrate the male children of households by hoisting banners outside their homes and creating lavish arrangements of helmets and coats of armor. The banners were appeals to the gods to ensure that sons grew up to be strong, brave men.

The exhibition “Pictorial Banners in the Edo Period,” currently showing at the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, presents an assembly of 62 beautifully preserved banners. On loan from Yoshichika Kitamura, a private collector, the banners provide a glimpse into Edo and the aesthetics of its material culture. According to Kitamura, the visual interest in the banners lies in their dynamic compositions, energetic brushwork, vibrant colors and the ingenuity used in laying out their designs.

Two artistic techniques were employed in crafting these banners. The first, tsutsugaki, is a resist-dyeing method. Outlines of the desired design were applied with starch paste, which dye cannot penetrate, leaving white outlines. The other technique is a direct drawing method in which a calligraphy brush was used to apply ink directly to the fabric.

Initially paper or expensive imported cotton were used to create the banners, but by the mid-Edo Period, domestically manufactured cotton was almost exclusively used, allowing for increased production.

The subject matter of Boys’ Day banners varied widely, from portrayals of the heroes of old to tales of success in battle and stories of loyalty and friendship. Folk heroes had broad appeal as brave figures to emulate. Among the most striking banners in the exhibition is a depiction of Kintaro (Golden Boy) a folk hero known for his invincibility.

Kintaro lived with wild animals on Mount Ashigara in modern day Kanagawa Prefecture, and legend has it that he defeated a bear in a sumo wrestling match. A highlight of the show is a late-Edo Period, 5-meter long cotton banner of Kintaro in which he appears painted in red with his eyes wide open, mounted atop a large black carp that is leaping straight out of the water. The ferocity of the carp’s leap dramatically splashes water across the banner’s canvas. The red color of Kintaro’s skin reflects the banner’s talismanic use and the folk belief that the use of red would protect children from smallpox epidemics.

In late Edo, the role of the carp in celebrating Boys’ Day expanded and giant carp streamers, called koi nobori in Japanese, were hung alongside other banners. The streamers, depicting energetic carp swimming upstream, symbolized the ability to succeed in life against all odds. In one folk legend, the carp swims up a waterfall and ascends into heaven, becoming a dragon.

The display of carp streamers nowadays continues the tradition of displaying heroic figures and themes on banners on Children’s Day to ensure the virility and strength of one’s sons. An early Edo banner on display in the exhibition entrance hall depicting carp swimming upstream is believed to be a prototype for the carp streamers of today.

Although typically banners were the work of unknown craftsmen, occasionally a famous artist would try his hand at banner art. A rare example by the famous ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artist Torii Kiyomoto (1645-1702) portrays the Chinese guardian deity Shouki the Demon Queller. Done in ink with swift, deliberate brush strokes and shading in light orange, the painting shows Shouki catching a demon in his hand. With frowning eyebrows and a fierce gaze, Shouki has an overpowering countenance. The innovative style used by Kiyomoto in this portrait is known as hyotan-ashi, literally “gourd bumps on the feet,” because the demon caught in Shouki’s grasp displays exaggerated and gnarled muscles.

Among the banners on display are dynamic examples of calligraphy known as hono nobori (dedicatory banners) that would be displayed at the entrances to shrines or temples. The 10-meter long Bunka Era (1804-1818) banner dedicated to Kumano Daigongen, the great Gods of Kumano, is particularly dazzling, with the depiction of a shimenawa, or sacred knotted-rope festoon on the top of the banner. The festoon is a feature of Shinto art used to demarcate a divine being’s sacred space. Two bottles of sake rice wine depicted in the bottom part of the banner are offerings to the gods. Since it was believed that the spirit of the gods remained embedded in the calligraphy of the banner, these banners were important icons of worship.

The range and breadth of the banner art on display at the Japan Folk Craft Museum represents the virtuosity and talent of Edo artists, and the imagination that they applied to a decorative art form. The symbolism of the banners and their use as talismanic items provided a tangible way to send prayers to the gods at these times of celebration. The Children’s Festival of today retains the fervent hope that children will grow up to be happy and healthy, and maintains much of the mood of the original Boys’ Day celebration. It is well worth a trip to the museum to experience the energy and boldness of these wonderful artifacts of Edo Japan.