The traditional toys that were especially popular throughout Japan from the Edo Period (1603-1868) through the Meiji Era (1868-1912) are now known as folk toys. The majority of them symbolize wishes for good fortune and the healthy growth of children. These handmade toys, meticulously crafted from natural materials, are simple, yet charming and full of life. Finding successors to carry on the tradition has been difficult; still, in recent years the popularity of folk toys has been on the rise among the younger generations, bringing hope for the future.
Many folk toys are made of hariko (papier-mache). Washi (Japanese paper) is glued in layers to a mold made from wood or clay; after drying, the mold is removed and color applied. The technique developed in castle towns, where government offices and businesses supplied an abundance of old paper, and in regions where washi paper was produced.
The daruma (a round, red-and-white doll for good luck) and the maneki-neko beckoning cat are among the most popular. There are also kites, which were once essential to children’s New Year’s amusements, and lanterns and masks that enliven regional festivals.
1. Hoko-san (Kagawa Pref.)
This Takamatsu doll commemorates a young serving girl who miraculously took on the illness of the princess she served, and then went off to a distant island to die. As the story goes, if this figure is embraced by a sick child and then thrown out to sea, the child will recover fully.
2. Sankaku daruma (Niigata Pref.)
To make this good-luck talisman, a paper cone is glued atop a weight. As a result, the daruma stays upright even when it is pushed over, symbolizing resilience. The red represents a wife; the blue, a husband. There is also a white daruma for a child.
3. Kakko (Fukushima Pref.)
A papier-mache doll from Miharu playing the double-headed kakko drum used in gagaku court music. It is distinguished by its traditional bright colors and unique cross-eyed expression, as well as its pose, a split second of movement that exudes vitality.
4. Chin-chin uma (Okinawa Pref.)
This Okinawan papier-mache doll depicts an elegantly dressed king on horseback headed for the riding grounds. The horse’s head bobs up and down as it moves forward; some older versions make sounds as well.
5. Zaru-kaburi inu (Tokyo)
This papier-mache figurine is based on a visual pun that typifies the Edo sense of humor: Writing the kanji character for “bamboo” on top of the character for “dog” makes the kanji for “laughter.” It is also believed to help ward off stuffy noses.
6. Inu hariko (Tokyo)
An iconic folk toy of Tokyo, this dog carrying a spinning drum has been a popular gift and talisman for expectant mothers since the Edo Period. Dogs, which give birth to several puppies at once, are associated with easy childbearing.
7. Oki-hime (Fukushima Pref.)
In the Edo Period, silkworm farmers placed these papier-mache dolls on the family altar to bring high-quality silk cocoons. The practice continues today to express wishes for the health of family members and future children.
8. Tatsu-guruma (Shizuoka Pref.)
A weight embedded in the bottom of this brightly colored toy keeps it upright as it rolls back and forth. The city of Hamamatsu has had distinctive wheeled toys since olden days; the dragon is one of the 12 creatures of the Chinese zodiac.
9. Daruma (Gunma Pref.)
Daruma Daishi (Bodhidharma), the founder of Zen Buddhism, is the model for this doll. One eye is filled in when a wish is made; the other is completed when the wish is fulfilled. Gunma’s Takasaki Daruma is a guardian deity of silkworm cultivation; his features symbolize long life.
10. Amagi no bata-bata (Fukuoka Pref.)
This drum, originally a charm to ward off smallpox in children, is seen at the year’s first fair at Anchoji temple in January. Spinning the bamboo rod makes the soybeans on the strings strike the drum with a bata-bata sound.
11. Daruma-daki maneki-neko (Tokyo)
This papier-mache figure from Tama combines two good-luck charms, the beckoning cat and the daruma. In Tama, where sericulture flourished, cats were considered household guardians because they caught mice, the natural enemy of silkworms.
12. Tora hariko (Nara Pref.)
Chogosonshiji temple, also known as Shigisan, is associated with tigers. This amulet from the temple is said to bring good fortune in business. It is also a Children’s Day present conveying wishes for strength and health: Tradition holds that a tiger can travel 1,000 miles and back in a day.
13. Akabeko (Fukushima Pref.)
Legend has it that huge red cows helped rebuild Enzoji temple, in the town of Yanaizu, after an earthquake. In olden times, red objects like this toy were thought to ward off smallpox. The cow’s head, like that of the tiger beside it, sways appealingly.
Chikako Shimizu contributed the text for this article. This is the first installment in a three-part series on Japanese folk toys.