Japanese Kites As Decorative Art

Posted on | May 31, 2011 | No Comments

Made of bamboo frames and washi (handmade rice paper) and painted with bright colored dyes and sumi (black ink), Japanese kites (tako) appear throughout Japan. The word tako is written with two characters—one meaning wind and one meaning cloth. The popularity of kite flying in Japan can be inferred from a word in the Japanese vocabulary tako kichi, which means “kite crazy.”

It was during the Edo period (1603 – 1867), when Japan was closed to foreigners, that most of the beautiful Japanese kites we know today were developed—each region having its own unique shape or style. They are decorated with characters from Japanese folklore and mythology, or have some religious or symbolic meaning. Traditionally, kites are flown on New Year’s Day, Children’s Day (May 5, once known as Boys’ Day), and at religious festivals. At the Harvest Festival, kites flown with stalks of rice attached are a symbolic offering of thanks for a good crop. Some kites, decorated with the face of a demon, act as a talisman against evil.

Congratulation kites are still presented to first-born sons. With their paintings of folk heroes or gods, these kites are believed to protect and guide a newborn into adulthood. Fukusuke, a large headed dwarf associated with good luck, is among the many designs used, while kites with a crane or tortoise represent long life. But the most popular design of this genre is perhaps Kintaro, or Golden Boy. As the folk tale goes, Kintaro, raised in the forest by bears, grew up to be very wise and strong. Kintaro is often painted with a carp, another symbol of strength, as it must swim upstream against the current to lay its eggs.

The Edo kite (Edo is the former name of Tokyo) is one of the best-known Japanese kites. Edo kites are multi-bridled and rectangular in shape with elaborate, detailed paintings of famous warriors, Kabuki actors, geisha, or scenes from historical battles or folk stories. They are painted in the ukiyo-e style like the very popular woodblock prints of the mid-eighteenth century.

Hamamatsu, in Shizuoka Prefecture, is noted for its rokkaku or hexagon-shaped kites, and is home to one of the most famous kite festivals in Japan.  On May 5 (Boys’ Day) each year, with over 2 million spectators watching, kite teams battle against each other to keep their own rokkaku kite in the air without being cut down by another team’s kite lines.

Shimonoseki, famous for its fugu or globefish, is where the humorous fugu kite originated. The hata, or diamond-shaped fighter kite, originated in Nagasaki.

From Nagoya come the koryu or “old style” abu (horsefly), semi (cicada), and hachi (bee) kites. These are all equipped with a hummer that buzzes in the wind like a real insect.

Also of note is the yakko dako. A yakko was a lowly servant of a daimyo or nobleman and one of his jobs was to clear the roads and force the populace to kneel when his master’s entourage passed by. The size and shape of a yakko dako depends on the area of Japan where it is made, but it is easily recognized by the wide sleeves that catch the wind and act as stabilizers instead of a tail. Some yakko dako are also called hibuse (fire prevention) and are believed to protect against fire, an ever-present danger in old Japan where an overturned lamp or uncontrolled cooking fire could easily raze an entire neighborhood of paper-and-wood built houses. Symbolically, the yakko dako cuts through the wind and reduces its power to fan the flames of destruction.

The list goes on and on. But whatever the region of Japan they comes from, whatever their size or shape, Japanese kites are more than toys; they are works of art that fly.

Japanese Kite Tako Wall Hanging

Japanese Yakko Kite Wall Hanging

Mitsui Store at Suruga-Machi by Hokusai

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