Ja­pa­nese spin­ning tops tell sto­ries, aim for play­ful­ness

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - LIFE - By Linda Lom­bardi

It once was thought that the Ja­pa­nese tra­di­tion of carv­ing Edo-style spin­ning tops had been lost. It turned out it had just gone on the road to north­ern Ja­pan — and some of it ended up in Amer­ica as well.

While they’re called tops, th­ese go beyond sim­ple spin­ning disks. Many are more like carved, wooden fig­ures, and might de­pict scenes with char­ac­ters that dance, trans­form or fight. On one, an ogre dis­guised as a priest bangs a gong when you spin his hat; on an­other, two discs il­lus­trated with a dog and a rob­ber chase each other around. Fig­ures from folk­lore and theater are rep­re­sented, and whim­si­cal scenes like two frogs sumo wrestling.

More than just play­things, the tops were tra­di­tion­ally used for street per­for­mances, and in­volve orig­i­nal cre­ations, not just repet­i­tive copies.

“They have a very var­ied his­tory across dif­fer­ent so­cial groups and classes,” says Paula R. Cur­tis, a Ph.D. can­di­date in his­tory at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan. “Part of it is the ar­ti­sans putting them­selves into the work, in­ter­pret­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences and cul­tural back­ground through th­ese tops.”

One such ar­ti­san is Michi­aki Hiroi. His was the last fam­ily mak­ing tops in Tokyo when they moved to Sendai in the north of Ja­pan af­ter the Sec­ond World War. His fa­ther made a liv­ing mak­ing the wood­crafts of that re­gion, and Hiroi ini­tially fol­lowed in his foot­steps. Then one day a col­lec­tor who knew about the Edo style came to the shop and dis­cov­ered who he was. “This per­son said, oh my God, I’ve been look­ing for you for­ever,” says Cur­tis.

Hiroi was in­spired to be­gin mak­ing the tops and taking on ap­pren­tices. While the stereo­type of craft ap­pren­tice­ships in Ja­pan is that they’re hard to break into and not wel­com­ing to women and for­eign­ers, Hiroi didn’t dis­crim­i­nate. One of his ap­pren­tices was Janell Lan­dis, an Amer­i­can who came to Ja­pan as a mis­sion­ary and taught at a univer­sity in Sendai for 30 years.

When she be­came his ap­pren­tice in 1982, Hiroi en­cour­aged her to bring her own ex­pe­ri­ences and cul­ture to the craft. Where his tops might rep­re­sent a fig­ure from a Noh drama, hers in­cluded Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Cinderella. In­stead of Ja­pa­nese folk­lore, they re­flected the sto­ries im­por­tant to her, such as a Christ­mas tree and a scene of the manger with baby Je­sus.

If Christ­mas is fair game as a sub­ject, then what makes a top Edostyle? Cur­tis, project man­ager of an oral his­tory web­site about Lan­dis and Hiroi, says that Hiroi’s an­swer fo­cuses on the tops’ spirit: “He’s very in­sis­tent on that when he talks about them: When peo­ple look at them, it brings them a sense of joy and play­ful­ness,”

That re­sponse might seem eva­sive or frus­trat­ing — aren’t you sup­posed to be able to iden­tify a school of arts or crafts from how it looks? Not nec­es­sar­ily, ac­cord­ing to Ta­mara Joy, cu­ra­tor of the Morikami Mu­seum in Del­ray Beach, Florida. For Ja­pa­nese crafts, a style is of­ten distin­guished by where it comes from and who is teach­ing it, rather than cer­tain pat­terns or tech­niques.

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