Japanese spinning tops tell stories, aim for playfulness
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.