Good Winds and Good Days

Kites of Japan


Kites! Appealing to young and old alike, kites fill us with wonder and we watch them fly with a twinkle in the eye and a wide “kite smile.” Enjoyed the world over, kites have a particularly special place in the cultural arts of Asia and are associated with world-famous festivals in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Far East. Kites have been flown for pleasure; for sport, in kite-fighting events; as ceremonial offerings and gifts of thanks to gods and ancestors; to bring good luck and ward off danger; to assist in warfare; to predict the harvest; to catch fish; to lift building material; and to celebrate the lunar New Year and other seasonal and national holidays. Kites likely originated in China more than 2,500 years ago and were introduced to Japan between the sixth and the eighth centuries (Current Era), perhaps by Buddhist monks for talismanic purposes. By 937 CE, the Chinese words for “paper hawk” — widely accepted to mean “kite” — appear in the Wamyo Ruijusho (Japanese Names for Things Classified and Annotated), Japan’s first dictionary of Japanese and Chinese words, which is organized by categories. Poet and scholar Minamoto Shitago is credited as the author. It is said that he was sponsored to write the document by the Imperial Department of Shinto and the Bureau of Divination.

While cross-cultural influences are clear, Japan has one of the most intricate kite traditions, and Japanese kites have a distinct beauty. Many Japanese folktales refer to kites as a mode of transport, such as the legend of Minamoto no Tametomo, a twelfth-century warrior who built a giant kite to fly his son from a secluded island to Honshu, escaping a lonely exile. Other stories tell about palace invasions and infamous robberies whereby a kite lifts the villain to the spoils. Giant battle kites are said to have lifted warriors out of threatened cities. Whether the stories are true or not, today’s giant festival kites are certainly able to carry people off their feet, and the festivals themselves are believed to have originated during times of war.

During the Edo period (1603–1868), when Japan was secluded from international exchanges, “folk” whose social position was below that of the samurai class were allowed to fly kites, and kite mania spread through the land. While kiting was permissible, the government discouraged it, and restrictions were imposed to prevent injuries caused by zealous fliers. Ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) woodblock prints depict kite-flying during the eighteenth century, and the types of kites and the artwork that embellished them at the time continue to be popular designs today.

Clearly, kite-flying is a time-honored tradition in Japan. Still, it has been suggested that traditional kite-making has been on the decline since the early twentieth century. With the growing urban landscape and developing infrastructure, kite-flying began to get pushed aside. Less kite-flying meant less kite-buying, and consequently less kite-making. Some even say that Hashimoto Teizo, who died in the early 1990s, was the last “real kite-maker of Edo” (the old name for Tokyo).

Perhaps it is true that most kites today are commercially made with nylon and plastic. Nevertheless, the art of the handmade kite carries on, and though full-time, traditional kite-makers are few and far between, they are still out there creating handmade, hand-painted kites, using the traditional materials of split bamboo or cypress wood, washi paper, ink, and colored dyes.

One of these artists, Mikio Toki, will visit Santa Fe during the 2013 Folk Arts Week at the Museum of International Folk Art to demonstrate kite-making and kite-flying with the community, as well as to participate in the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.

Today, as in the past, kite types, shapes, and styles vary greatly in Japan. Certain kite types tend to be from certain regions and are structured in a specific way. Different kite structures harness the wind in different ways. Japanese kite scholar Masaaki Modegi notes that the classic, rectangular Edo-style kites, which are steady fliers in strong winds, appeared in the early 1700s and likely developed from the desire to fly (or float) ukiyo-e prints. Ukiyo-e were wildly popular at the time, and these kites are notorious for their similarly elaborate paintings of warriors, kabuki characters, and folk heroes such as Kintaro and Daruma.

The exhibition Tako Kichi: Kite Crazy in Japan, at the Museum of International Folk Art, presents these and other traditional kites from various regions of Japan and introduces a number of respected traditional kite artists. Tako kichi roughly translates to “kite crazy,” but the word kichi also means joy and enthusiasm. In that sense, tako kichi refers to people who are fantastically passionate about kites — perhaps a little more than the average kite-flier.

The exhibit also introduces the popular folklore referred to on illustrated kites. Kites in the show range from a half inch high to twelve-foot Shirone fighter kites. Because most paper kites get destroyed by the wind or water when used over time, or by collisions during kite fights, old kites are quite rare. Most of the kites on view date from the 1960s to the present, but there are a few very special pieces that date to the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century. Ukiyo-e depicting kite-flying, on loan from Scott Skinner of the Drachen Foundation, are also on view, including works by Hiroshige and Hokusai, as well as a kite-related woodblock-printed board game dating to around 1862.

The exhibit was inspired by the remarkable and comprehensive private collection of David M. Kahn, an avid connoisseur and erudite collector of Japanese kites, who is lending most of the kites on view. Currently the executive director of the Adirondack Museum, Kahn has also directed the San Diego History Museum, the Louisiana State Museum, and the Connecticut and Brooklyn Historical Societies. For the past twenty-five years, he has traveled widely in Japan and gathered a stunning collection of over 700 traditional Japanese kites. His collection continues to grow.

Tako Kichi: Kite Crazy in Japan is on view June 9, 2013 – March 23, 2014, at the Museum of International Folk Art. Public programming for this exhibit will include lectures, kite-making workshops, and kite-flying on the plaza at Museum Hill. International Folk Arts Week is July 7 – 12, 2013, at the Museum of International Folk Art (check the museum’s website for scheduling details).

The Santa Fe International Folk Art Market is July 12 – 14, 2013.

Felicia Katz-Harris is curator of Asian and Middle Eastern Art at the Museum of International Folk Art. Her past exhibits include Dancing Shadows, Epic Tales: Wayang Kulit of Indonesia, which won an award for “Overall Excellence in Museum Exhibitions” from the American Alliance of Museums.