Research at the California Academy of Sciences

Mingei: Japanese Folk Toys

Toys for adults? You'd better believe it. Welcome to the playful side of Mingei. A far reach from mere child's play, the "playful arts" are loaded with great depth and history, as well as mythological and religious connotations which persist into the present day. Each figurine tells a unique story. Whether serving to ward off evil spirits, bring good fortune, or protect a rightful owner, Japanese folk toys are a respected and integral part of Japanese folklore. The following examples are a small selection from a 500+ piece collection maintained by the Academy's Department of Anthropology.

Susuki-Mimizuku, CAS 1993-0001-0353

CAS 1993-0001-0353

Dating back 250 years, the familiar grass horned owl is said to help ward off sickness. Though the owl is generally regarded in Japan as malicious or at best useless, this particular toy is widely recognized for its benevolence.

Inu Hariko, CAS 1993-0001-0025

CAS 1993-0001-0025

Throughout the world, dogs are regarded as guardians and protectors and Japan's view of this animal proves to be no exception. Credited with recognizing demons in human disguise, the dog often accompanies children traveling alone after nightfall. Therefore, dog figurines are natural protectors for sleeping children.

Akabeko, CAS 1993-0007-0001

CAS 1993-0007-0001

The red cow, with its trademark bobbing head, has been an important figure in Japanese folklore for over 100 years. Like the owl, the cow is considered to be an invaluable weapon against sickness. Most widely noted for its power to prevent smallpox, the cow's most effective, and hence most constant attribute, is its bright red coloring.

Hariko-No-Tora, CAS 1995-0007-0002

CAS 1995-0007-0002

Serving as a symbol of power and bravery, the tiger instills a sense of awe and reverence among the people of Japan. The tiger also occupies a niche within the Oriental zodiac, representing specific hours or days in which certain activities are to be steadfastly avoided.

Hato-Bue, CAS 1993-0001-0396

CAS 1993-0001-0396

Clay whistles originated on Aomori, the main northern island of Japan. Though a great variety of whistles were produced, the pigeon whistle is the most well known. Diseases and afflictions were believed by many to be the result of evil spirits. One such spirit, thought to cause hysteria in children, was said to be frightened by loud sounds. As a consequence, children were encouraged to play noisily and the pigeon whistle served as a perfect toy.

Shikasaru, CAS 1993-0001-0046

CAS 1993-0001-0046

This figurine is widely associated with the Japanese island of Miyajima. At one time the island was considered to be "divine" and was worshipped as such. Miyajima was known for its populations of deer and monkeys and their mutually amicable relationship with one another. While the deer was considered to be a messenger to the gods, the monkey was regarded as both a guardian and symbol of fertility.

Kujira-Guruma, CAS 1993-0001-0224

CAS 1993-0001-0224

The whale cart is a remnant of the whaling days of recent past. Until the early 20th century, the industry was one of the most influential and prosperous in Japan. Originally crafted by 17th century whalers for their children, the whale cart of today is often seen in a simpler and much less mobile form than its predecessors.

Ainu Ningyo, CAS 1993-0001-0323

CAS 1993-0001-0323

The carved wooden bear finds its origins in Hokkaido, homeland of the Ainu people of the Japanese islands. Traditional Ainu culture relies on bear hunting and salmon fishing and includes a ritual "sending back" bear ceremony known as "iomande."

Yumijishi, CAS 1993-0001-0366

CAS 1993-0001-0366

The lion or "Shishi" head seen here is a miniature representation of that seen at the popular Japanese Lion-Dance. The main purpose of this dance is to ward off disease, epidemics, and disaster. The lion head is seen throughout Japan in a wide array of styles and sizes.

Toys, which upon first inspection appear to be children's playthings, can symbolize much more. An enduring tradition worthy of appreciation, Mingei have withstood the test of time.

The Academy would like to extend a special thanks to the donor of this collection, the late Hiroyuki Kadota. Mr. Kadota dedicated 25 years to assembling his collection of folk toys in order to preserve this special Japanese tradition. The Academy would also like to acknowledge the financial support of American Airlines in staging the Mingei exhibit. Thank you!

Visit our online collection database to search on all of the Japanese folk toys in the
Anthropology collection. Search on Category: "Folk Toys" and Country: "Japan."


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©Mingei: Japanese Folk Toys content and design by Nicole Schwartz, 1998.