Japanese Toy Designs from the Late 19th & Early 20th Century: Explore an Online Archive

After two cen­turies of iso­la­tion, Japan re-opened to the world in the 1860s, at which point West­ern­ers imme­di­ate­ly became enam­ored with things Japan­ese. It was in that very same decade that Vin­cent Van Gogh began col­lect­ing ukiyo‑e wood­block prints, which inspired him to cre­ate “the art of the future.” But not every West­ern­er was drawn first to such ele­vat­ed fruits of Japan­ese cul­ture. When the American­ educator­ William ­Elliot­ Griff­is went to Japan in 1876 he mar­veled at a coun­try that seemed to be a par­adise of play: “We do not know of any coun­try in the world in which there are so many toy-shops, or so many fairs for the sale of things which delight chil­dren,” he wrote.

That quote comes from Matt Alt’s Pure Inven­tion: How Japan’s Pop Cul­ture Con­quered the World.  “While West­ern tastemak­ers vora­cious­ly con­sumed prints, glass­ware, tex­tiles, and oth­er grown-up delights, it was in fact toys that formed the back­bone of Japan’s bur­geon­ing export indus­try in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry,” Alt writes.

You can expe­ri­ence some of the plea­sures of that peri­od’s Japan­ese visu­al art along with some of the plea­sures of that peri­od’s Japan­ese toy cul­ture in the Ningyo-do Bunko data­base. This dig­i­tal archive’s more than 100 albums of water­col­or toy-design ren­der­ings from the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies are, in the words of Bib­liOdyssey’s Paul Ker­ri­g­an, “by turns scary and intrigu­ing.”

These masks, dolls, tops, and oth­er fan­ci­ful works of the toy­mak­er’s craft may not imme­di­ate­ly appeal to a gen­er­a­tion raised with smart­phones. But their designs, root­ed in Japan­ese mythol­o­gy and region­al cul­tures, nev­er­the­less exude both a still-uncom­mon artistry and a still-fas­ci­nat­ing “oth­er­ness.” If this seems like kid’s stuff, bear in mind the caus­es of Japan’s trans­for­ma­tion from a post-World War II sham­bles to per­haps the most advanced coun­try in the world. As Alt tells the sto­ry of this aston­ish­ing devel­op­ment, Japan went from mak­ing sim­ple tin jeeps to tran­sis­tor radios to karaoke machines to Walk­men to vast cul­tur­al indus­tries of comics, film, tele­vi­sion, and relat­ed mer­chan­dise: all toys, broad­ly defined, and we in the rest of the world under­es­ti­mate their pow­er at our per­il. Rum­mage through the designs here.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Wagashi: Peruse a Dig­i­tized, Cen­turies-Old Cat­a­logue of Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Can­dies

Hun­dreds of Won­der­ful Japan­ese Fire­work Designs from the Ear­ly-1900s: Dig­i­tized and Free to Down­load

Watch Tee­ny Tiny Japan­ese Meals Get Made in a Minia­ture Kitchen: The Joy of Cook­ing Mini Tem­pu­ra, Sashi­mi, Cur­ry, Okonomiya­ki & More

How Frank Lloyd Wright’s Son Invent­ed Lin­coln Logs, “America’s Nation­al Toy” (1916)

Watch Bat­tered & Bruised Vin­tage Toys Get Mes­mer­iz­ing­ly Restored to Near Mint Con­di­tion

On Christ­mas, Browse A His­tor­i­cal Archive of More Than 50,000 Toys

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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