This top depicts a courier in premodern times traveling back and forth to deliver his messages on foot. When the top is spun, his legs swing back and forth as though he is running about frantically on his duties.
Although a system of express messengers by horse existed from the late Kamakura period (1185-1333), with the vastly improved roads and greater safety in the Edo period (1600-1868), messengers were sent out by horse or by running on foot. They often wore straw hats or jackets to shield themselves from inclement weather. In the Edo period ukiyo-e print to the left, you can see a man with one of these hats, possibly a horse-riding courier, dismounting.
Below, you’ll find a video of Hiroi-sensei explaining the top in Japanese, along with a transcript in English:
Hiroi Michiaki: This is, um, called a courier—what do you say nowadays? A postal [worker.] Umm, he takes letters and such.
Janell Landis: Ahh, yes yes yes. Mm. Mm.
Hiroi: He holds [his bag] here, and in the past, everyone walked, so the courier does this, [like] a marathon, in a way. He runs off going like this, and delivers [his letters] in various post stations in turn, and goes everywhere in Japan. A postal worker of the old days. When you turn this [part] these legs swing. Then it looks like running legs.
Janell: Yes yes yes. When you spin it.
Hiroi: And it spins around here.