The photos below show Hiroi-sensei selling tops at a special event held in a local department store. He also set up his lathe to demonstrate his top-making skills.
In addition to Hiroi-sensei, his brother, Hiroi Masaaki, has also appeared in newspapers as a well-known Edo top maker. Below is a translation of an article entitled “Edogoma Spin Around the World” that ran December 31, 2007 in the newspaper Nihon keizai shinbun. See the original Japanese article at the link below.
Click here for the original article: 歴史記事はこちら。
Nihon keizai shinbun (December 31, 2007)
Edogoma Spin Around the World
Creating automaton figures for 60 years and displaying them in 50 countries
It has been over 60 years since I began creating Edo tops. My ancestor was a low-ranking court doctor in charge of the emperor’s health, but he, my great-grandfather, made his livelihood out of his hobby of making tops. I am a fourth-generation top-maker. Supposedly during the bakumatsu, the end of the Edo period, when Japan was divided into imperial loyalists and shogunate supporters, my great-grandfather and grandfather took up their swords. I was born into a top-making family, and I think that [the reason] we continued to be poor was that my relatives always fought, like everyone in that period of time. What a pain it was.
There are many kinds of tops, but Edo tops have a particular way of spinning, and there are also those that are automatons, coming to life as they spin. I don’t create just traditional forms [of tops] but also come up with new technical forms. I haven’t counted them, but I’ve probably invented around 4,000 or 5,000 types.
Entertaining Oneself During the War
I was born in 1935. I lived in Oshima, Kōtō Ward (Tokyo) with my mother, father, and three siblings. However, in 1945, my mother and two of my siblings were killed in massive air raids. We were driven out of our home by the fires from air raids, first to Kuramae, then Roppongi and Shirokane, one after another, and barely escaped with our lives.
It was also because of the war that I began to make tops. My friends were all evacuated outside of the city and I had no one to spend time with. One day, my father gave me a foot-powered lathe so I could make tops and other things to play with. I liked working with my hands, so every day I worked on the lathe.
After the war, at the invitation of a toy wholesaler in Kuramae, my family moved to Shiroishi in Miyagi prefecture. In Tōhoku we were able to obtain good-quality lumber. However, because my father had lost his wife and children, his heart wasn’t in his work. So my older brother and I made tops and kendama (cup and ball toys) and sold them on the Sendai black market. It was a time when there were no toys, so they sold quite well.
I finally returned to my hometown of Tokyo at the end of my 20s. I did demonstration sales, and during this time I began to make tops while earning a living . There was a traditional arts boom at the time, which popularized Edo tops, but the production wasn’t valued at all. However, I did find working out automaton devices interesting, so I diligently produced various tops even if they didn’t sell.
Fixated on the Mechanisms
There are no diagrams for top-making. For example, a sakadachi (“headstand”) top flips upside down while it spins, beginning to stand on its handle. When I made that, I only had the knowledge of experience that centrifugal force will make the heavy portion will face upward. After that, one makes the shape through trial and error. Brilliant people overseas seemed to understand the mathematical reasoning behind the tops flipping on their heads, but because they’re tops, they have to spin.
When I come up with an idea for an automaton, I don’t ever give up until it’s been realized. There’s one top, “Momotarō” (Momotarō the Peach Boy)—when you pull the string and make it spin, the peach part is supposed to pop open so you can see the little boy— but the peach’s mechanism doesn’t open properly. I thought about it for days on end. I made an adjustment to the placement of the elastic, and when the peach popped open smoothly a bell went off somewhere. It was New Year’s Eve of 1965.
The first of those to value the production of tops [as art] were people overseas rather than in Japan. Twenty seven years ago, I took about 70 of my works to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. I took more traditional-style tops, too, but the curator said, “I’ll only collect items that you designed yourself.”
Perhaps because I gave a dubious expression at that, he said the following: “While it’s important to pass along tradition, there’s no meaning in contemporary artists recreating, say, Greek sculptures exactly the same way they were 3000 years ago. Rather, there is value in contemporary artists creating new art.” That I am able to proudly say today that I am producing tops that are my own work is because of his words to me.
From then on, I was invited to share Japanese culture with people overseas and traveled around the world, taking my tops with me. I’ve probably been to about fifty countries by now. I think of tops as toys but to people in other countries they’re seen as art. From the perspective of a craftsman, shaking hands [with such a person] is somehow embarrassing.
The Tops in People’s Hearts
When this article is published on New Year’s, surely I’ll be in my studio turning the lathe. For complicated mechanisms, sometimes it can take as many as 10 days to produce them. Even though I’ve been on this path for 60 years, that’s nothing to boast about. If one cannot do their craft skillfully, that is nothing but failure. The idea that tomorrow I will be able to make even better tops tomorrow than I did today—that is what has kept me going for such a long time.
A top that’s well-done has a vertical handle that stands up straight and doesn’t wobble in the slightest when it turns. When it [spins so well] that the top appears perfectly still while spinning, I call this “sleeping.” When I look at a “sleeping”” top, the words someone once said to me come to mind: “There is a top in our hearts. If the axis doesn’t wobble, your life is on the right track.” On New Year’s Day, I’d like to examine my own heart’s top as I see children playing with theirs.
— Hiroi Masaaki
Hiroi-sensei has appeared many times in Japanese newspapers. Below is a translation of an article entitled “’Edo tops’ made in Sendai .” See the original Japanese article at the link below.
Click here for the original article in Japanese.
When you say “tops,” you might imagine tops you’d play with outdoors, but these are “land tops” (jigoma 地独楽). Edo tops are a type of tops known as known as “parlor tops”“(zashikigoma 座敷独楽), which you enjoy by spinning them in your home and decorating with them. In addition to single-block tops, there are all kinds of tops that rely on centrifugal force.
The blueprints for the tops are in my arms
“Even if you ask me how many types [of tops] there are,r” says artisan Hiroi Michiaki of the tops he has vividly colored, “If you were to categorize them like kokeshi, it would probably be over a thousand. Well, probably about 600.”
To the question “are there blueprints?” Hiroi says but one word: “No.” When I reply, “Then they must be in your head, right?”, he says, “No, there’s nothing in my head. But these arms have memorized them. My hands move on their own.” I’m speechless for a little while at this perhaps profound statement.
Edo tops—Wax polish makes the bright colors–the characteristic red but also purple, green, and yellow– stand out all the more. Once, these tops were intended for the children of high-status warriors and wealthy merchants, having little to do with commoners. As such, the finishing touches were minded to the smallest detail, and except for the single block tops, “they express the characteristics and old tales of each time period, and there’s no [top] without a history.”
This is something that can be said for all of Hiroi’s wooden toys, and even if they appear to have no origin story, that is simply a product of having forgotten it in the present day.
The spirit (kokoro) that protects tradition
When asked about the “spirit” of continuing to make Edo tops, a central part of [Japanese] wooden toy traditions, he dismissed this question smoothly, saying, “[Tops] are not something to tout as tradition. Because I was born an artisan, there’s no other path for me.”
On the subject of successors, he first said, “Right now about ten people are coming [to apprentice],” seemingly unworried, but added regretfully, “It would be difficult for them all to inherit [the practice].”
Why Edo tops in Sendai?
“During the war, we evacuated to Miyagi. We lost our chance to return to Tokyo,” Hiroi said, adding, “In Tokyo, there are many people in Tokyo with resources and many people who understand [our work]. And people who suggested I come back.” Saying that his younger brother was working hard on making tops in Tokyo now, Hiroi seems determined to preserve the Edo top tradition here in Sendai’s Fukuhara.
Hiroi also makes kokeshi, but doesn’t seem very interested in them.“Kokeshi are easier to make compared to tops, and sell well, but…” he said, although he was unable to identify the reason why he wasn’t motivated to make them.
Hiroi’s wife, listening to us nearby, says, “When we have an order deadline approaching he procrastinates. Then when he starts, he’ll skip meals and stay up turning the lathe late into the night. If he’s even a little unsatisfied with the result, he’ll just toss it out.” Because these tops now are being gifted to an orphanage , Hiroi-san has stopped tossing out ones he doesn’t like.
Hiroi, who was born an artisan, aims only to create the best products. Right now, he only makes direct sales aimed at about sixty people without going through wholesalers. His reason is that “if you sell them in stores, they can mark them up to absurdly high prices.”
“Despite all the effort you put in, you don’t make much money. It’s the kind of work only an idiot could do,” Hiroi says [joking], finally adding, “This is the only path for me, now and forever.”
ジャネル: えぇ。毎年、そうね１ヶ月くらい、日本にいる人たちが里帰りできる制度があったわ。私は５年いて１年か９か月の休暇があった。私は教師だったから一年中日本にいることはなかったのよね。４月から３月までの年度内いつでも代理の先生がいたし。私の里帰りは３ヶ月ごと、じゃなくて３年ごとに３ヶ月だったわ。ホーム・アサインメント(※1)…前は休暇という言い方をしていたけれど最近ではホーム・アサインメントと呼び方を変えたのよね。ホーム・アサインメントの3分の1は自分の余暇。3分の1…3分の2は委員の仕事をしたわ。だから里帰り中には外に出ることが多かった。できる時には自分で運転したものよ。だって自分の車がないときって、行く場所はドライバー次第で、同じ話を何度もしないといけないし。 ほら、誰かの朝食と誰か目的地を運転中の話で、[いつも同じの質問を聞かれたことは]滑稽な気分になったりするでしょ。色んな地域に行くんだけど同じ質問をしてくるから、テープ・レコーダーで返事を録音して再生したかったわよ。でも何度も戻る機会があって、行ったことある地域に割り当てられた。ペンシルバニアでは福音改革派がメジャーでキリスト連合教会ともコネクションがたくさんあった。南東部協議会、北東部協議会、中央協議会、西部協議会。地域ごとにもいくつか…オハイオには協議会もあったけど組合もあったわ。ニューイングランドの方には何かあれば頼れる人もいた。一泊してディナーとランチを取るだけじゃなくて、３日間同じところで過ごして同じ教会に属してる色んなグループの人たちと話せる機会があったの。一度会ったら、それで「さよなら」ってわけじゃなくてね、あらそういえば、日本からの宣教師がいたわ、彼女の名前なんだったかしら。コネチカット州ではグループに入っていくのが少し難しいなと思った、イタリア系の人がコネチカット州の協議会長をしてて、コネチカット・マフィアと呼ばれていたの。私の日程表を送ってきた人もイタリア系の人だったし。それでも、デピュテーション(※2)のために来た宣教師の扱いがうまかったわね。デピュテーションは宣教師の仕事の一つね。教会や宣教師派遣委員会から有給で派遣されて自分の経験を伝える機会がもてるのよ。一度新たに宣教師となる人についての記事か何かを書いたことがあったわ。
In this post, Janell Landis describes visits home during her time as a missionary, her friends in Japan, and her special relationship with her teacher, Hiroi-sensei.
Malina Suity [7:20]: How did you communicate with your family back home in the U.S. or any people you might consider to be family in Asia?
Janell Landis: Yes. At that time there was no email when I was…with letters. My mother was very good at writing and my younger sister still, we don’t, neither of us have a computer. She’s very faithful in writing to me so I have to write to her. I’m not getting very good at writing anymore. I’m using white out more than I’m using ink [laughs]. But anyway, I had had communications with my family mainly through letters. There were occasional phone calls, but not many, because there were times when phone calls between India and Japan where you had to make a…Indians had to make a reservation to call me. And the calls wouldn’t go through sometimes. But, in Japan, when I was uh, when they were getting into the technical age..faxes. You can still see in the list of missionaries there many of them still have the fax because that was the connection that made it easy to contact somebody. But now I think they’re in the internet just like we are. Probably, but many of the missionaries still have a fax, because then they can contact the Japanese without the internet.
Malina: Did you often get chances to return to the U.S. you mentioned–
Janell: Yes. Our board had a system, every year in Japan um, for every year you’d get a month or something like. I had five years and then one years furlough or nine months. Because I was a teacher sometimes I didn’t stay the whole year. I would go and there would be somebody to replace me in that school year from April to March of the next year. But I also went home every three months, I mean every three years for three months. One home assignment–they used to call them furloughs but in more recent years they changed it to home assignment. One third of the time was for yourself. One third was–two thirds for the board. And so when I was home in the United States I was often on the road. And when I could I’d drive myself. Because when I didn’t have a car you’re at the mercy of the place you’re going to and you have to tell the same story five times. You know, somebody’s breakfast and somebody drove you there and and it became almost humorous. I would have liked to have a tape recorder and just play it for them because they ask the same questions in various areas. But I had many times I came back and I was assigned to the same areas. In Pennsylvania, the E&R Church was big and the United Church has a lot of contacts in Pennsylvania. The Southeast Conference, the Northeast Conference, the Central Conference, and the West Conference. And then some places it was just…in Ohio it was a conference but then it had associations. And up in New England I had some very helpful contacts there. Not just one overnight and a supper there and a lunch there, but I’d be in at one place for three nights and doing various groups in the same church for several times. And I’d see people more often than just once because, ‘Oh yeah we had a missionary from Japan, what was her name?” Kind of was harder there in Connecticut to get into that group because the one visit I had there with what they called the Connecticut mafia because the Connecticut chairman was of Italian background and then this man who sent me my schedule was of Italian background. But they were very good at using the missionary who was there for what we called deputation and that was part of being a missionary. Being able to be sent and paid for by the church or the mission board for visiting and having a chance to share. I had some articles and stuff that talked about the missionary coming.
Malina: Um, what, um. Were your acquaintances and friends in Japan mostly Japanese people or mostly foreigners or was it a mix of the two?
Janell: I think in the beginning my friendships were mainly the missionaries that were aligned with…but as the years went on and I came back from language school my friends were mostly Japanese and the number of missionaries became less and less too.
In the last couple years, there were only three of us missionaries. The music teacher and another–a man. And a woman who was in the same department. But I, for some of that she was only in the college and I was in the Junior-Senior High, but then she became ill and couldn’t work and I was still part time then. And the music teacher we were together in 2006 for Miyagi’s 120th birthday and the school paid for our coming home to Japan, I mean coming back to Japan. And um then shortly after he came back from that visit he died in California. So, I’m the only living one that was in that Miyagi period where [there were] the three missionaries.
I think there’s one of the wives of a missionary who’s serving the men’s school. His wife is finally helping in the Junior High. She was dropped from the mission board for a while and that made me very angry. Because she was just getting to the point where her work with hospice was being taken up in Japan. And just before that got off the board, the mission board said she wasn’t connected to any organization. She raised four kids there and they were all in the neighborhood and she had neighborhood children in her home. But now she’s teaching in the Junior High and I’m glad for that. But she’s not listed as a missionary because her salary is coming from the school.
And I think there’s another young person there too. But our mission board is down to supporting two missionaries and they’re both children of former missionaries. One in Kyoto and one, one was in Sendai but he’s going on with his family to the Kansai area too.
Malina: So, now I think we’re going to shift over to, um your work with Hiroi Sensei.
Janell: Yes. Uh-huh.
Malina: So how–you mentioned how you first met him, had you heard about him before?
Janell: No. No. He came from Tokyo and settled in Sendai but it was–I didn’t know he was there. It was through Mr. Amano’s connection, he and Mr. Takahashi helping Hiroi sensei and visiting for this particular, they discovering him. They found, like I said, they were looking for a kite-maker to interview on one of these New Years programs because flying kites is the big thing for boys and playing badminton is for girls. And anyway, they didn’t find a kite-maker but a woman who was running–a Japanese woman who had a nice book store was acquainted with Hiroi-sensei. and she found that they had a top-maker right there in Sendai. And that’s when they found him and he was not well, and he was not making much money to live on. So they got him into the hospital and got him taking them on as apprentices. So they could get some money to him and assisting him in getting back to making tops. And around that period, I had been on that program with Mr. Amano’s wife and she was my associate and using the Japanese while I was doing the English. But anyway, he and his friend from the same company, TBS, asked me to be on this program. And they took me to the home of Mr. Hiroi. And I met Hiroi-sensei and his wife in a very strange house. They had one or two rooms besides the shop and we’d sit around the table and have tea after we finished working.
[31:28] And many times his wife and I were the only women, and so we listened a lot. And it was fun. I enjoyed those times in the kotatsu and listening to the discussions. For a teacher of English who was with college and junior high and senior high school girls, and in many ways being a leader for them, it was just wonderful to be able to sit around a table with these Japanese men and listening to what they were talking about. Because a lot of the times it was about making the tops, but the friendships that developed in that area were some that were quite different from being a missionary in a Christian school. But I was always accepted as a valid person.