Category Archives: biography

Newspaper article 新聞記事: Sendai: This Person and That Person – Hiroi Michiaki 仙台あの人この人ー廣井道顕

Hiroi-sensei has also appeared in newspapers as a well-known Edo top maker. Below is a translation of an article entitled “Sendai: This Person and That Person – Hiroi Michiaki” that ran May 14, 1982 in the newspaper Shūkan Sendai. See the original Japanese article at the link below.

廣井先生はよく知られている江戸独楽の職人として新聞記事で特集されています。1982年5月14日、「週刊仙台」が廣井先生についての記事を掲載しました。以下のリンクでアクセスできます。

Click here for the original article: 歴史記事はこちら

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Sendai: This Person and That Person – Hiroi Michiaki

A woodworker who makes Edogoma

Gifts for Children

May is the season of children who sprout up like bamboo shoots. It seems impossible that the main event of the month,  Children’s Day (May 5), has passed. But as luck would have it, the Museum of History and Folklore of Tsutsujigaoka opened the exhibit “The Production and Performance of Tops,” and the air is full of excitement from the invading children. Even though the exhibit is titled “production and performance,” the children have lined up to turn the lathe and paint the tops. That said, the children are engrossed and soon the husband and wife instructors have no spare time tmo rest. Hiroi Michiaki (48) and his wife, Kyōko, who set up a workshop in Fukurohara, Sendai, are the instructors. “What? A workshop? It’s not really that kind of thing, it’s a shabby old house,” Hiroi said. At the Citizens Festival in Nishikoen last fall Hiroi’s craft demonstrations were .

“I think it’s been about a year since I started the workshop. As for apprentices, right now I have seven pros and six amateurs. Among them is an assistant professor from Miyagi Women’s University, Landis-san, an American, and there are only two women. There are lots of top (koma) experts within the prefecture, but my [workshop] is Edo-style tops. And of course, my wife is helping, too.”

A tradition spanning three generations

Tops date back as far as 1,000 years ago

Koma (top)” is written in kanji as 独楽. They’re exclusively thought of as children’s toys, but there are also high-quality tops that [spin] along a drawn sword or the edge of a fan, or which, when rotating at great speed, have the legendary figure Ishikawa Goemon [appear to] leap out of an iron pot. These trick tops are generally the traditional “Edo-style” tops. Flashy tops are characteristic of the Genroku period (1688-1704), but among  historic tops, recently excavated ancient and medieval tops have been in the news lately.

“We know from written records that, since ancient times, tops were playthings, and this is substantiated by the actual items having been unearthed. If you divide them up into two [categories], there are ‘outside tops’ and ‘inside tops.’ Outside tops are like Sendai tops, tops used on the ground and that were exclusively used by boys, and inside tops were used by people of all ages and genders on tatami mats. If you divide them into types of play, there are those you spin using both hands, rubbing tops (momigoma), twisting tops (hinerigoma) spun with the tips of the fingers, and string-release tops (itobikigoma).”

Hiroi has Foreign Apprentices in his Workshop, too

Enjoying playing with tops

“If you divvy up tops even further, there’s flower tops (hanagoma), sumō tops (sumōgoma), vegetable tops (yasaigoma) like eggplants or cucumbers, spousal tops (meotogoma), roulette tops (ategoma), buzzing tops (unarigoma), howling tops (narigoma), two-tier tops (nidangoma), three-tier tops (sandangoma), throwing tops (nagegoma), fighting tops (kenkagoma), gambling tops (bakuchigoma) umbrella tops (kasagoma), chasing tops (okkakegoma), etc.”

According to records, there are over 200 types of Edo-style tops. According to Hiroi, among the string-release tops, there are some that look like they lift people up and spin. He deftly spins a spousal top made by one of his apprentices. Pinching the shaft of the top on the second tier and spinning it, the wife [seems to convey], “Well, honey, I’m going out!”

And if you [place] the tops onto each other again, they spin well together, and it looks like he’s going, “Yes, honey, have good evening!” and goofing around. There are also tops that are specifically meant for gambling, and these are often called by the kanji for koma. In an age of parody, when these tops are spun, it’s for the enjoyment of adults.

[Many of] these historic Edo-style tops were destroyed in the Taishō earthquake of 1923 and the air raids of 1943-1945, and the woodworkers scattered in all directions. Hiroi Michiaki is one of those people.

According to the Traditional Kokeshi Artisan Register, Hiroi was taught by his father Kenjirō and Agatsuma Kichisuke.From a young age he learned woodworking from his father, androm 1955, he learned painting from Kichisuke. During the Tokyo air raids, he relied upon his artisan colleagues and evacuated to Miyagi Prefecture, and after that set up a workshop in Sendai. [Today], he devotes himself in earnest to creating tops rather than kokeshi.

One family of wooden-toy artisans

Though slightly old, there are several features on the Hiroi artisan family, including the Bunka Publishing Bureau’s Japan’s Wooden Toys, edited by Kan’o Shinichi, and the special issue “Tokyo’s nostalgic wooden toys” in (銀花)Quarterly 30. The former was published in 1976, and the latter in 1977.

Hiroi Michiaki’s younger brother, Masaaki (44), is also who active in making traditional Edo-style tops in Ebina, Kanagawa. The writing in the article by  Hosoi Tokiko from Ginka’s editorial department and their regular female reporter is beautiful.

Putting together Hiroi’s story and what the reporter has written, the Hiroi family is one family that has continued for over two hundred years and three generations throughAsaaki, Kenjirō, Michiaki. Hiroi Michiaki’s grandfather, Asaaki, was employed as the doctor of a Tokugawa shogun, and after the Meiji Restoration, their family “took the pulse of their esteemed [employers].”  That they enthusiastically became Edo-style top makers for generations is interesting.

Now, let’s spin some tops.

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Janell writes home to friends in America ジャネルはアメリカにいる友達に手紙を書く

Below is a letter Janell wrote to friends in America in 1984 regarding her experiences in Japan.

1984年、ジャネルがアメリカにいる友達に日本での経験についての手紙を書いた(以下)。

Newspaper article 新聞記事:Seven Artisans Compete with New “Sendai Fortune” Products

Hiroi-sensei has appeared many times in Japanese newspapers. Below is a translation of an article entitled “Seven Artisans Compete with New “Sendai Fortune” Products” that ran December 27, 2008 in the newspaper Kahoku shinpō. See the original Japanese article at the link below.

廣井先生は多数の新聞記事で特集されています。2008年12月27日、河北新報が廣井先生についての記事を掲載しました。以下のリンクでアクセスできます。

Click here for the original article: 記事はこちら

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Kahoku shinpō (December 27, 2008)

The new character of Akiu Craft Village: “Sendai Fortune” kokeshi

Nice to meet you. I’m a kokeshi who is proud of my smile.

Akiu Craft Village

Seven Artisans Compete with New  “Sendai Fortune” Products

The Akiu Craft Village of Akiu, Taihaku Ward, Sendai City will begin selling a new kokeshi this January called “Sendai Fortune.” It was so-named by the seven artisans of Akiu, who made it in the image of a woman calling upon luck. It is being sold as a new character made with a modern twist on traditional arts. The Sendai Luck ranges in size up to about 10 cm tall. They have kokeshi in the shape of smiling girls and based on the zodiac ox. Hiroi Michiaki (75) and the other artisans of the Craft Village made the doll to invite luck, modeling it on the wife of Fukusuke (god of luck).

When kokeshi-making began to feel as though it had hit a slump, Hiroi called on his artisan colleagues. By challenging one another, they aim to increase their technical skills and imbue their wooden products with a new appeal.

The Sendai Fortune kokeshi cost around 2,000-3,000 yen. This time they’ve made about 100 kokeshi, and the Craft Village opens up for sales from January 1-4, 10AM-4PM. In addition, there will be bamboo stilts (takeuma), wooden paddle games (hagoita), and traditional kites (surume tenbata) on sale.

According to Hiroi, “We want to create products that make people excited, and in the future, too, have the luck of Sendai active in many places through the Craft Village’s original character.” Hiroi’s contact information is 022 (398) 2770.

Media Post: Janell at Miyagi Gakuin

These photos show Janell at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University, where she taught for many years. The first photo shows Janell with three of her English Department staff in front of their old administration building at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University. The second is Janell speaking to the junior-high students in the chapel of Miyagi Gakuin’s old campus. The black and white photo is Janell taking part in a ceremony after she donated hand bells to the junior and senior high school from America.

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メディアポスト:宮城学院女子大学でのジャネル

ジャネル、何年も教鞭をとった宮城学院女子大学で。1枚目:旧校舎の事務所で英語学部のスタッフ3人と。2枚目:宮城学院の旧キャンパス内のチャペルで中学生に話をするジャネル。白黒写真:アメリカから宮城学院へ、ハンド・ベルを寄付した後、式典に参加した際のジャネル

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Newspaper article 新聞記事: Edogoma Spin Around the World 江戸独楽 世界を回る

An automaton top of a man eating dango, by Hiroi Masaaki.

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.

廣井先生だけではなく、弟さんの廣井正昭先生もよく知られている江戸独楽の職人として新聞記事で特集されています。2007年12月31日、日本経済新聞が廣井正昭先生についての記事を掲載しました。以下のリンクでアクセスできます。

Click here for the original article: 歴史記事はこちら

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Nihon keizai shinbun (December 31, 2007)

Edogoma Spin Around the World

Creating automaton figures for 60 years and displaying them in 50 countries

Hiroi Masaaki

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.

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Hiroi Masaaki

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.

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There are also automaton tops where when you spin the top of the head, the dolls eat soba or sweet potatoes.

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.

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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