In the final part of his interview, Hiroi-sensei reflects on the significance of traditional Japanese tops to Japanese culture as well as in his own life and expresses his desire to share them with the world.
Paula: How do you feel about these works of yours becoming part of a collection?
Hiroi: Ahh, I’m happy. I’m really happy.
Paula: Why do you think it’s important to display [them] in a museum?
Hiroi: Ahh, well, if a museum displays them for me, then many people can see them. There’s a limited [number of people] who can see them here. And the people who go to museums or art galleries are those who are interested in [the work] in itself, so I’d be extremely grateful to display them in a place like that, not to mention exhibiting them in a place like America, I’d be incredibly happy about that. In Sendai, [some of them] are preserved in the Sendai museum, but they’re not displayed.
In the historical folk museum I mentioned in Takajo, the prefectural museum, the collection [of my work] that Shinoda-san had gathered was donated there, but in reality, it’s not displayed. It’s there for preservation. It’s all shut away. When they were on display once in a number of years, it was good, but when they do it is entirely dependent on the museum, so we don’t ever know. I went three times to Takajo to see [the collection], but the first time I went it was the wrong day and the museum was closed. And the second time I ran out of time, so it was no good. And the third time, it had already ended. Heh heh. And when I said that I was the artist, they said, “Even if you’re the artist we can’t let you in,” and I was turned away. I went three times but all three times I had trouble and couldn’t see them. Shinoda-san had preserved them so preciously, and they were as good as new, so I definitely wanted to see them. And three times I went, and all three times, for those reasons, in the end I couldn’t see them. Even now I haven’t seen them, and it’s a shame. The city of Sendai is like that, though, about preserving them. Mm… you go to see it and you can’t. So in America, whether it’s preservation or just preserving them, if they show them from time to time, I’d be happy.
Paula: What do you think is the most outstanding piece of work in the collection? Does something come to mind as the best piece?
Hiroi: Ahh… the most outstanding? Well, this is a little different from the tops, but the miniature tea ceremony tools. Ummm, right now Maeda-kun has made a sample of that. Huh? Is he not here? I think it’s in [the other room], but. Umm, now…
Paula: Oh, no, it’s okay, [we don’t have to go see it now].
Hiroi: It’s alright? Later, wait and I’ll show it to you. Umm… other than that there’s all kinds in there. What a second.
Hiroi: It might be in there, but I don’t know. If Maeda-kun was here, he’d know. Umm. I wonder if it’s in here? There’s all sorts of things. I think there’s a better one. I won’t know unless Maeda-kun comes back. This isn’t much, but there’s this. This is, well– in the spring cats fight on the roof and this is a top that illustrates that. And this one is a frog. And these [parts] are all tops. Landis-sensei owns all of these, though.
Paula: Yes, I’ve seen them.
Hiroi: Yeah. Huh? It’s bad at spinning. Hm? It should spin. It’s not spinning. It’s not, but it should. This also spins. They should all spin. They can all spin like this, but–
Paula: Janell has told us that you like to incorporate folklore and culture into your Edo tops. Why is that important to you?
Hiroi: If you ask me why [that’s important to me], why… I don’t really know what to say. Because it’s tradition from long ago, because they’re legends. Or because they’re interesting subjects. So it’s more like, my taste as an Edokko (child of Edo), making them stylish, putting that in there to make them interesting. So that people who look at them are delighted.
For example, in the story of Momotaro and the Oni Extermination, Momotaro wins, but on the other hand, Momotaro comes out of a peach, right? And there’s a top [I made] where the oni steals that giant peach, and he’s happy and dancing around it. And people who know the story [see it] and go “What, is the oni happy?” but they get it. And people who don’t know the Momotaro story are like “Why [is it like that]?” In that way, what should I say? The joke went over their heads. That actually happens a lot. So I don’t reproduce those legends exactly the way that they are. I rework them. So the people who get it, get it, and those who don’t, don’t, but if I explain it, they go “Ah!” And for example, in the competition of the tortoise and the hare– you saw [the top] yesterday– actually the tortoise wins [in the story], but sometimes the [disc with the hare on it] passes [the tortoise], and when that happens, everyone has a big laugh. Heh heh.
Paula: What kind of feeling do you get when you’re making an Edo top?
Hiroi: Mm. I think to myself, “Ah, this is interesting. Hmm, how can I make this more fun?” What can I do to make people enjoy it more. And whether I can preserve the old story while making it humorous. While thinking about that, I make all kinds [of tops].
Paula: When people look at the Edo tops, what kind of appreciation for them do you want visitors to have?
Hiroi: Of course, the most important thing is for people to have fun with them. To find them interesting. That’s what makes me the happiest: that they’re interesting and make people happy. What worries me the most is the people who totally fail to get the jokes. People who don’t understand puns or jokes. If they say it’s “interesting,” I think, “well, that’s fine, I suppose.” Anyway, first and foremost is that the tops make people happy.
Paula: What do you hope others will gain by having knowledge of this collection?
Hiroi: Uhh… I haven’t thought about it that deeply! Hahahaha… If I think about it that hard, I won’t be able to make them! That sounds unplanned and a little irresponsible, though. Um, when I realize [what I want to do]– it’s not the same as what I just talked about, but– [in the story when] Kintaro and Momotaro fight, Momotaro wins, and Kintaro returns to the mountain while crying and is comforted by a bear. [I make the tops] like that, poking fun [at little things], things that come to mind that will be interesting. Having done that, people who get it will get it, and those who won’t, won’t. Heh heh. That point is kind of difficult at times, and there are times when I think “I got it!” Thinking about it, it sounds kind of reckless, very much so. Heh heh. Because I’ll selfishly destroy [the original story]. Hehehe.
Paula: And is there anything else that you’d like to say?
Hiroi: To say?
Paula: Yeah. Anything is fine. If there’s something…
Hiroi: Things I want to say… If there’s something I’d want to say, it’s that this is also one part of Japanese culture. I want to communicate that and save it [for future generations]. And for that sake, whether it’s professionals or amateurs, I will teach anyone who wants to learn. And even if it’s just one, or two, I want them to leave traces of [their tops] a hundred, two-hundred years later. And not just [leaving behind] collections– I want many people to learn how to make them, too, so I teach as many people as I can. If I teach this many people, I think there will probably be a number of kinds [of tops] left one or two-hundred years from now. Hoping for that, right now I’m teaching [how to make tops] and making them for people who collect them. I wonder how it will end up. I don’t know what it will be like in hundreds of years.
女男つり独楽 (meoto tsurigoma) spousal string-release top
These tops depict a husband and wife. They are a specific type of tsurigoma (string-release tops) called ijiwaru koma (unkind/wicked tops), so-named because they are particularly difficult to spin. The string of the top must be wrapped very precisely and the top thrown just right to get it to spin.
Hiroi Michiaki: Umm this is an ijiwaru koma (unkind top). It’s not really named anything in particular. It’s a man and woman.
Paula Curtis: A married couple?
Hiroi: Yeah. A spousal string-release top. An unkind top. I made it an “unkind” couple.
Janell, determined to travel to Japan one last time to see her many friends and attend her homecoming at Migyagi Gakuin, invited Paula and Malina to join her so that they could interview Hiroi in person and share in the Japan side of the collection’s history. After several months of funding inquiries and a successful Kickstarter campaign, Paula and Malina were able to travel with Janell for a week in May of 2014 to northern Japan with the support of the University of Michigan’s Center for Japanese Studies and Kickstarter contributors. There they visited Hiroi at his home in Akiu kōgei no sato 秋保工芸の里 (Akiu Craft Village) and were introduced to his artisanry in person.
These photos show Hiroi-sensei’s home, store, and workshop. He demonstrated how to spin various tops. He also explained the legends and histories behind the design of each top.
In this post, Jan describes how she came to meet and work with Hiroi-sensei, how he taught his apprentices, and how she felt appreciated among a community of artists.
Malina: So, now I think we’re going to shift over to, um you’re 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.
So, there’s some pictures in this book of that room and the thing that was wonderful is, he had two lathes, one that he worked at and we sat and he could see us like that you know. We sat across from each other. And so, instead of like an apprentice does for a potter making clay for five or six years before they get on the wheel. We got on the lathe right from the very beginning. And he prepared the wood for us, he prepared our tools for us, so we were his apprentices but we were beholden completely to our teacher. I was so pleased with the way he accepted me as a foreigner and he actually would make, for me, he would make a model and then I could copy it. For his professional men who were his apprentices, the ones who made the dolls, he would just talk about the concept and talk about what…and then they’d make it and bring it back to him and then he’d tell them what was wrong with it and what was good about it. It was interesting to be there and sit in the same [kotatsu] with these other apprentices.
And many times his wife and I were the only women, 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 a college of 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 tale 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.
And he was good at giving me examples and I would make them myself. I have two of them out there that I made, one in ‘82, that’s the first one. That was a present for my family, so I made I think seven or eight of them. That’s in one of these books too. Then the more recent one is the church with each item makes a top, there’s seven tops in that one. That one conglomeration of seven tops. But anyway, he let me do Huck Finn, and Tom Sawyer, Cinderella. I like that fact that he was open to European or American stories as well as these ones we have here of Momotaro. These two he made, this is not his, these two. Momotoro and the Onii, the devil, that were disturbing the life of his village. And the peach boy. Those are the [dango] that his mother made him that he gave one to the pheasant, one to the monkey, and one to the dog, and they helped him conquer these ugly bad guys. And they were fierce and then they became friends.
But we had some interesting discussions. And my teacher once, around Hiroshima day in August, that was one of the most memorable times in my visits with him. He told me about when his parents and he were in Tokyo when the big bombing of Tokyo took place. Their part of Tokyo was connected with war-making factories. His father could no longer do tops, he had to use his…doing something connected to the war so that the company that bought his tops took his lathe and all his equipment and sent it up to [Shiroishi City] in Tohoku where there were a lot of woodworkers. But then the father and the mother… in this time…Sensei said the planes were so low he could hear the music that they were playing on the airplanes. They bombed that part of the city. He and his brother and father fled to the school pond, the swimming pool, and they jumped in the pool, fortunately in the shallow end. The people who jumped in the deep end went down to the bottom and other bodies went on top of them and they all perished. But the people in the shallow end survived. His mother and the siblings, I don’t know if it was one or two, perished in the fire. And his father and his brother were left, and this company sent them to Shiroishi to live.
Many of the children of Tokyo at that time were sent out to farmlands and Tohoku was one area where they came, Tokyo kids, because their families were trying to save them from the terrible bombings that they were having. Some of them were in the same areas and the locals weren’t that glad to have them, you know. You’re struggling yourself with food, but in those years people that I knew sold their kimono or whatever, they took them to the farmers in the country. Fortunately the farmers in Japan didn’t experience what Europe experienced, the land warfare where the armies were fighting right out in the farmlands. The Japanese were bombed in big cities but the farmlands were still functioning. So the city people went out with their treasures and traded for food. But Mr. Hiroi– he and his father and brother went to the Sendai area, [Shirorishi] about an hour away on the train and then he became one of the Tohoku’s famous woodworkers. He and his brother are the two living members of the Edo-tops. Edo, the former name for Tokyo.
Malina: Did he have many other apprentices? How many other apprentices?
Janell: Well, I’m not sure how many are left. Because we’re all getting older. But I have a picture and there were oh about, three or four, five, six, seven. Some professional and then non-professional. When I was starting my work there there was a man who was an employee for Sendai City and he went there as a treat to himself, and he was very good and I have a top that he made, really beautiful top, on that I often use. It’s way over there, but anyway. And now we have a connection with Mr. Maeda who’s there every day. That means I think he’s working on the lathe.
Malina: How did you become interested in becoming his apprentice?
Janell: Well, it was just buying that [??} and giving it to somebody and finding out that right there in Sendai was the man who made it. And I was impressed with him and I just…it was timing. I, nothing I can say I was looking for. It just happened. And I was so fortunate to be able to be on that program teaching English to the women that gave me a contact with Mr. Amano. And anyway, to be invited to meet this man. And then be able to be an apprentice [excited noise]. Because I had been interested in art and I draw pictures and stuff. But, I never had any…my father was a woodworker. He made a big desk for me that’s in another room here. I took that to Japan and brought it back, but my father was working down in the basement of our house. When I was an eighth grader, in the seventh and eighth grade, girls weren’t allowed to take shop but we had cooking and sewing, and so I wasn’t interested in that stuff. But, being an apprentice was just a work of fate.
Malina: So, you had bought a [sumo-set] before you met him, or was that after?
Janell: Yes, before. Because I found that in Tokyo, he was making things still and selling things in Tokyo that, right after the war, because of the connection probably to his father. His father had this connection with people in Tokyo, but anyway, I bought that when I went to Tokyo one time. And I gave it to Mr. Amano’s little girls. And thought it was fun. And then they found when they were looking for a kite-maker they found the top-maker and found out that he made that set of sumo wrestlers.
Malina: How long before you met him did you give the girls the set?
Janell: It wasn’t too much before that. A couple..maybe a year or so. Because it was still connected to that program and I wish I could tell you what years that program was on. One year it was on TBS and that connection.
Malina: What year did you become his apprentice?
Paula: For how long were you apprenticed to him?
Janell: Until I left Japan. ‘95. There wasn’t a real apprentice after a couple of years because my teacher helped me get my own lathe. Like I say he’d make me a sample and I’d make it on my own. I have a book of the stuff I made. This is it. [laughs] You can see in that book the freedom I was given. And he helped me do a Cinderella, a little pumpkin and the horses and anyway [laughs].
Malina: Did you sell yours?
Janell: Yes, I didn’t make ‘em for sale. Then for three years–and I wanted to find out if they’re still doing that–one of the department stores has a sale of Mr. Hiroi’s apprentice’s and his tops for sale. Three days in that January 3 and January 6. I had a couple of books of that. Where are they–over there. But I had my things there for sale at that time. The money for our things one year went to an organization for helping people with something. I had…I don’t have it in my head, I have it in one of these books. The money that we made from the tops that time–some of it was from the apprentices–was given to an organization for some use for others.
Malina: How far did you travel to take lessons, to work with him?
Janell: To get lessons? For a while I was going to the southern part of Sendai. I usually went around supper time. It was a frustrating experience because two lanes went into one to cross a bridge and you’d have these guys who would sneak in [makes driving noise]. I was kind of high before I got even to my teacher’s house. But anyway, then he moved from that place to this village and that was further, but it was a more interesting ride into this hot spring town south of Sendai. The other one was off a main thoroughfare that went down to Tokyo, you know. But this one was a more quiet route. So, I was never really far.
Malina: What was a daily lesson like?
Janell: Mmm. Well, it was like being given a piece of wood that was five-sided and you’d put it on the bit, and working, and the teacher was often working on a project that I could watch him do. And there’s a… if I had any trouble he would come and look at me. It was just me doing work. After I got good enough he got me this lathe of my own and I went there just like the pro-deshi [apprentices] did with the things I made and he would look at them. And we would discuss what project we could do and then he’d make something…made the raft and Huckleberry and Tom. So there were things done in the kotatsu, around the table. Planning. But when I had my own I wasn’t getting lessons anymore I was getting assistance and a great deal of help.
I liked my teacher because he was willing to…and he was knowledgeable. It was an interesting combination of him and his wife. When they were in Sendai, she was from a farm home down south of Sendai, I can’t remember the town. And her father and his father were very close friends. They’d his father…Her father would come and visit. [laughs] They were such good friends that they decided his son and her father…his daughter, his daughter was just right for the son. Now, this is a Tokyo son and a farmer girl. Who for part of her life was sent to Hokkaido to be somebody’s babysitter and send the money back because her mother had gone, had died, I think. It was just like an oshikei story oshiin, of the hard life of this farm-woman. And then she married this Tokyo-man. But he had a lot of interest in Japanese folklore, and I think coming out of Tokyo he had a background that was much broader than coming from a little town and farm in Tohoku. It’s an interesting combination. But she’s the business woman and he’s the artist. She handles all of these things that the apprentices bring to sell in the store in connection with his shop in this village. She keeps track of how much this man should get and how much this man should get. She was very good at business, and of course, cooking and taking care of the house. And then she was on–there’s a picture of her there on the lathe. He let her–he taught her how to make things. But anyway, it was an interesting combination.
Malina: What was the most challenging aspect of the top-making?
Janell: The most challenging? Time was an issue. Having the time to do it. When I had my own lathe I didn’t have to travel so far. It was right behind me in my house and I could work after school when I was teaching at Miyagi. It was different when I was working for the conference because then I could plan my own schedule. When I worked at school I was at school this time and by this time so it was easier to organize. When I had my own time, I’d feel guilty when I wasn’t working, you know. It’s not as easy to do what you thought you should do. But, after a while, otherwise I didn’t feel any hardships. Or frustrations, because my teacher was very generous. He’d even say something nice even when it was dumb [laughs].
Here’s a picture when he had…this is why I like my teacher. Just look at that bottom picture. Look at him sitting in a chair smiling. We had this wonderful party and we had food. There’s Mr. Amano, and Mr. Takahashi, and the woman who did all my cooking.
Malina: Was there a difference between the types of tops Hiroi made for collectors, well you said you didn’t make any for sale, was there a difference?
Janell: Yes, he’d make some that were easy to spin, but the collectors were interested in something that’s really different. And so, he would make them and anybody who came there to visit could buy them. He didn’t have a shop when I first met him, he was in this very–what I call a hovel. A very poor place to live. But then we joined this artisan’s village then he had a nice shop to go with it. And most of the tops in that shop were done by his disciples, his deshi. And then they would get the money that they–Mrs. Hiroi was the business woman. The money that they got from those that say Masayuki made, then he, those were–all that money went to him with a bit for the sensei. You know like one of the consignment things where you give things and you get some of the money back. So these, this is one way he was helping these young professional doll-makers also become skilled top-makers and they could earn some extra money that way. But the one rule he made was interesting, the professional men who were skilled in making the dolls, they always signed their name on the bottom and some of the dolls were collected faithfully by certain people. Every year they’d get another one and the number of how old the person was would change each year. Then you could compare how many, if you collected Masayuki’s all every year you could see how he developed or how it went down and so on. That’s a collecting technique that I didn’t follow. But, my teacher himself asked that none of the tops that were sold in his store, none of them have a name on the bottom.
He wanted the people to buy the tops for the appearance and not for the name. And that indicates a difference between the dolls and tops in my teacher’s case. And when he made tops for the collectors, he did that. Not a different top every month because some of them were quite complicated and took a long time to make fifty of one kind. Those he might sign for the collector, because that was a verification that this was Hiroi-sensei’s and that’s an Edo top. But, um, when I was there in the shop that was part of that village, his things were not on the shelves. All of the tops were made by his professional deshi. I don’t…I think it indicated a kind heart of a teacher who wanted his disciples to have equal access to the buying public. And I appreciated his generosity. He didn’t handle the business he was there, they would sit in the kotatsu and talk with him and discuss some new designs. He, for me he made it so I could copy it, but for his professional disciples they had to make it from his words, from his descriptions. And when they’d come back with what they made and then he would pick out that should be a little bit rounder there or something. He would make them do it over if it wasn’t what he was suggesting. So that trained them to listen very carefully. And I was in on some of those sessions, they were exciting to be there, just sitting there and listening to him instruct them.