We are saddened to report that on March 24, 2020, Janell Landis passed away peacefully in her sleep. She was 93 year old. It has been our great honor and pleasure to have known Janell (or Jan, as she liked to be called by friends) and to have been able to spend the time we did learning about her journey building bridges between people in Japan and the United States. She was always full of wonder and joy, and sought to bring that happiness to others. Today we are glad to be able to share a piece of writing on Janell’s life in her own voice: an essay in which she reflects on her early path to Japan and her experiences at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University. She will be greatly missed, and we hope to honor her memory by seeing this project to its completion.
To view the essay in the original Japanese, see the following link: 日本語はこちら
My road to Japan probably began in the fall of 1952 in Toledo, Ohio. That year, as the person in charge of the Christian education program at the E&R (Evangelical & Reformed) Church in Tiffin, Ohio, I attended the joint conference of Northwestern Ohio. At the conference, I heard very moving stories about Japan from the church’s international missions office’s Japan coordinator, who had recently gone there. But my motivation for going to Japan may have come about at an earlier time. It may have started when I received a number of letters from Margaret (“Maggie”) Garner.
After she graduated from the Eden Seminary, she taught English as a Second Language for three years at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University in Sendai, Japan. I was in the midst of my final year at seminary and felt doing a mission in the United States was necessary. But in Maggie’s letters, she wrote about her life and experiences in Sendai at the mission school established in 1886 by the German Reformed Church in the United States [the former name of the E&R Church]. And so Japan was in my heart and my thoughts, and I selected Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University in Sendai to serve my three-year mission term.
Fortunately, at that time I was able to “select” the place I wanted to go from amongst places with historical relationships to my denomination. In the many years since I’ve worked in Japan, church policies have become more strict about serving missions in places with the greatest need, without any consideration for those relationships. However in 1953 I was able to request being dispatched to Miyagi Gakuin. Thus, in March of that year I was able to depart for Japan for a three-year appointment in Sendai working as a teacher at the mission school established through the missionary activities of the German Reformed Church in the United States in northern Japan.
I had worked for two years in Christian education for the E&R Trinity Church in Tiffin, Ohio, until the fall of 1952, just before I departed for Japan. At the Trinity Church, my job was to lead groups for children, youth, and women under the guidance of the senior pastor, and it was a fun and worthwhile experience. However, I realized that my greatest weakness was throwing myself into my work (not taking advantage of teachers and leaders who worked in the church school programs). Unconsciously, I did too much myself, and it was difficult for me to request help from church members. Going to Japan and teaching English as a second language released me from the managerial responsibilities of D.C.E. (Director of Christian Education). However, I did not have any understanding of what that work [in Japan] would entail.
It was fortunate that the ocean liner I was going to board for the 14-day journey to Yokohama was departing from San Francisco. [When I arrived in San Francisco,] Pastor Fesperman, who was retired from the mission in Japan, helped those of us departing for missions in Asia. He arranged a comfortable hotel for me where I could get Japanese food. Also, Matsuzaki Chiyoko, an old friend from Heidelberg University, saw me off, and I was very grateful. She was accompanied by her mother, a first-generation Japanese American (issei), and they came to see off a ship departing for her mother’s hometown. In San Francisco, I got to meet Matsuzaki-san’s mother, and though she only spoke a little English, it warmed my heart.
The President Wilson, which I road as a second-class passenger, was a ship that offered delicious food and the opportunity to meet fascinating people. Until we landed in Honolulu I rode with Adlai Stevenson, who had lost the 1952 U.S. presidential election. From Honolulu, I was accompanied by Chief Abbot Otani, the well-known Buddhist leader of a large temple in Kyoto,and his wife [Satoko] (younger sister to Emperor Hirohito’s wife, the Empress Kōjun).
In addition, on that journey there was also a Baptist female minister (my ping-pong companion) and Gordon and Bertha Van Wyk, a missionary couple from the Reformed Church in America, and their children. The Van Wkys were affiliated with the mission board joint commission that had given aid during Japan’s reconstruction, so my friendship with them continued for a long time during my stay in Japan. They were newly appointed to Tokyo and for many years served Meiji University.
I did puppet shows twice aboard the ship, [something] I had started doing since the winter of 1950. The first time I performed them was for children, and the second time was for an all-ship talent show on the voyage from Honolulu to Yokohama. After the show I received praise from the Otanis, and I haven’t forgotten that kindness.
In Yokohama, Dr. Carl Kriete* and his wife Bess greeted me. They took me in their Japanese car to Tokyo and each time they turned left and right, an interesting arrow (blinker) popped out from the side of the car.** Their house in Shinagawa was the first one I saw in Japan. I stayed there for several days and, during that time Dr. Kriete took me to the embassy for my registration and introduced me to life in his Shinagawa neighborhood. To make sure that could get safely to Sendai, the two of them prepared a list of all of the stops on the way to Sendai and helped me board the Tohoku line bound for Sendai. I don’t recall how long that trip took (6-8 hours?), but when I arrived, there were not only E&R teachers there to greet me, but also many students and teachers from Miyagi Gakuin.
* Spelling uncertain. ** This probably refers to a trafficator, which was used to signal turns in old cars.
I arrived in Sendai in the middle of March, so there was plenty of time for me to settle in at my two-story house in Komegafukuro. This house was also home to two short-term missionary teachers, Lilian and Morrie Marnitz*, who had been newly appointed to Sendai together with William Cundiff, Carl Schweitzer, and James Melchior in the fall of 1952. Lilian and Morrie taught middle and high school at Miyagi Gakuin, Bill Cundiff was a university music teacher, and Jim and Carl were newly appointed to Tohoku University.
What was the reason I dedicated more than 30 years to Miyagi Gakuin, and 42 years of my life to Japan? Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” These words were my home! I read them as part of a recitation on Tuesday, January 12, 2010, in an Upper Room Contemplation written by a woman from Pennsylvania. That day, her contemplation was “There is no one among us is worthy to be close to God. However, all of us are welcomed.”
15 years after retiring– I’ve discovered this!
In March of 1953, when I was appointed to Miyagi Gakuin, the school had already been in operation for 67 years. As a short-term missionary (J-3), I was to serve at Miyagi Gakuin for three years. However, after six months in the classroom with middle schoolers and first and second year college students, I felt in my heart that I had been put on a path to devote the rest of my life to working as a missionary in Japan. After two years studying Japanese in Tokyo (this was an absolute gift from the mission board), I again was appointed to Miyagi Gakuin. My life in Japan had become full of meaning.
The path that was prepared for me was full of joy. Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University, founded in 1886 by two young women who were dispatched from my hometown in Pennsylvania* and Japanese Christians, was large, with [students] from middle school to college level, and with a good reputation. It attracted students from the surrounding six prefectures and from Hokkaido in the north to Tokyo in the south; some students studied there for six years but most of them for as many as 8 to 10 years. Among them were sisters, aunts, mothers, and even grandmothers who were graduates from this famous mission school in northeastern Japan.
*Lizzie R. Poohrbaugh and Mary B. Ault
I began working with the devoted missionaries connected to either Miyagi Gakuin or its related school, Tohoku Gakuin, as well as the other missionaries working directly with Japanese Christian organizations like Japan’s UCC, etc.. (Tohoku Gakuin, too, was established in 1886 as a boy’s school. By the time until I came to Sendai in 1953, the middle and high schools were still boys-only, but the college had opened its doors to female students.)
There was no need for me to embark on a new line of work for the sake of the mission in Japan. As it is written in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand…”—those who come after are surely joyous! I learned many things from my students. My colleagues and missionary companions also taught me many things. Whatever I was able to contribute through my 42 years of work in Japan, was provided by God. That is, establishing this beloved school in Sendai and the faithful church in the Tohoku region— everything I did was possible because of the Holy Spirit of the Creator, led by God’s hand.
“Go to church to pray, go into the world to serve.” When I joined the Good Shepherds E&R Church in my hometown of Boyerstown, Pennsylvania, members would greet each other with this phrase.
This word, “serve,” influenced me throughout my life. Guided by the minister and his wife, I received training at college and seminary, and as someone responsible for Christian education I was able to “serve” in a wonderful church for two years. However, my dissatisfaction with my own lack of management skills gradually grew, and in the end, in order to teach English as a second language I began to consider going to Japan as a short-term missionary. I was appointed to the E&R Church’s international missionary office, and in the spring of 1953 I started work for a 3-year term. Being working with the mission board, working as a teacher at a women’s Christian school, and serving alongside my brothers and sisters were all very satisfying experiences, so I received approval from the mission board and within a year I had become a lifetime missionary. With this, my life began to change.
I had to rethink assumptions I had about life—about its meaning and the nature of social interactions, and beliefs, thoughts and customs I had held for a long time… even my body language. For example, waving one’s hand was not a greeting in Japan but a sign towards children that meant not “Hello!” but “Come here quickly!” As time passed, it became clear that we missionaries were not “serving” Japanese people. In a culture in which the concepts of giri (duty, gratitude) and on (kindness, grace, as well as obligation) exist, human relations are determined by giri and on. Because of this, the way we Christians thought about acts of kindness and charity [giving without expectation of a return] were always understood by the Japanese as returning the favor by giving tangible gifts [giving is an obligation to be returned]. Since “giri” and “on” were the foundation of the culture,I felt as if the act of serving people was understood to be “service,” the same as tipping a waiter or hotel maid.
Before long, I had to deliberately think about serving people. …and the wonderful word sharing became the best word to express my life as a missionary. I was a short-term missionary with very little experience; I’m embarrassed to say that because a lot of time had passed since I left America to serve in Japan.
I then finally understood the words “Go to church to pray, go into the world to serve,” to worship the Creator and serve our Lord.. In Romans 12:11, it is written, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” How we can serve God is very simply and concisely conveyed. Have hope, patiently endure in times of happiness and of hardship, pray without fail, respond to the requests of others, extend your hand to strangers, etc. — how much do we serve God through these acts? The verbs “to do services” and “to extend one’s hand” are acts that share and tie us to others.
How did I come to share while I was in Japan for 42 years? I agree with the words of Julian of Norwich: “God is everything which is good, as I see, and the goodness which everything has is God.” The time I shared with young, middle-aged, and elderly Japanese people brought about so many marvelous things in my life. Although the number of Christians attending church in Japan hasn’t changed– according to religious surveys, they are less than 1% of the population– clearly God is at work in the hearts and minds of many Japanese people outside of the church as well. I think that, after the transmission of Christianity in the 1800s, many people made “connections” to Americans through kindergartens, schools, social groups, and churches, not just at the close of World War II, when the U.S. Occupation shifted to peace-time activities to help relieve many years of suffering and the impoverishment of the people.
When I came to Japan in March of 1953, it was right as the Occupation ended in 1952, and I had set foot into an atmosphere of openness and acceptance. The middle school and junior college I was in charge of longed for fellowship and for the opportunity to improve their English. The success of the Sendai Student Center, established by the first J-3 missionaries who had come to Japan in the late 1940s, was because the students of national universities desired broad social lives as well as meaningful lives and practical abilities in English . Through English conversation, puppet shows, folk dance, and daily group classes, I was able to make meaningful connections with young people at Christian universities, non-religious universities, and various schools. Under the guidance of Jeffrey Mensendiek, the Student Center still exists today, and there one can not only learn about social issues, discrimination, and injustice, but one can visit with other neighbors from Asia, such as those from Thailand, Nepal, and India. He is the only missionary in Sendai from the United Church Board for World Ministries (UCBWM). (As of 2010, he and his sister Martha, who lives in Kyoto, became the only 2 people from UCBWM in Japan.)
I spent my first year at Miyagi Gakuin serving the mission board and working with not only the students of English literature, Japanese literature, and home economics departments, but also middle school and high school students. After that, through the establishment of the kindergarten and junior college education departments affiliated with Miyagi Gakuin, I spent my time with students who wanted to become childcare workers and kindergarten teachers. At the YWCA of the college, middle, and high schools I was able to go out for special programs established by student organizations, summer groups, churches, children’s hospitals, and other facilities.
As teaching staff, I shared teachers’ rooms with Japanese middle and high school teachers, so I was blessed with guidance from teachers of English and faculty from other departments. Much like the delicious tea one drinks while surrounded by acupuncture needles of a charcoal fire, spending time with my colleagues was a special treat.
In the 30 years total I spent at Miyagi Gakuin, as teacher at a well-known school in the Tohoku region, I also received opportunities to speak with other groups outside of the university. For example, “perspectives on Japan from blue-eyed people” was often an everyday topic of conversation, and I also participated in international relations seminars. These opportunities were frequently proposed by graduates of Miyagi Gakuin who worked at various companies. I retired from Miyagi Gakuin in 1985 and was blessed to have the opportunity to work as a cooperation missionary for the Tohoku region’s United Church of Christ in Japan. When I went out to Miyagi, Fukushima, and Yamagata prefectures I was working alone, but was always able to say I had a connection to Miyagi Gakuin.
While I was working at Miyagi Gakuin, through the service of all my posts at schools, I was given many opportunities to serve God. And I became friends with the students and the teaching staff and shared that precious time with them. I also had exchanges that were separate from the school–the church, Sendai’s YWCA, and other groups in Japan. English Bible study, puppet shows, a variety of services at the church, performances, holding fun groups at my home– they were all wonderful opportunities to share my life with virtuous people. And before long, the church I went to regularly offered prayers for my sake. God had given me the gift of these people who worked devotedly to be servants of God in the city and this beautiful countryside church. At the time, through work as a part-time instructor at the middle and high schools in the religion and English Literature departments and as a board member I had a close connection to Miyagi Gakuin.
God is good! God’s family is good! Serve God– is it not joyous to be able to share your life with God’s family?
As the 125th anniversary of Miyagi Gakuin’s founding approaches, I offer my congratulations; in a constantly changing world, I pray that Miyagi Gakuin does not change. May the spirit of love exemplified by Jesus Christ continue, without change, to be part of the fundamental spirit of Miyagi Gakuin.
[Letter from Janell Landis, December 6, 2010]
This school building has a 109-year history, but we are only one part of that. And each of us has graduated from Miyagi Gakuin with different goals, experiences, and memories, but we all received the same promise. When we entered this school built on the principles of Christ, we all received the possibility of a new life founded in Christianity. It was a glorious gift.
In today’s Bible, this new life is written about thoroughly. The first nine or ten verses [of Romans] are a model for a new life. In the ninth verse of the Colloquial Japanese Translation Bible and the Japanese New Interconfessional Translation Bible, the verse is translated as, “In love, there must not be any falsehood” (Romans 12:9). However, I prefer the more positive and simple duty espoused in the English version, “Love must be sincere,” rather than the negative version in the Japanese translation. Verse [12:]10 explains true love: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.” In the New Interconfessional translation, the English phrase “mutual affection” is not translated into Japanese well [as “brotherly love’]. There is definitely no “high and low” in the word “mutual,” and I feel that in “brotherly love” in Japanese there is this sense.
I remembered something recently when rereading the English translation of this section. Regarding love, the writer, Joan Chittister wrote the following:
Life based on the teachings of Christ is living in community. The principles of community are rooted in the spirit of Christ, and you learn from supporting the people you are living with and applying that [knowledge]. The necessary events in a Christian life present themselves as things like, for example, making meals and adequately considering the needs of others, and then preparing for those events, feeling good about making requests, and politely declining others’ assistance.
Christian love also has requirements. For example, using our talents not just for our own family but for strangers as well. For Sister Joan D. Chittister’s idea of love, the most important requirement is to make relationships with others the center of your life. Create community for others, share your thoughts, knowledge, and time with others; share your real feelings with others. And the most important thing is to, with your own power, accept others around you such that they can grow.
While Chittister was a nun in the Roman Catholic Benedictine order, at the same time she was also a missionary for all Christian churches in America, but the community she spoke of did not enter convents. We can make Christian lives [outside convents] in the environment we were provided, in our families; those who are single like me can make Christian lives with our friends and in the places where we work.
Please read Romans 12 carefully. It’s wonderful advice. Chapter 11’s title, in contemporary language is “Keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” It only uses the word “serve” once. Think of others as excellent. Help people; be hospitable to travelers; be joyous with joyful people, and so on. Share with others. If you serve the Lord with spiritual fervor, you will find real love, pure and sincere love, and naturally manifest a Christian society!
So that we can continue to teach young people who learn at Miyagi Gakuin about new, Christian lives, we ask for all our alumni for prayers filled with love.
[[original] summary by the late Emeritus Professor Izawa Yūko]
My dear Matsumoto-sensei,
I heard that last week everyone suffered a terrible earthquake and tsunami, and I am praying that you and all of the staff, teachers, and students at my beloved Miyagi Gakuin have gotten through it safely.
My heart hurts thinking of how so many people have been struck by this kind of enormous disaster, and how, unable to be there, I can do nothing. I am ardently praying. I pray that the reconstruction proceeds quickly and that Miyagi Gakuin is able to pass on the works of that important education. All of our group of retired missionaries is praying for the health and safety of everyone at Miyagi Gakuin. You are in our hearts.
May God’s protection and compassion be upon you all.
March 15, 2011
[A message from Landis-sensei to President Matsumoto]
Hiroi-sensei has also appeared in newspapers as a well-known Edo top maker. Below is a translation of an article entitled “Setting out to restore traditional wooden toys” that ran the newspaper Asahi Shinbun on January 14, 1982. See the original Japanese article at the link below.
In Sendai, there is an artisan whose work appeals to people who love toys made from wood; he continues the restoration of these traditional objects. An artisan turning pulpwood on the lathe and making toys, Hiroi Michiaki (48) is a specialist* even among woodworkers. At the New Year, his “sulking dog (sune inu)” top was brought back.
Hiroi was born in Tokyo’s shitamachi in Honjo Fukagawa. Hiroi is a third-generation [woodworking] specialist ; his grandfather did [woodworking] as a pastime and quit his job as a doctor to become a specialist. Hiroi is an artisan who inherited the tradition of Edo-style wooden toys. He was evacuated [during WWII] to Sendai.
The world of making wooden toys on lathes is vast. Many of the items that Hiroi produces are technically difficult and take a great deal of labor to make. In the time that he could make three kokeshi, he often can only make a single [wooden top]. It takes a month and a half to make about one hundred tops. “I’m deprived of free time,” he laughed. He recalls how to make many of the toys by muscle memory. There are no diagrams or exemplars. One by one, the toys are resurrected from what the body remembers. Asked by a Tokyo-based admirer [to make them], Hiroi began to create the wooden tops with the goal of restoring one hundred types over fifty years. “When the lathe spins, your hands naturally begin to move, and the shape [of the top] appears.”
“The first dream of the new year (hatsuyume)” is [a top with] a falcon spinning at the summit of Mt. Fuji. “Monster (obake)” is one where a monster leaps from a well when the top stops spinning. There are many stylish, refined tops that seem to embody Edo toys. On the stand of the “sulking dog” top for the New Year there is a pattern of a tengu with his [elongated] nose and an okame with her [open] mouth, designed to complement one another. The dog is sulking about their good relationship.
Hiroi’s admirers come to his shop to receive his toys and enjoy conversation with him while playing with the tops. “Everyone is carefree and cheerful.”
* The term used in the article is 紅物師, which is slightly unusual. The 紅 character refers to a deep red color, and akamonoshi 赤物師 (赤 meaning red) is another word for a kokeshi maker. So here the use of 紅 might be a play on characters to mean a much deeper talent.
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.
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
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.
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.
Janell sharing in the ceremony of accepting hand bells she brought to the Miyagi Gakuin junior and senior high school from America.
Janell with three Miyagi Gakuin English Department staff outside the administration building.
Janell speaking to Junior High students at Miyagi Gakuin Joshi Daigaku campus
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.
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.
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.
There are Edo artisans here
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.”
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.
Hiroi-sensei and his apprentices participated in many local community events. Below are photos of them selling their top and kokeshi products at Sendai’s Shimin Matsuri, a local festival, in the 1980s.