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Hiroi-sensei on the significance of his work

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.

Paula: Okay.

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.


Janell and her collection at home in 2013.

2013年4月、テネシー州プレザント・ヒルに住むジャネル・ランディスの友人、ジェーン・ヘラルドは日本のアートについてGoogleで検索した。たまたま見つけたのが、ミシガン大学の大学院博士課程に在籍し中世日本の職人の歴史について研究している学生、ポーラ・カーティスが運営するブログ ”What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies? (日本研究の学位があると何ができますか?)”※だった。「日本の江戸独楽のコレクションを安心して預けられる場所を探すのを手伝ってくれないかしら?」ジェーンからの最初のメールだった。

ジェーンの隣人であり友人でもあるジャネル (88歳)が日本の宮城県仙台市にある宮城学院女子大学で(1953年から)30年以上教師をしていたこと、その間に江戸独楽を専門とする工芸職人、廣井道顕氏に弟子入りしていたことをジェーンは説明した。江戸独楽は独特な様式の伝統的な木製の独楽で、日本で歴史が長い。 ジャネルは日本で生活していた歳月の中で廣井氏の作品である独楽を100個以上も集めていた、どこか独楽を寄贈できる博物館を見つけたいと思っていたのだが、どこも見つからない。『どこかジャネルのコレクションを引き取ってくれる博物館を紹介してくれないかしら?それか、何かほかにできることがあれば教えてくれない?こんなに綺麗なものを物置に押し込むようなことしたくないのよ』



※”What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?”(日本研究の学位があると何ができますか?)は日本研究をしている学生や日本研究に関わったことのある人たちが、留学・研究・仕事などを通して経験したこと、日本の文化や習慣なども含め、あらゆる情報の交換を目的として記事を提供しているブログ。



Media post: Interviewing Janell in 2013

Janell and her collection at home in 2013.

In April of 2013, Jane Heald, a resident of Pleasant Hill, Tennessee, and friend of Janell Landis, took to Google for help on information about Japanese art. By chance, she stumbled across What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?, a blog run by Paula R. Curtis, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan working on the history of medieval Japanese artisans. “Can you help us find a home for a beautiful collection of Japanese Edo Tops?” her email began.

Jane explained that her neighbor and friend Janell (88) taught at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University in Sendai, Japan for over thirty years (beginning in 1953), and during that time was apprenticed to Mr. Michiaki Hiroi, an artisan who specialized in Edogoma 江戸独楽. Edogoma, a particular style of traditional wooden spinning top, have a long tradition in Japan. As it happened, Janell collected over a hundred of Hiroi’s tops over the course of her time in Japan, and though she hoped to find a museum to donate her collection to, thus far they had no luck. “Could you recommend another museum that would like to receive her donation? Or advise us another way to proceed? These beautiful objects shouldn’t be suddenly shoved into storage on short notice,” Jane wrote.

In full agreement, Paula contacted several colleagues, but worried about the time it might take to find a museum willing to accept the donation. She then contacted public historian Malina Rose Suity to discuss the possibility of an oral history project that would both preserve Janell’s unique history with the collection and promote it to potential museums. In October of 2013, Paula and Malina were invited to Janell’s home in Pleasant Hill, where they conducted interviews with Janell over the course of three days and were introduced to her beautiful top collection.

These are photos of the interview trip at Janell’s home, where she showed Paula and Malina her collection and how to spin her tops.

Media Post: Photographs of Hiroi by AriTV メディアポスト:AriTV撮影の廣井先生

These are photos of Hiroi-sensei taken by ariTV, a high-quality internet-based television station supporting the promotion of events and cultural traditions of the Sendai area. 


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.