This piece depicts young women, known as saotome 早乙女, doing rice planting. Traditionally, young women would go out into the rice paddies to plant seedlings in the fields during the rainy season, often wearing red waistcloths and straw hats. Although most rice planting is done by machine now, some places in Japan continue to celebrate this traditional method. Here, the hats and bodies of the figures can be removed and turned into tops.
Hiroi Michiaki: What is this? Ahh, this is rice planting. This isn’t a top, but, –ah, here, wasn’t there another piece here? This. Um, long ago, this is paddy fields and rice planting, and, ahh, ah, ah, isn’t it right about this time of year? A number of people do this, and these are people who are planting the rice, saotome (young female rice planters).
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah.
Hiroi: Were they called saotome? In the past, the rainy season was later than it is now, so when it was rainy, they would plant the rice. So in the paddy fields a number of girls would line up and they’d wear these red waistcloths and plant rice. The top is shaped like that. It’s the same [as that].
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.
バテレン当て独楽 (bateren ategoma) priest roulette-style top
This top depicts a priest. When Catholic missionaries began to enter Japan in the sixteenth century, they were known as bateren バテレン, a word that comes from Portuguese padre, “father.” Most of the first missionaries entering Japan during this time were Portuguese Jesuits. Here, Hiroi-sensei has depicted a sixteenth-century priest with exaggerated frills at his neck to form the base of the roulette-style top, which features Roman numerals. A roulette-style top is a kind of game. Someone spins the handle at the top, and the priest’s long nose lands on the winning number on the base.
Hiroi Michiaki: Umm what was this? What is it called? A bateren [priest]. Yeah. It’s a bateren roulette-style top. I asked Landis-sensei what a bateren was, and she said she didn’t know. It’s sort of what Christians used to be called in the past.
Paula Curtis: Yes. In the sixteenth century.
Hiroi: Ahh, the sixteenth century. That long ago? Hmm…
Paula: Yeah, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Hiroi: Ohhh it’s that old?
Hiroi: Then Landis-sensei wouldn’t know, huh? Heh heh heh. Ahh I see. It’s someone from that time period, and I made a roulette-style top game from it.
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.