Last up date:2000/03/11

ORIENTAL KITES: A BRIEF HISTORY from "The Art of the Japanese Kite" written by Tal Streeter



MUCH OF THE HISTORY of the past two to three hundred years of Japanese kites and kite festivals follows regional lines of development. The ancient history of the kite as it is known in Japan, however, begins in China and Korea.
The first stories tell of a wooden kite in the form of a dove invented in China by a contemporary of Confucius (551-479 B.C.). Some historians attribute this wooden bird-which may or may not have been a kite to Lord Rohan (or Lu Pan in Chinese), who was a famous craftsman, mechanic, and architect of China. Lord Rohan plays a minor but prestigious role in the charming folk fairy, tale written in the eighteenth century by Rokujiuyen and since translated as The Magical Carpenter Japan. In the story, Lord Rohan comes from Paradise on a purple cloud to escort the magical carpenter back to help in the completion of the splendid Palace of the Moon. The magical carpenter, "full of the spirit of his craft, got beyond mere saw and chisel work, and fashioned the most wonderful creatures of sky and land : birds out of ends of wood and horses out of stabs of timber; in fact he was the marvel of his time."
The carpenter of the fairy tale resembles Lord Rohan, who was a real person, while stories about Lord Rohan sound suspiciously like fairy tales. There are many variations, for example, on the story of his wonderful wooden bird kite. Some relate that the wooden bird flew up and away into the sky, never to return. In another tale, told in a more realistic and Confucianism mode, it is reported that the bird kite had only limited success-that is, Rohan profited from the knowledge gained by his failure. Perhaps we hear the ring of truth  in such prosaic storytelling. The question that naturally arises of whether the wooden dove was a mechanical bird or a kite on a line is virtually irresolvable. Popular acceptance of the device as a kite, however, may be a reflection of the difficulty we would be facing if we credited Rohan with the invention of the airplane.
Given the fact that the ancient Chinese were diligent historians, we might expect that this work by a well-known figure would be carefully documented. unfortunately, however, most of the volumes of history written around this period were destroyed. They were burned by Shih Huang Ti, or the "First Emperor," of the Chain dynasty (25&-207 B.C.) in an attempt to ensure that only his history, the history of Chain, would remain.
It is in the period immediately preceding Shih Huang Ti's reign that kites probably made their first appearance. The earliest written attribution for the invention of the kite does not occur, however, until the Liu Sung, or Former Sung, period (A.D. 420-79). In a book called Shih Wu Chi Yuan it is noted that in 200 B.C. Han Hsin, a famous statesman, adviser, and general to the first emperor of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 7), invented the kite for the purpose of measuring the length of a tunnel needed to broach the walls of an enemy palace. This is the most widely accepted version of the kite's invention. There are, however, several elaborations on this story.
The favorite version of children calls attention to Han Hsin's unusually diminutive size, which was close to the stature of a child. In this tale, Han Hsin had himself tied to a large kite during a campaign against enemy armies and then was flown over the enemy camp at night. From this frightening object passing over their heads in the darkening sky, the soldiers below heard a command telling them to return to their families. They were needed at home, the voice warned, and would die if they remained. Many of them fled, and the next day Han Hsin and his soldiers easily routed the few remaining frightened and demoralized enemy. Of the many kite shapes favored by children that have evolved in China, one is that of a man with wings. On it, perhaps in reference to Han Hsin's small size and in homage to his great intellect, sometimes appears the legend, "Strength of mind is greater than strength of body."
The children's version may be an amalgamation involving another general, this one still loyal to the Chain court, who attempted to unsent the Han emperor Liu Pang. This unfortunate general, when surrounded by the superior strength of the Han army, devised the scheme of attaching tautly bowed strings to his kite. The kite was flown into the wind at night over the Han camp, and its bowed strings shrieked and howled in a most terrifying manner, causing the Han forces to retreat in terror. "Hummers" modeled on this principle are still used in China and Japan. (The Chinese word for kite interestingly enough is feng cheng, or " wind harp," as the Chinese kite is commonly flown with hammers or reed pipes.) The name "hummer" is a misnomer; the unearthly shrieks and wails produced by this device still frighten poor souls out of their wits. As a testament to their unpleasantness - which only increases the pleasure of the flyers - hummers have frequently been outlawed by Japanese municipalities. As late as World War II, they were banned because their screaming sound was too easily mistaken for that of falling bombs.
In Korea, in the middle of the fourteenth century, a famous general was sent to Cheju Island off the southern coast to quell a farmers' rebellion. "When his fleet sailed close to the island, near the enemy castle of Ziza-song, he found that the coast was so steep and rough that there was no place where his soldiers could land. So he conceived the idea of launching fire-carrying kites from the ship over the enemy castle," writes Sang-su Choe in The Surly Korean Kites. Another version of this story suggests that he flew his men on big kites directly from the ship over the castle walls.
The most reliable compilation of ancient Korean history is one of Koreans earliest books Samsuk Sagi, or History (the Three Kingdoms, written in A.D. 1145. The book documents an event that took place in the seventh century. Its authenticity is reasonably certain ; "In the first year of Queen Zindong, the 2 8th ruler of the Silla dynasty, there was a revolt by Bi-dam and Yom-zong. Gim Yu-Sin [A.D. 596-637], a famous general, undertook a mission to subdue the rebels. During this military operation, one evening it happened that a large star suddenly appeared and fell toward the earth near the caste named Wol-song. It was generally believed in those days that a falling star was a bad omen, especially during wartime.
It meant that terrible bloodshed and disaster would come. So the people and soldiers began to feel uneasy. To make the situation worse, rumors went around that where the star had fallen terrible bloodshed would ensue and their queen would be defeated. This made the people and soldiers extremely nervous and uneasy. It seemed to be very difficult to control the agitated public. General Gim Yu-Sin thought that he had to find some means of carrying a fireball high up in the sky, and let it disappear. A kite could do this. One evening a fireball going up into the sky was seen by the people who believed that the fallen star had gone back to heaven. With the soldiers' morale boosted, General Gim Yu-Sin was able to control the public and destroy the rebels.
Firecrackers hanging from the tails of Chinese kites are commonplace even today. Long-burning fuses or punk cause them to explode at erratic intervals long after they have left the ground. I have never heard of anyone attaching firecrackers to kites in Japan, although I don't doubt that it has been done, for the Japanese love fireworks.
There are innumerable instances in the Far East of kites being used for military purposes. They were frequency employed as signals. For example, in the first century A.D., a Lying-dynasty emperor, while under siege in his palace, sent kites flying up over the battlements in a prearranged signal for help. As his message was relayed across the countryside, more kites appeared in the fields nearby. Soon a rural army appeared and dispelled the attackers. Such signal kites, with noisy hammers or reed pipes attached, would not be overlooked by people bent at their work in the fields. Kites had other martial uses. Secret messages were commonly sent by them, and they carried food and supplies to the defenders of besieged castles. Large kites capable of carrying a man were flown over castle walls as a means of escape for those trapped by enemy forces. They also provided lofty platforms from which enemy activities could be observed. One wonders at the success of such ventures. In spite of the obvious dangers, all of them were possible with the help of luck and divine winds.
THE CULTURE OF CHINA spread to Japan in two waves from two of China's richest dynasties. The first wave, which arrived around 200 B.C., brought rice farming, bronze, and iron to Japan, which was still in its stone age. At that time the Han dynasty was to the East what Rome was to the West. The second wave occurred around A.D. 500. During this period, that of the Twang dynasty (618-907), China was the richest, strongest, and most advanced country in the world, East or West. Japan eagerly accepted Twang culture and for two centuries, things Chinese were eagerly sought after : principles of government, civil law, literature, arts, and Buddhism. Buddhism was a missionary religion that had moved from India into China via the Silk Road. Now it moved farther east to Korea, and through Korea into Japan. Traveling with Buddhism, and in its service, were Chinese and Korean artists : bronze casters, sculptors, lacquerers, metal workers, carpenters, calligraphers, painters... and, most likely, kite makers.
When they arrived, Japan was predominantly an agricultural community. Wind, sun, rain, and the cycle of the seasons were at the heart of its institutions. The emergence of a court (the ancestors of the present imperial family), the introduction of Buddhism, and the centralization of government in Nara fostered the growth of the arts. The immigrant artists who came to Nara needed many assistants to help them with their work. These assistants were drawn from among the young men of Japan's lower classes, generally sons of poor farmers who might otherwise have remained victims of the harsh rural life. Some of the new assistants were no doubt also attracted to the bustle of activity around Nara. It was not only Japan's first capital, but its first actual city as well. What the young men brought with them were the sensitivities and skills of farmers so useful to an artist : familiarity with tools intimacy with nature, and that feeling for life itself that has to be implied in inanimate objects of art. Working side by side with the immigrant masters, these eager apprentices quickly showed an aptitude for their new work. They were, in fact, the precursors of the main streams of Japan's art.
We may theorize that kites came to Japan during the Nara period (649-794). From the sixth through the eighth century, many Japanese intent on studying Buddhism closer to its roots traveled to China, while continental Buddhists came to Japan. Somewhere along the way a kite was brought to Japan. The kite seems a humble enough object that it need not have been seriously related to Buddhism or to the early Nara craftsmen. But because Buddhist priests at a much later date used kites for religious purposes, it is possible that the kite was associated with the early Buddhist missionary work. The early use of kites in China and Korea for military purposes demonstrates that kites were not taken lightly during this period of history. No doubt one who knew the secrets of kite making was held in high regard and had disciples and apprentices as did the other artists of the period. But this is all guesswork. The only fact we are left with in the end is that there is no known documentation of the kite's introduction to Japan. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica blithely concludes after having attributed the kite's invention to the West, "but they have been in use among Asian peoples from time immemorial."
The first book in Japan to record the word "kite" was the dictionary Wamyo Ruiju Sho, compiled by Minamoto Shitago in A.D. 981. Kites were the called kami tobi, or paper hawks. This suggests that they were shaped like birds. Chinese kites of this period are most generally recorded as being rectangular, although there may have been earlier bird kites, as the "wooden dove" story suggests. Bird, insect, human, and dragon kite forms became quite common in China and Japan. Korean kites, on the other hand, modeled on the early rectangular Chinese kites, remained exclusively rectangular (with a large hole cut out of the center to aid stability).
There is a variety of regional words for kite in Japan today. One of these, tako (and its variant form dako) may be translated as either "kite" or "octopus". The written characters for kite and octopus are different, but when the words are spoken they are indistinguishable, except from their context. The choice of a spoken word for kite that was already being used for octopus is an an instance of a play on words that refers to one of the early kite shapes based on the form of the octopus. The large body is the kite proper, and its eight tentacles are the paper tail that writhe realistically in the breeze. Ika ("squid") is an altenative term for kite, as is ika nobori ("squid banner"). In Nagasaki an early word for kite was ago, from ago-bata, or flying fish. The kite form was that of a fish. Another term used in Nagasaki was komori-bata, or flying bat. Bata, from batabata, may be more specifically translated as "flapping or fluttering wings." The present word for kite in Nagasaki, hata, translates as "flag" or "banner." Tako, however, is by far the most commonly used designation surviving today throughout Japan. Tako is a Tokyo dialect word. It has been suggested that it may be a play on the word "Tokyo", a reference to kite's close identification with Tokyo in the eighteenth century, when kites streamed out of the capital city to delight the rest of the country.


KITES HAVE NEVER stood alone in Japan, but have always been associated with festivals, holidays, and other special occasions for celebration.
Before the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth century, the chief feature of the native Japanese religion was worship of the mysterious powers that were believed to rule nature. On appropriate occasions the people offered rites to the gods of nature, praying for benevolent weather and plentiful crops. With the passing of time, it became the custom to observe a festival in the spring and autumn. The formal religion of Shinto evolved out of rites at such festivals. With the introduction of Buddhism, Shinto did not disappear; instead the two became complementary religions. Once again hypothesizing, it seems likely that Buddhist priests from China and Korea first introduced their countries' kites into Japan's religious festivals. Just who introduced them is open to speculation, but as late as the end of the seventeenth century kites were still closely associated with religious festivals. From the atmosphere and circumstances of the Nara period, which was intensely religious, we may deduce that Japan's kites were most likely associated with religion first, and only later with secular activities.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, kite history is more certain. Kites then were flown as invocations for a rich harvest. Buddhist priests also held that the kite's flight could predict the success or failure of a forthcoming crop, a kind of divination. With the coming of autumn, Festival kites were flown as thanksgiving offerings for a plentiful harvest. In some areas it was the custom to tie stacks of rice to the kite as a kind of symbolic offering of thanks.
Priests customarily gave their blessing to all such kites. In some religions, kites could be purchased at temples and shrines as charms against sickness and misfortune. Whether or not they were efficacious, such charms often degenerated into kites too small and too heavy to fly. Kites may also have been flown as a part of other religious services, and it will be remembered from the chapter on the giant Hoshubana kites that Buddhist priests helped spread knowledge of the use of kites for predicting weather.
Other kites not nominally connected with religion but frequently given to worshipers by Shinto and Buddhist priests were congratulatory kites. These kites were given to the parents of firstborn sons. Such kites were also given by the chord's grandparents and by friends or town offcials, depending on the status of the family. These kites bore appropriate messages or paintings of folk heroes or of the gods who would protect and guide a newborn son toward a good and prosperous adulthood. Kintaro, Golden Boy, was one of the favored pictures for these congratulatory kites. Kintaro, also called Kintoki, was abandoned in a mountain forest by a family so poor that they could not raise him. He was adopted by bears and grew up to be one of Japan's strongest and most valiant men. On kites, Kintaro's round red face is often paired with a picture of a carp, another symbol of strength and bravery because it must swim upstream to propagate its species .
Japan's New Year kites have been flown from some unrecorded moment in the past until the present as symbolic offerings of thanks for the benevolence of the gods in the past year and hope for a good new year (Plate II&). For some kite flyers the past year may have brought a firstborn son. And others may have flown a kite out of gratitude for nothing more than still being alive. On New Year kites appear Kintaro ; the crane and tortoise (the former is said to live a hundred years ; the latter, a thousand) ; Fukusuke, a large-headed dwarf; Daruma, the Buddhist sage whose legs withered away in nine years of meditation; countless brave warriors of history and mythology; and menacing, fierce oni demons or ogres.
In Korea, New Year kites are flown for the first fifteen days of the first moon. Shortly after that time, a kite is flown with the message, "Bad luck away, good luck stay." This kite is flown out to the end of its string, and then both kite and string are released. The freed kite takes with it all the bad luck its owner might have been destined to endure during the forthcoming year. Such a kite will not be picked up if found, for fear of acquiring misfortune. Bad luck is left to disintegrate with the kite through the winter winds and snows.
The same tradition prevailed from the first to the ninth of September in China. Anyone finding a fallen kite after the ninth was required by custom to burn it.
Although festival and religious kite lore in Japan was not well documented until the beginning of the eighteenth century, when kites are mentioned frequently, we may guess that ceremonial usage of them began much earlier, perhaps as early as the sixth century.
Within the past two to three hundred years what has emerged is a transition from the deeply religious to the quasi-religious, with religion's patronage or sponsorship being replaced by the secular pleasure of kite flying.
Japan's religions have always had close ties to nature, the seasons, and growth cycles. Speaking broadly, they have been characterized by benevolence and pleasure rather than wrath and penance. When kites were employed in religious ceremonies, they functioned as pleasurable intermediaries between the sacred and the profane. In recent times, what has remained of the sacred are scraps of ceremony and token vestiges of past observances. A1though the kite may still appear on a festival or religious holiday, a Japanese today, unless he is very old, does not accept the direction a kite falls out of the sky as a prophecy of the year's rice crop. And the Japanese child receives the good wishes of a New Year kite much as a Westerner accepts a birthday or Christmas present.
Nevertheless, the kite still stands as an intermediary between the religious and secular spheres, only now its links are much closer to the latter. This shift mirrors the general tendency among postwar Japanese in their daily life to place Oar more emphasis on secular affairs than on those of a religious nature. It should be noted, however, that distinctions between these two kinds of activity are seldom so marked in Japan as they are in the West; and so there is much overlapping of the two. In any case, it appears that something of the original religious purpose of the kite as viewed by the early priests has remained through the centuries to the present day-that of providing wholesome pleasure.


THE JAPANESE FESTIVAL incorporating congratulatory kites and harvest thanksgiving evolved into yet another kind of activity, that of kite fighting. Although kite fighting appears to have been well established in China and Korea by the time kites entered Japan, it does not seem that this custom was immediately taken up by the Japanese. Kite fighting, because it can bring about loss of face, in Japan may have required an unintentional match to get started.
Or perhaps an extremely disgruntled flyer was goaded into crossing strings with a neighbor's kite, unceremoniously pulling it down out of the sky. Its origins aside, kite fighting never gained widespread popularity in Japan, but. where it did catch on, the enthusiasm of the participants knew no bounds. As a release from the formality of Japanese society and the harsh conditions of rural life, it provided a much-needed outlet.
Kite fighting followed basically the same combative pattern in Japan, India, China, and Korea : generally small, highly maneuverable kites were attached to strings partly coated with powdered glass (when it was available), sharp sand, or ground pottery, and sometimes scythelike knife blades. A kite fighter tried to bring another kite down out of the sky by skillful maneuvering. By crossing the opponent's kite line with his own and moving it back and forth, he could wear away or cut the other kite's flying line. At this point the loser's kite floated away free, while the victor proclaimed his invincibility and challenged all bystanders. In Japan, Nagasaki flyers are the most notable proponents of this type of fighting. Kite fighting there, as we saw earlier, dates from the early seventeenth century.
Kite battles take place any time during the flying season in India, China, Korea, and Japan. In Japan, the informality and small kites that characterize kite flying in the other three countries seem to cave evolved into well-organized festival fighting with the participants flying increasingly larger kites. Nagasaki is the only district I know of where one might still consider a kite flying alone in the sky as an invitation for another to attack it. Local customs, fun, or devilishness, however, could prevail to keep informal kite fighting alive though undocumented in many other areas.
Although kites are traditionally associated with boys, young girls today may also fly kites. At big kite festivals, girls may also help with the flying. This happens in Shirone, where informality is the rule, but not in Hamamatsu, where kite flying is highly organized as a kind of male gymnastics.
In Japan, where large areas of open space are virtually nonexistent, finding a place for informal kite flying can be a challenge. At the New Year, if the rice paddies are not planted with another crop, the hard ground is suitable for a kite-flying field. In the summer, however, either rice is maturing or the rice bed is still muddy. In either case if a kite flyer runs along the high, narrow paths of the paddy dikes, he faces the unpleasant prospect of a fall into mud or rough rice stubble. As the most popular alternative, Japan's wide riverbeds generally contain dry areas during most of the year. These riverbeds are the most favored locations for kite flying, particularly for city dwellers. For people fortunate enough to live beside the sea or ocean, the sandy beaches and ocean breezes are ideal for kite flying.


THERE IS A FASCINATION with the very small and the very large in the East. In Japan, an artist is said to have been greatly admired for having carved sixty-six monkeys from a single peach pit. In India one may still buy a tiny shell filled with one hundred ivory elephants so tiny that they must be identified with the aid of a magnifying glass. Chinese miniatures are well known. The great woodblock artist Hokusai (176o-1849) once painted a portrait of Daruma sixty feet high, and also drew two sparrows on a single grain of rice. Having proved his skill in the two extremes of scale, his ordinary-sized works could hardly be questioned. In Japan, every kite maker offers tiny replicas made to fly-of his regular-size kites. And those I visited always mentioned that they had at one time or another been commissioned to make giant kites.
Giant kites have never failed to capture the imagination of the Japanese. In the late seventeenth century large kites were employed on one occasion for lifting tiles to the roof of a great temple. More romantically, and perhaps taking his inspiration from the practical tile-lifting kite, the daring robber Kakinoki Kinsuke (also known as Kakinomura Kinsuke) in 1712 had himself tied to a kite and flown to the roof of Nagoya Castle in an attempt to steal the golden dolphins (valued at about half a million dollars)at either end of the ridgepole course. Legend says that he was successful in pulling off some of the dolphins golden scales; history, however, records that he and his family were boiled in oil for his numerous crimes.
An earlier legend of someone riding a giant kite says that in the twelfth century Minamoto no Tametomo (a hero of the famous Genji clan) and his son were exiled from the capital, then in Kyoto, to Hachijo, the outermost of the seven Izu Islands. Tametomo is supposed to have attempted to return his son to the mainland via a big kite (Plate 114). There is a tiny body of land within 4 miles of Hachijo, the next nearest island is So miles away, and the mainland itself is 108 miles distant. I mention these distances not in skepticism, but in an attempt to consider seriously the plausibility of an adventure now clouded in legend. I heard of Tametomo and his son often from a number of sources, but no one ever mentioned the feat as a real possibility. From my point of view, flight to the nearest island would have been extremely difficult but not impossible. The people who live on Hachijo are still aroused by the legend, for big kites appear there periodically and the Hachijo kite traditionally carries a picture of Tametomo and his quiver of arrows.
There are similar stories involving unfortunate men, exiled prisoners who were forced to work in the gold and silver mines of Sado Island in the Japan Sea. In this case man-carrying kites would have required a flying line 15 miles long to reach the mainland. Again, difficult but perhaps not impossible.
A man-carrying kite would have to be big, but there have been some far larger than is necessary for the task. At least one was large enough to carry a man, together with his wife and child, and perhaps even a small grandmother. Though it in fact did not take on passengers, the largest kite in the world until its demise in igi4 was known as the wanwan (Plate 74), which was made and flown in the city of Naruto in Shikoku.
This kite was the apotheosis of Japan's ability to enlarge things normally associated with a modest scale to a size almost beyond comprehension. Reports of the actual size of giant, out-of-the-ordinary objects in Japan tend to be quite contradictory. This is not surprising, for one is hard pressed for accuracy or a point of reference when confronted with such unbelievable size. The following figures, with attendant qualifications, are, I believe, reliable : The wanwan kite, made of bamboo and paper, came in a variety of sizes from small to giant. The largest version was sixty-three feet in diameter; its shape was round but slightly flattened on the horizontal. This kite, together with its bridle and tail, weighed 8,800 pounds. Depending on the wind, 150 to 200 men were required to fly it. The great kite was flown annually in a summer festival from the middle of the nineteenth century until 1914. Eyewitnesses to the wanwan festivals over the years variously reported that the kite was sixty to sixty-five feet in diameter and weighed from as little as 1,700 pounds to as much as 5,500 pounds. In fact, the size of the giant wanwan varied from year to year. Also, large numbers of kites of different sizes were flown from day to day in the same festival period. The apparent discrepancies in weight can be accounted for by the varying sizes as well as by the inclusion or exclusion in the total of the weight of the bridle and flying line. Thirty-five to one hundred separate bridle lines, depending on the kite's size, would have been required. These lines add considerably to a kite's weight, and as a kite is actually lifting this weight, it is not unreasonable to count the bridles and flying line in the total weight of a kite. The wanwan required a huge tail to help stabilize its flight; the largest wanwan required one five hundred feet long that was made from lengths of heavy ship rope.
Strong sea winds carried the huge kite aloft. Retrieving it was even more difficult than sending it skyward. The winch that let out the heavy flying line was held securely by virtue of being buried deep in the ground. Winch-reeling it in, however, was often impossible. An alternative was to walk it in ; that is, using a technique whereby the flyers walk down the line toward the kite, in this way shortening the flying line and causing the kite to come down. Not infrequently, the wind was too strong for the kite to be safely retrieved even with the combined strength of two hundred men. In such cases it had to be left flying until the wind died, allowing it to fall back to earth of its own accord.

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