Last up date:1999/04/17
The Tosa Dako of Japan

The Tosa Dako of Japan was written by Pierre Fabre on the Kite Lines, Spring-Summer 1997.


Relatively few travelers to Japan include Shikoku in their plans. The smallest of the nation's four main islands, this mountainous land is served only by secondary railway lines that run through steep valleys.
However, kite devotees will discover in Shikoku a great diversity of traditional kites, such as the famous wan-wan, the fighting kite of Ikazaki and the Tosa dako, a little-known design that seems a clear antecedent of the delta kite.

The Tosa's homeland

The kite takes its name from the vast bay of Tosa on the south side of the island, within the Kochi prefecture. Dark green mountains descend to a plain of virulent green paddy fields on the Pacific Ocean. Tea plantations spread across the base of hills, and houses built in the traditional style, with gleaming, gray-toed roofs, add the final touch to this peaceful Japanese countryside.
This area is known best for its washy, the handmade paper widely used in Asian kitemaking. The Tosa dako is made from this material and bamboo spurs.
On a splendid day in late May, I took a train to Tosa Yamada, admiring from the window dozens of Koinobori floating in the morning breeze. These colorful carp windsocks are hoisted on tall poles to celebrate the holiday known as Children's Day, and remain displayed for several weeks, along with tall, painted banners typical of this area.
Ryosetsu Shimamura, an expert maker of the Tosa kite, met me at the station and provided a guided tour of the nearby town of Kagami, birthplace of this kite.

Delta-like features

The square-sailed Tosa is a remarkable flier that performs like a delta. Even in light breezes, it climbs to a high altitude and flies at a steep angle.
Its structure is also that of a delta: a spine, two leading edge spurs and from one to three wing-spreaders across the back, the number depending on the size of the kite. The largest I saw was about 20 feet wide, but seven feet is considered the regular size.
The kite is bridled and has no keel. A standard size Tosa has five to six long bridles measuring at least 1.5 times the length of the spine. The longer the bridles, the better the kite will fly in strong winds. The kite can be flown without a tail in light winds.
The spurs are made of carefully selected unsplit bamboo, except on the smallest kites, for which split bamboo is shaved into tri-angular sections. The thinner end of each wing spar is toward the nose of the kite, and the nose end of the spine is Lent backwards to create fore-and-aft dihedral, as often used in fighter kites. This prevents the kite from diving when going for a glide.
Shimamura explained that the best sticks are obtained from 10-year-old bamboo that has been dried for at least one year. Because the wings must be symmetrically flexible, the leading edge spurs should be "twin" sticks of bamboo cut from the same root and matching in diameter. The length between the bamboo nodes must match, too.
The kite sail is always made from traditional washi. Several small sheets are glued together and the overlaps between them act as natural reinforcement grids.
Before being glued to the sail, all sticks except the spreaders are wrapped in paper tape, to provide a better grip when glued onto the washy.
Traditionally, as I learned, flying a Tosa celebrated the birth of a newborn son in a rich farmer's family. For these styles (known as mon-dako), the chord's fancily crest is painted onto the sail in black ink and red dye. These designs are strikingly elegant in the sky, and can be read even from great distances.
Nowadays, kites are just as often decorated with calligraphy(ji-dako) or colorful figurative paintings (e-dako). Shimamura, who went to art college, paints his kites in a variety of styles : some inspired by traditional designs derived from ukiyo-e art and others influenced by modern comic strip images.
Large Tosas are launched carrying a bundle (yakidashi) tied at the bottom of long rice straw tails (waranawa). Once they have reached a high altitude (approximately 1,000 feet), a long white paper ribbon (the jaara) drops from the bundle attached to the tail. As if flutters toward the ground many smaller kites attack it, trying to snag a piece of the ribbon and keep it caught on the flying line as the kite is pulled down to the ground.
A dozen numbered pieces of paper, like raffle ticket, are glued at regular intervals along the length of the ribbon, and these can be redeemed for prizes, such as a bottle of sake or a snack of dried squid (delicious together!). Thus, capturing the longest piece of ribbon offers the best chance for prizes.
The unlucky few who fail to catch a ribbon or bring back a piece of ribbon with no number win nothing.
The bundle flown by the large kites also contains about 50 small stamped cards, which drift to the ground when the bundle opens. Children run to collect these, which may be exchanged for a cup of hot noodles.
To snare a piece of ribbon, the smaller attacking kite is maneuvered to its line first crosses the ribbon, then is drawn upwind to make the cut and leave the severed section draped on the attacking kite's line. No cutting line is involved in the game; all the kites are flown using traditional flax(linen) line. The paper ribbon is reinforced by a very thin taped along it and made slightly harder to cut by slight wrinkling.
The attack is made more difficult by the numbers of small competing kites floating around the tail. A total of 30 large kites are flown during the festival, but no more than three at a time.
The Tosa dako saved

Fifteen years ago, the Tosa dako was gradually fading from view, but an association was formed to receive it. Now, some 50 local kitefliers attend the festival, which is held in fields from which one can see a European-style castle on top of a nearby hill. (now a museum, I was told, the structure was brought here stone by stone from Austria in the 1970s!) Nobody knows exactly when the Tosa was invented, but Shimamura said it is at least 200 years old, and probably derived from kites imported from Kyushu as early as the 17th century, such as the Nagasaki hata.
Although it has no keel, the Tosa dako obviously should be classified in the same family as the delta, which is often said to have been developed in the late 1940s and early 1950s in the United States.
Just as Baden-Powell developed hexagon-sjaped kites with no knowledge of the Japanese rokkaku, it is likely most Western kitemakers developed delta variations having never encountered the Tosa dako.
Once again we find evidence that the East is the true birthplace of kites. Anonymous Malaysian, Chinese, Indonesian and Japanese kitemakers should be acknowledged as the first creators of many "inventions" later claimed and patented by Westerners.