Last up date:1999/09/02
Daydreams of Flight

Daydreams of Flight by Tsutomu Hiroi

Shunraku kodomo asobi (Children playing in Spring; Meiji period); by Ishosai Yoshimune
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Kites have been flown in Japan for over one thousand years, and have a powerful historical and cultural resonance. But you don't have to be Japanese for kites' fiercely beautiful designs to catch at your heart. Kites, as aficionado Tsutomu Hiroi recounts, have an extraordinary capacity to enchant.
Japanese kites are famous the world over for their beauty and craftsmanship. Some incorporate designs so exquisite and so striking that they might as well be called works of art. Appropriately, I think, there is a museum in Japan devoted to kites. The Nihonbashi Kite Museum, located on the fifth floor of the Taimeiken restaurant in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, opened its doors to the public in November 1977. The museum is run by Taimeiken owner Shingo Modegi and features among other exhibits his own impressive collection of kites. Visitors to the museum will lean a great deal about the fascinating history of Japanese kites.
Kites first arrived in Japan from China during the Heian Period(794-1192). The Wamyo ruiju sho(c.934, a tenth century dictionary of Chinese characters) defines them thus: "Kami-tombi: Made of paper in the shape of a kite [as for the bird], which rides the wind and flies well ." (The character now used to write "kite" is composed of two elements meaning "wind" and "scrap of cloth," but pronounced tako the word clearly coined to play on the shape of the pre-modern kite: tako also means "octopus.")

Families holding kites bearing their names in front of a large kite (15m x 11m) built to encourage the people of Kobe following the earth quake of 1995. The large character reads "Fukko" (new beginning).
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The popularity of kites spread quickly across Japan, with defferent regions developing their own unique methods of construction and concepts of design. Kites came to take on religious significance - worshippers giving them an iconic status as a link between heaven and earth. And in times of war kites were used as signals or message carriers. By the Edo period (1603-1868), however, kites had shed these ulterior associations, and though they will always be steeped in regional history and culture, had become but a humble national pastime. Many Ukiyo-e (woodblock prints; an artform that emerged early in the Edo period) depict skies full of kites, and woodblock printing techniques were used widely in designing the kites themselves.
Kite' special magic has never led hold. On New Year's Day 1946, for instance, Teizo Hashimoto, a Tokyo kite master, is said to have been awakened by a group of excited children. Hashimoto had been up late the night before making a kite out of a piece of washi (Japanese paper) that he had looked after during the war. The neighborhood children were delighted with the kite he had made and flew it to their hearts' content over the burnt-out remains of the city.
It is customary in many parts of Japan for grandparents to present their grandchildren with kites on Hatsuzekku, a festival celebrating the health and prosperity of children. But Japan's elderly are not the only ones still interested in kites: Japanese children buy thousands of kites each year. The kites might feature traditional designs of birds or historical figures, or perhaps more contemporary images such as characters from comics and television programs. Many of these kites are produced in the Shikoku region, reputation for producing top quality stunt kites.

Floppy Octopus

The Big Kites Museum in Showamachi, Saitma Prefecture, has a collection of 500 kites collected from every region in Japan.
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There is an ancient Japanese legend called Hagoromo-densetsu (robe of theathers) which tells of a fisherman named Hakuriu who discovers the theathery raiment of a heavenly maiden. The maiden asks Hakuriu to return the garment to her; when he does, she rises into the sky dancing evocatively. It is a daydream of flight, a symbol of mankind's longing for the sky.
According to the legend, the event took place in Miho-no-Matsubara in Suruga Province (the eastern half of present-day Shizuoka Prefecture). I once visited the village to film a segment for an NHK industrial science program. On the coast, which offers a superb view of Mt.Fuji, a team of us attempted to bring to kite the line from an old Japanese poem: Tako tako agare/Tenyorimo (Kite, kite, rise up/Higher than Mt.Fuji).
Our kite was painted with an octopus design and fashioned accordingly, eight short legs dangling from two round holes in the lower portion of its body. We called our kite Gunya Gunya Dako, or Floppy Octopus.
The kite was actually several kites in one - a family of kites, if you will. First up was a green "father" kite, followed by a red "mother kite and five small "child" kites, all attached at regular intervals to the same line. After them came string-carrying "Sherpa" kites at 300 meter intervals. Ready to scale the heights of Fuji, we had 8,000 meters of super-strong Kevlar line. The kite climbed steadily to an altitude of about 1,000 meters until it seemed to hit a pocket of still air. When I looked at the kites through binoculars, I could see that the two parent kites were dangling listlessly. I had been worried that the five child kites might drag their parents down if caught in a strong wind, but in fact they saved their parents, pulling them up out of the trouble patch. We were all rather impressed.

A large kite from Yokaichi City. Shiga prefecture. Kites like these often feature both paintings and Chinese characters dotted randomly over the surface. The characters spell out unusual sentences.
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We played out about 4,000 meters of the line, but with the kites flying at an angle of just 35 degrees, that was the best we could manage.

High Flying Diplomacy

In November 1969 I joined with 14 other kite lovers at the Taimeiken restaurant for the first meeting of what is now known as Nihonno takono kai (The Japan Kite Association [JKA]). At that meeting we organized a kite-flying tournament for the following year. About 150 people turned up for that first event, held on the dry riverbed of Tokyo's Tama River, near Futakobashi bridge.
The second tournament, held the same year, attracted 300 people. Now, local governments hold kite-flying tournaments throughout the country. Some offer free kites to the first 2,000 people to arrive.
In the past 25 years, kiting events have helped to bring Japan closer to other countries. One of the first events to do so was held on Kodomono Hi (Children's Day), May 5, 1974, when the Washington Kite Association's David Checkley and his son came to Japan from Seattle to participate in a kite flying festival.

A large kite (15m x 11m) inscribed with the characters for Saino-kuni (better known as Saitama Prefecture) at a festival in Showqamachi.
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The same event featured an 80-mat kite that had been rolled up and trucked all the way to Tokyo from Yokaichi City in Shiga Prefecture. (In Japan, surface area is commonly measured in tatami flooring mats, the average mat being 90 cm x 180 cm.) Checkley continued to lead international kite flying tours to Japan on Children's Day for the next 14 years.
In 1979, ten volunteers from the Shirone Battle of the Giant Kites Association traveled to Seattle to attend a Japan Festival, staying as guests at Checkley's home. On September 16, they successfully flew a 24-mat (39.7 square meters) Yakusha-e kite (featuring a picture of a Kabuki actor in costume) on the shore of Lake Washington. It was the first time that a Japanese kite of that size had ever been flown abroad.
Less than a year later, - March 20, 1980 - members of the Shirone Association set a new Guiness record by flying a 266 square-meter kite. The kite featured the painted face of a Japanese Daruma doll and - though made of an ultra-light material - weighed some 357 kilograms. To launch it, the team suspended the kite from a crane and then released it on command. They succeeded in flying the kite for 20 minutes at a height of about 90 meters. Records are made to be broken, of course, but the following year the Shirone record was simply smashed by two enormous cloth kites - first by 375.56 square-meter kite made in the U.S. and then by a 553 square-meter kite made in Holland. From May 20 - 28, 1981, a 17 member delegation of JKA volunteers and Washinton Kite Association members visited the China Fonten Association in Beijing. Several days later, the first Japan-China Friendship Kite-Flying Festival was held alongside the Great Wall.
The following anecdote symbolizes the spirit of cooperation at the event. When the kite of a Japanese delegate was snatched away by a sudden gust of wind, a young Chinese delegate set out in search of it. The man finally reappeared about an hour later - perspiring and out of breath - and made to return the kite to its owner. The Japanese delegate promptly handed the kite back as a gift.

Artists at a workshop for the Art Kites Exhibition in Torino, Italy.
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It would be impossible to leave any discussion of kites without mentioning the Art Kites Exhibition. Organized by Dr.Paul Eubel and his assistant Ikuko Matsumoto of the Goethe-Institute in Osaka and the first held under the banner Homo Faber, Homo Ludens (Working man, Playing man) in 1988, the exhibition asked a host of world-famous artists to design their own kites, given supplies of washi, and asked to draw whatever they pleased. Their creations were then carefully assembled into kites by Japanese kite masters.
The Art Kite Exhibition opened at the Miyagi Museum of Art on June 11, 1988, and later traveled to the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art. A fine book of photographs of the exhibition has also been published.
The globe-trotting Art Kites Exhibition is surely the greatest accomplishment of Japanese kite makers in this century, for displays and demonstration flights of the exhibition's kites are making a deep impression on people all over the world. If the kite world had its own Nobel Prize, I would award it to the exhibition's brainchild, Dr. Eubel. A kite string may be thin, but he has shown that it is capable of trying people together in peace.