Japanese Toys at the San Francisco Airport
Author: Bob Johnson
Special thanks to Nicole Mullen and Kelvin Godshall
Official Website: Fly SFO
Photos taken by Bob Johnson
As toy collectors, many fans scour the internet, check on eBay, maybe hit local comic or toy stores and if they are lucky, make the trek to Japan to search out the latest and greatest items on the shelves.
Some delve into the past. paying large sums of money for a toy or two either from their childhood or maybe one that just catches their eye. These toys are usually hard to find and expensive or difficult to come by.
However, if you are a Japanese toy collector, fan or just have a casual interest in the past, you will want to check out “Japanese Toys: From Kokeshi to Kaiju” a new exhibit in, of all places, Terminal 3 of the San Francisco International Airport. The exhibit runs through April 2014 and contains so many vintage and rare items that it is like walking down a path to an amazing display of nostalgia and the crazy, imaginative world of Japan.
The exhibit is located in the departure terminal at SFO, so if you are flying out of Terminal 3 you will be walking right through the glass cases of toys, dolls and even an original Ultraman suit. People unfamiliar with the genre are in for quite a surprise!
I was lucky enough to join the curator of exhibitions for the airport, Nicole Mullen for a tour of the displays and even as a long-time Japanese toy collector and one who has been through many toy stores, both here and in Japan, I was amazed at what I saw!
Cases filled with everything from Kokeshi dolls that originated in the Edo period of Japan, which dates back to the 1600s, to tin toys, wind ups and of course the toys based on Japanese robot shows, ASTROBOY, SPEED RACER, ULTRAMAN, KAMEN RIDER and of course GODZILLA.
According to the description of the exhibit, The Japanese imagination has led to many of the world’s most extraordinary toys. Japanese toys span an unparalleled gamut—from a centuries-long practice of traditional doll making to whimsical folk toys, such as ghostly mechanical kobe figures and papier-mâché guardian dogs. Throughout the prosperous Edo period (1615–1868), many new folk toys originated, including cylindrically shaped, wooden kokeshi dolls, which formed the basis of thriving craft industries. Similar to other folk arts, a toy typically developed through the ingenuity of a single individual or a small group of makers before it spread to other areas and artisans. Such toys reflect Japanese regional customs, legends, history, and locally available materials. Artisans continue to make a great variety of folk toys in Japan. Today, many are sold as souvenirs and collector’s items rather than toys.
During the Meiji period (1868–1912), when Japan opened its doors to the West, the country rapidly transformed into a modern, industrialized nation. At this time, the Japanese began to make toys that emulated their German and American counterparts. Manufacturers made toys from tin, celluloid, and other new materials. As German imports ceased during World War I, the Japanese toy industry flourished. By 1915, Japan offered a variety of toys to Europe and the United States and continued to do so until World War II. Following the war, Japan’s toy industry experienced its golden era, when makers created a kaleidoscope of unique toys for export and home consumption. Classic wind-up and battery-operated toys of the pre- and postwar eras include dancing couples, tinplate cars, and cymbal-clapping monkeys. As Japan continued to prosper in the 1970s, labor costs increased, and fewer export toys were made as many manufacturers shifted their focus to high-tech products.
Japanese movie, television, and manga (comics) inspired legions of iconic character toys. GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS, spawned from the atomic bomb’s aftermath, stormed onto the screen as the premier kaiju or Japanese monster in 1954. ULTRAMAN, a futuristic television series introduced in 1966, featured a superhuman hero who battled a new kaiju each episode. The manga Astro Boy or Mighty Atom, about a child robot, made its debut in 1952 and prompted the first of many animated television programs in the 1960s. Later on, kawaii, which refers to all things cute, became a national obsession. One of the world’s most beloved icons, Hello Kitty, created in 1974 by Sanrio, remains as popular as ever.
“Japanese Toys! From Kokeshi to Kaiju” provides a feast for the eyes and the imagination. This exhibition captures the remarkable evolution of Japanese toys. Kokeshi dolls, menko playing cards, and battery-operated robots are among the quintessential toys on display. Vinyl kaiju figures, Ultraman novelties, and a dress made entirely from plush Hello Kitty dolls are some of the unexpected items on view.
Kelvin Godshall, designer of the displays in the show, tells how the idea came to be. “The exhibition came about when we first began thinking of doing a Japanese folk toys exhibition with California Academy of Sciences. We realized that their collection of folk toys would not be enough to generate an entire exhibition and from there we began thinking, why not show the gamut of Japanese toys? From toys made for the American market to toys inspired by live-action filming and anime, we decided to encompass all of it. We then got in touch with Mark Nagata, who has the largest collection of Ultraman toys outside of Japan. He was willing to lend and also put us in touch with a lot of other local collectors. We drew from a source we regularly borrow from for the toys made for the American market.”
Other items and support were provided by Boss Robot Hobby, California Academy of Sciences, Chizuko Kuroda, Kalim Winata, Kimono My House, Reed Darmon, Rory Yellin, and Sanrio, Inc.
The exhibit can be viewed online for those not in the San Francisco Bay Area at The Fly SFO Museum.
Additional photos of the toys and dolls in the displays can be viewed at The Picasa Japanese Toys online album.
If you are in the area and would like to see the exhibit before it closes (and are not flying out of SFO), you can contact Nicole Mullen at firstname.lastname@example.org
It is very much worth taking time out of your day or arriving early for that long business flight, to visit the exhibit and see the hard work, dedication and of course the amazing items that went into putting this together.
You won’t find any of these at your local Toys R Us!
© 2013 by the San Francisco Airport Commission. All rights reserved.