By Saneyuki Owada
Japanese Interior Kite
History of Kites
Flying high in skies around the world, kites have connected humans with the celestial dome since ancient times. Throughout history, they’ve served many purposes: as military tools, as instruments that revealed the electrical property of lightning, and as prototypes for the very first aircraft. Today, they’re still flown in many corners of the world as a past time.
Sacred Tool for Rituals – From ancient times to the early 1600s
Like Confucianism and Buddhism, kites – both in design and usage in rituals – are believed be brought to Japan from its supposed origin, China. As their usage spread across the country, they were adapted to the local culture of each region, and were used to pray for prosperity or to celebrate a great harvest of the year. Over the centuries, the shapes and designs of kites diverged to fit their purpose and region: for example, cocoon-shaped kites were used in areas with a strong sericulture, and amounted to over 4,000 designs to date (although most of these unique designs are now lost).
Regardless of the region, however, kites were regarded as highly sacred tools, connecting humans and the gods in the sky. In some villages, only chief priests were allowed to touch the kites; in others, only highly-regarded adult men were.
As the kites were sacred, so were the people who made them. Each kite was designed with colors and angles precisely selected for the purpose – whether to pray for more rain or less of it – based on the classic principles of “qi”, the study of energy flow that is prevalent in traditional Chinese culture. In order to design a proper kite according to its usage, the kite maker required a deep and wide knowledge of the principles of qi, limiting the position to only the highly educated and experienced; a respectable figure in the community.
Household Protection – Late 1500s to early 1900s
As the country experienced turmoil in the late 1500s when powerful warlords unsettled the country with endless wars to unify Japan, the general population could do nothing but to hope for peace. Desperate for security, the people turned to kites – a handy ornament with versatile blessings – and hung them inside their houses for protection. The practice became so popular that in barely a century, almost every household had a protective kite. At the same time, they remained sacred in highly religious rituals around the country.
Children’s Toy – Early 1900s to present
By the 20thcentury when the country was quickly heading towards the world wars, kites were used as propaganda to encourage youths to fight for their country. Kites designed with military motifs were showcased at kite competitions around Japan, shifting the market from ritualistic use to children’s recreation. Today, while a few festivals where kites are flown ritualistically are still held and some households still use them for protection, kites are regarded as children’s toys for a majority of the population. Taco’pe is one of a few traditional kite makers that still produce traditional kites designed with ancient qi principals to bring good luck to their owners.
“It’s an intense process that takes over a week in total,” says Takara Asami, kite maker at Taco’pe, “from the preparation of the materials to the finished product.” However, the process itself may sound simple – cut out thin bamboo sticks and tie them together to make a frame, glue on the paper, draw the design and color it, then tie on a string – the whole process is done by Mr. Asami alone. As many of his kites are custom-made to each customer’s wish, coming up with the proper design alone takes a few days; each angle, color and delicate details are adjusted to maximize the luck brought to the customer. As with any handmade work, each process requires extensive care as well; one small mistake ruins the whole piece altogether. At the same time, Mr. Asami also puts a tremendous amount of his energy, or qi, into each process, from shaving off bamboo splinters to coloring the kite with each brush stroke. “It’s excruciatingly exhausting,” he admits, “but when my customers tell me that my kites brought them good luck, I feel relieved and it was all worth it.”