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The 'Little Treasures' of Japanese Art


Nowadays it is quite common to hear that kids are spoilt and overindulged. Things were certainly different in the past, or were they? The current exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum, focusing on children in Japanese art, suggests that, although less pampered in previous ages, youngsters have always occupied a special place in Japanese hearts.

The 177 works on display include everything from Buddhist statues and picture scrolls to kimonos, toys, and woodblock prints. The earliest items on display are clay tablets from the Jomon period (ca.10,000 - 300 B.C.) stamped with the impressions of children's hands and feet. One important difference between today and the distant past was the much higher infant mortality rate. It is thought that these clay tablets were therefore meant to be worn as amulets to project children and to ward of evil and disease.

In this respect they are similar to the hina dolls that are still displayed in most Japanese households to pray for the happiness and good health of young girls every year in the period leading up to the Hina Matsuri on March the 3rd. Originating from nagashibina, floating dolls of straw or paper that were rubbed on the body to absorb bad luck and then thrown into rivers or the sea, hina dolls became formalized into representing an emperor and empress and several court figures dressed in elaborate Heian period costume. The several examples on display date from the Edo period range from a pair of rudimentary wooden dolls from the Ryukyu Islands to some dolls too elaborately decorated for anyone to ever think of throwing them in the river. Even more impressive than the hina dolls are some of the exquisite accessories made for them. These include tiny pieces of furniture and implements, such as mirrors and trays, beautifully decorated with a golden pine and peony arabesque pattern in maki-e lacquer.

Although connected with children, these dolls express the fears and hopes of parents. In many of the childish things on display there is often the purpose of developing towards the goal of adulthood and a future injunction to put away childish things. This can be seen in the sets of yoroi and kabuto, armor and helmet, for boys. Intended to serve as good luck talismans, these military toys were also clearly designed to encourage the sons of samurai to develop the same manly virtues.

The important role played by adult perceptions and concerns in everything connected with childhood is one of the main motifs of this exhibition. The elegant gosho-ningyo dolls, in which children are as stylized within the canons of Japanese art as cherubs are in Western art, also reflect this theme. These 19th-century figures with their big heads, gently smiling faces, robust limbs, and animated poses present a refreshing contrast with the rigidity of the hina dolls, and have more of the real atmosphere of childhood. But the perfect condition of these wooden figures, painted porcelain white with a mixture of ground oyster shell, shows that they were seldom in the hands of children.

Rather than playthings, they were items to be viewed and enjoyed by adults. The examples on display show children in various forms of play, but even here there is a sense that this childish behaviour has a purpose: the forms of play seem to progress from infantile crawling to increasingly adult-like behaviour.

These rare dolls are also remarkable for being particular representations of children. For many centuries the depiction of children in Japanese art had been incidental, but in the Edo period a clear aesthetic focused on the young started to develop, as can be seen most clearly in the ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the period. Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815). for example, created a series called Little Treasures Enjoying the Five Festivals, a colorful series of nishiki-e showing youngsters participating in the various Japanese festivals, including the Hina Matsuri.

The most effective ukiyo-e pictures of children, however, are those that capture the sense of intimacy between mother and child, such as Customs of Beauties Around the Clock: Hour of the Rat and Mother Breast Feeding by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806). In the first, the mother, fondly dandling her child, remains oblivious to the viewer. While in the second, the intimacy is reinforced by the details, like the child's tiny fingers gripping the breast and the ambiguous reflection of the head in the mirror.

This exhibition reveals the deep love that has always been felt for children, but also shows childhood becoming what it is today: less an undifferentiated part of life and more of a special, cherished aspect. Perhaps this explains why we feel kids today are a little spoilt.


C.B.Liddell
The Japan Times
17th October, 2001

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