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Filling the Skies with Color
Kite Maker Ryokichi Iwase Kites were brought to Japan from China before the eighth century. At that time, kite flying was considered an art requiring special skills. Over time, it became a widespread pastime among the general public; during the Edo period (which lasted from the beginning of the seventeenth century through the latter half of the nineteenth century), it was popular as a children's amusement. Another tradition dating from the fifteenth or sixteenth century is hoisting kites aloft for special events: to celebrate a child's growth or longevity (on a person's sixtieth birthday), to pray for a good harvest, or to drive away evil. That tradition persists throughout Japan today.

Japan is a veritable treasure trove of kites. Each region boasts a wide variety of kites, and the most original of these are particularly prized for their outstanding designs. One example are Sakurai kites, made in the Sakurai-cho district of the city of Anjo, Aichi Prefecture. According to kite maker Ryokichi Iwase, "The primary distinguishing feature of Sakurai kites is the winglike sleeves on each side. These are designed to catch the wind and help send the kite aloft, and they work well even in a weak wind." Iwase, age 74, is the grandson of Sentaro Iwase, who in the late nineteenth century originated the Sakurai kite patterned after old-style Nagoya kites--made in shapes such as the horsefly, cicada, and bee.

Today Iwase uses six designs for his kites, including the Fukusuke, Daruma (Bodhidharma tumbler), butterfly, and horsefly. To make the frame, Iwase splits and carves pieces of long-jointed bamboo, which he lashes together with linen thread. He then glues washi (Japanese paper) onto the frame to make the main body of the kite, paints the design on, adds the sleeves, and creates holes for attaching strings. All tasks are performed by hand and require meticulous craftsmanship.

As a child, Iwase helped his father make kites, so he has picked up the craft naturally. Most of the time these days, working on the farm keeps Iwase busy. But come winter, after the harvest is done, he holes himself up in his workshop at home to create Sakurai kites. "Unlike high-priced Nagoya kites, which are luxury items, Sakurai kites were developed for the masses, kites anyone can buy," Iwase explains. "Some people like to decorate their houses with them, but speaking as one who makes them, kites are meant to be flown. If it can't fly, it isn't a kite."

At one time, kite making was a booming business for Sakurai-cho, alongside farming. There was even a kite makers union. But now, Iwase is the only Sakurai kite maker who is still active.

"At the request of local elementary schools, I teach kite making to kids, and some of them are really good at it." Iwase's face breaks into a smile as he speaks. As kite flying is traditionally associated with New Year in Japan, he looks forward each January to seeing his lovingly handcrafted kites fill the skies with color.

(Photo by Masatsugu Yokoyama, Text by Tomohiro Takahashi)