Origin of Japanese kites
It is thought that kites were first introduced into Japan by Buddhist missionaries who travelled from China in the Nara period (649-794 AD) and were mainly used in religious and thanks giving ceremonies.
A Japanese dictionary dated 981 AD was the first to record the Japanese word for kite and used the characters for "Kami Tobi" meaning paper hawk - which suggests that the first kites were bird shaped. The Japanese absorbed much of the Chinese culture but they developed their own distinctive kite designs and traditions. They were used from earliest times for practical purposes such as in the construction of many shrines and temples in Japan where large kites were used to lift tiles and other materials up to workers on the roof tops.
An early example of man-carrying kite was recited by a 12th Century warrior Minamoto-no-Tametomo who was exiled to an island along with his son. Being saddened by his son's lonely existence constructed a large kite on which he made his escape to the mainland.
During the Edo period 1603 – 1867, Japan was closed to all foreigners and this is when the most of the beautiful Japanese kites we know today were developed. There are about 130 different styles and types of kites, each region having its own unique shape. They are normally decorated with characters from Japanese folklore, mythology or have some religious or symbolic meaning.
All are painted with bright colored natural dyes, sumi (black ink) and constructed from washi paper (handmade paper) and bamboo or cypress wood for regions that bamboo if difficult to grow. The bamboo frame is called as the bones and the paper cover is known as the skin. Nowadays, the popular name for a Japanese kite is Tako - thought to be associated with Tokyo where kites were very popular. The Japanese have a word in their vocabulary "Tako-Kichi" which means, "kite crazy".
Kite celebrations in Japan
Traditionally kites are flown on boy's day on May 5th, (the 5th day of the 5th month) at religious festivals, public holidays and the New Year Day. At Harvest Festival, kites are flown with stalks of rice attached as a symbolic offering of thanks for a good crop. Others are decorated with the face of a demon and would act as a talisman against evil. Furthermore, one of the most famous kite festivals is Hamamatsu where kite teams battle against each other whilst over 2,000,000 spectators watch them.
Another Japanese tradition is the congratulation kites that are still given to first born sons. Kites with paintings of folk heroes or gods are believed to protect and guide the new-born child into adulthood, Fukusuke, the large headed dwarf, will bring good luck and some carry long life symbols such as the crane or tortoise. The most popular design is Kinorta - a small boy who was left by his parents in a mountain forest and raised by bears - he grew up to be wise and very strong. Kinorta is often painted with a carp, another symbol of strength and bravery because the carp must swim upstream against the current to lay its eggs.
Japanese kite styles and size
There are numerous Japanese kite styles, each one having a different origin and meaning.
Giving some examples of most famous Japanese kite styles, the Edo kite is one of the best-known Japanese kites and takes its name from Edo - the old name for Tokyo. Its design is rectangular and multi bridled with elaborate and detailed paintings of famous warriors, Kabuki actors, priests and geisha girls. The majority are painted in the Ukiyo-e style - a reference to the very popular woodblock pictures of the mid- 18th century. Like most Japanese kites, Edo kites are flown without tails. A commonly held belief in Japan is that if a kite requires a tail in order to fly it is not well designed - although in case of strong winds tails are added.
The Rokkaku kites is also a famous one. Rokkaku means hexagon and it is known for its excellent flight feature, stability and simplicity of the construction among Japanese kites. This kite was born in Sanjo, in northern center of Japan and is also called as Sanjo-Rokkaku. Any size can be built and its flight feature is very stable at any wind speed. Today, this type of kites are made by variety of materials and can be seen around the world.
The Tsugaru kite takes its name from Tsugaru district, northern part of Aomori which is the birth place of the kite. This kite is quite different from other Japanese kite styles. It is made in a wooden frame instead of bamboo which is usually used by other kites. The painting of Tsugaru is one of the most decorative and impressive kite in Japan.
Very big kites have always held a fascination for the Japanese and there are still a couple of very popular kite festivals in Japan where giant kites are flown. One of Japan's largest kites was the Wan Wan kite with an overall width of 24 meters. One kite made in 1914 weighed 2.8 tons and required 150 - 200 men to fly it. The tails were 500 feet long and like the flying line were made from the anchor ropes of ships. Sometimes the winds were too strong to pull them in and had to be left anchored until the wind subsided allowing the kite to come down of its own accord. Sadly, the large Wan Wans are no longer made.
The largest kites flown today are in Hoshubana on Boys Day - May 5th. (Approximately 200 years ago the local Buddhist Priest told the local farmers that if they flew kites in the sky (where the rain, wind and lightening come from) this would please the Gods and have a calming influence on the weather that would benefit them for their production of silkworms. The farmers made small kites at first and as their yields grew bigger year by year making them more prosperous the kites grew too.) They now make large kites, over 15 meters high and 11 meters wide weighing over 800 kilos. These kites take 1500 sheets of paper to cover and need over a hundred people to carry and fly them. This kite is called (because of its size) the "100 Mat Kite"
Besides making some of the largest kites in the world the Japanese also have a fascination for miniature kites and for hundreds of years have been making small kites some of which are only a few mm high. Retired Samuri Warriors used to make very small kites from straw and tissue paper and fly them over the rising air from hot cooking stoves.
The kite tradition in Japan is rich and very interesting. The ‘Japan’ Kite Fliers Meeting in Fanø is a perfect opportunity to learn more about Japanese kite history, and to see and admire the special Japanese artworks while enjoying the summer beauty of Fanø.