When the commodity economy began to flourish in both the cities and rural areas, farmers were able to utilize the slack season to skillfully make seasonal, simple toys in wood. These Traditional and Sosaku toys circulated primarily around one’s so-called “Kyouodo”, (native land), and today are known as Kyoudo Gangu, (folk toys). Many toys can be traced to a religious or supernatural origin, reflecting the beliefs and stories associated with Buddhism and Shintoism. There is so much that is protective and auspicious in the traditional themes of Japanese folk art, and only through toys is there room for the direct expression of humor.
Folk arts, being under the category of Mingei, are made of the sturdiest materials and are fused with the same traditional images and woodworking tehniques seen in Temples and the homes of the nobility. In Japan folk toys are enjoyed by commoners, well-to-do farmers and merchants, who brought them home for their children. All these imaginative toys were conceived and made by woodworkers, many of whom were given the title and status of “Living Treasures” by the Japanese government.
Japanese interactive toys were often made at home of simple materials, or in the case of upper classes, in small quantities by skilled craftsmen, (Kiji-shi). Throughout the prosperous Edo period (1615–1868), many new folk toys originated, and typically developed through the ingenuity of a single individual or a small group of makers before it spread to other areas and artisans. During the Meiji period (1868–1912), when Japan opened its doors to the West, the country rapidly transformed into a modern, industrialized nation and experienced its golden era, when makers created a kaleidoscope of unique toys for entertaining individuals from all walks of life, as seen in the image above. The cold climate in the North is the main influence on the folk toy development and tradition.
Japanese toys span an unparalleled gamut—from a centuries-long practice of traditional Kokeshi doll making to whimsical Kokeshi based folk toys. As long as toys have existed, they have reflected popular styles of clothing, activities, occupations, social standards, and social conditions. The Japanese imagination has led to many of the world’s most extraordinary wooden creations. Toys and tops reflect Japanese religious beliefs, regional customs, legends, and history, and all are made from locally available wood types.