Published  29/01/2013

One Collector's Delightful Passion

One Collector's Delightful Passion

Buriki: Japanese Tin Toys from the Golden Age of the American Automobile
An Exhibition of the Yoku Tanaka Collection, Japan Society, New York City
9 July–16 August 2009


The passion that infuses a collector's drive for acquisition is a mysterious force. Often, even those who have followed the voice inside beckoning them through circuitous paths to find hidden treasures have difficulty describing their motivation. Yet they are quite articulate when relating the history of how they began. In such descriptions, the details are important. Certainly, this is true for businessman Yoku Tanaka, collector of buriki, Japanese tin toys. Tanaka began collecting while he was in junior high school; whatever was 'in fashion,' he says, stamps or coins, for example.

At the age of seventeen, Tanaka discovered a new pursuit in the Shinbashi district of Tokyo. Next door to a bookshop that he frequently visited, he found a store selling miniature die-cast cars and plastic models of foreign models. When Tanaka first saw them, the vehicles were not popular items for sale to a general audience. But for Tanaka, finding them was like striking gold. With funds earned working part time in his father's delicatessen in Tokyo and at the post office, Tanaka put together a collection of American and European cars that he chose from toy catalogues. Even then, his passion was more than a hobby. He went from displaying the cars in cases, arranged by type, to joining a model-car collectors' club, then on to contacting and exchanging cars with foreign collectors.

About the time that Tanaka left college, a revival of interest in larger, tin-toy cars turned him in a different direction, from which has hasn't looked back. As he explains:

'At first I wasn't that keen on them, but one day I went to look at a friend's collection and was amazed by the quality of the Japanese examples he had on display. That night, I was so excited I couldn't sleep. At last I realized that I should focus on tin-toy cars, and then I devoted my efforts to acquiring them.'1

Today, Tanaka is the proud owner of a collection featuring some of the best examples of Japanese tin toys, representing the two great peaks in the history of Japanese tin-toy manufacture prior to and immediately after World War II. One of Tanaka's dreams has been to make his collection available to the public. Working with Japan Society Gallery in New York City, Tanaka has realised part of that dream with a display of 70 tin-toy vehicles made mainly for export to America during the second peak, from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Although intended for an American audience, these vehicles, designed to mirror American models, reflect akogare, a yearning by the Japanese people, occupied and impoverished after the war, for something they detected in the American lifestyle: modernity, carefree elegance and speed.2 This can also be witnessed in popular Japanese board games from the period.3 In addition to toy cars for individual and family use (including trailers), Tanaka's collection contains a racecar (circa 1955); a Greyhound Bus (mid-1950s), transporting blonde American children to school; a delivery vehicle (Ford, 1956); and planes and jets. Lower-end models did not bear the names of associated American cars, but the most popular items were specifically designed as miniature versions of celebrated vehicles.

The term 'buriki' derives from the Dutch word for tin toy ('blik'). The history of buriki extends more than a century, prior to World War I. The success of imported German train and boat models (the most accomplished made in Nuremberg) led Japanese manufacturers to follow suit. Unfortunately, they were unable to equal the superlative styling and technical execution of their German counterparts, and most Japanese-made examples from the period are rough (consisting of a few lithographed sheets of metal that were bent into shape and decorated with basic details only). But by the beginning of the First World War, Japanese manufacturers were ready to take a lead in the marketplace. With access to advanced machinery and clockwork imported from overseas, they more than tripled their overseas sales of tin toys while their competitors were diverted by the approaching crisis. At the end of World War I, Japan was, indeed, a dominant force in the international toy market. Success was sweet, but short lived. In 1940, all manufacturing efforts in Japan shifted to wartime production as the country geared up for World War II.

In the post-World War II period, the story of tin-toy manufacturer mirrors its beginnings and starts with a rough American Jeep toy made in 1945, after Japan's unconditional surrender to American forces, by toy designer and toolmaker Matsuzo Kosuge from empty food cans. The Jeep's remarkable success in Japanese department stores sparked a new export trade that became a prime source of Japanese economic stimulus. From those rudimentary beginnings, the post-war tin-toy industry rapidly grew in model range and styling sophistication. Visitors to the exhibit will experience some of the delight that Tanaka must have felt when he found, for instance, a tin-toy version of a General Motors Cadillac 62 Eldorado four-door convertible (1950) with its original box, both manufactured by Nomura Toys. A number of examples of original packaging are displayed at Japan Society; as with the people depicted in some of the vehicles (painted on tin, or as models inserted), packaging illustrations offer insight into the prevailing Japanese view of Americans: smiling families motoring to favorite leisure spots and activities.

Highlights of the show and catalogue include a rare photograph of Kosuge's workshop circa 1953 providing a glimpse of the nature of tin-toy production. Working assembly-line style, men and women sit at a table in a crowded and rather cramped room, bent to their work and lighted by a few bare bulbs suspended from the ceiling. In his catalogue essay, Japan Society Gallery Director Joe Earle describes the conditions:

'While larger components [of vehicles] such as the bodies, which required the use of a heavy-duty press, were probably produced by factories that normally specialized in other goods, many of the fifty-four smaller components were pressed and tooled by hand in family-sized workshops. The parts were finally put together under Kosuge's direct supervision by employees at his own factory, most of them female.'

Certainly, the work must have been wearying. Still, as seen in Tanaka's collection, the evidence indicates great resources of skill and creativity.

Visitors to the show might smile when they encounter a Ford Lincoln Futura show car (1955) made by Alps Shoji. With battery-powered lights, the show car was built with a complete power train and could be driven.4 In 1966, the design was used as the model for the Batmobile, driven by Batman and Robin in the television series, Batman. Similarly, Japanese visitors (and manga fans of all backgrounds familiar with the genre's history) will enjoy seeing a General Motors Cadillac Biarritz four-door convertible (1962) made by Yonezawa Gangu. This vehicle is driven by a toy figure of Maguma Taishi, also known as Ambassador Magma, the legendary hero created by manga and anime artist Osamu Tezuka. Ambassador Magma appeared in editions of a popular Japanese magazine published from 1965 to 1967 and in an animated television series from 1966 to 1967. It seems as if the ambassador was a later addition, intended to boost sales of a flagging item. And it will not be difficult for most visitors to imagine how a youngster felt when receiving a Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner two-door convertible with retractable hardtop (1959) made by a Japanese manufacturer for American importer Cragstan Corporation. Furnished with a remote control for exterior handling, the model offered 'pushbutton automatic top-forward-reverse and steering.'

The end of tin-toy production in Japan is a sad commentary on the effects of economic realism and mass production. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, all of the toy companies responsible for the vehicles in Tanaka's collection had closed their doors. The reason: plastic. As Earle acknowledges in his catalogue essay, plastic is more cost effective and safer. These qualities were embraced at the loss of something precious, the defining quality that appealed to Tanaka and inspired his, and many others', delight. It is a quality passionate collectors' pursue relentlessly in their quest for the best: beauty.

1. Quoted in the 96-page, paperback exhibition catalogue, Buriki: Japanese Tin Toys from the Golden Age of the American Automobile. The catalogue is illustrated with full-color photographs of vehicles from the Yoku Tanaka Collection and contains an essay written Tanaka relating his experiences collecting Japanese tin toys and a contextual essay by Joe Earle, director of the Japan Society Gallery. Published by Japan Society and distributed by Yale University Press, the catalogue retails for US$19.95.
2. During the early years of post-World War II tin-toy production, more than half of the vehicles produced were exported. Sales to foreign markets helped revive the struggling Japanese economy and pay for critical imports. These exports also helped meet a toy shortage in the U.S. resulting from the war, when American manufacturers were diverted to wartime production.
3. The endpapers of the catalogue reproduce part of the illustrations from two board games. In these illustrations, Japanese children ride Jeeps, Cadillacs, racecars and buses.
4. The toy model based on the show car did not include the power train and could not be driven. Ford never produced a full-scale automobile from the design.

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