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Soaring salute to the Japanese kite

The Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M., explores the art, history and sport of traditional Japanese kites in the exhibition 'Tako Kichi: Kite Crazy in Japan.'

June 09, 2013|By Liesl Bradner
  • Insect Kite. Chubu Region, Japan; circa 1925.
Insect Kite. Chubu Region, Japan; circa 1925. (Museum of International…)

In English, "Go fly a kite" is a pejorative expression meaning, basically, "Get lost." In Japan, however, the term "tako kichi," which roughly means "kite crazy," is meant as a compliment, referring to enthusiasts who are passionate about kites.

The Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M., is exploring the art, history and sport of traditional Japanese kites in the exhibition "Tako Kichi: Kite Crazy in Japan," which opens June 9 .

More than 200 kites from an inch to 12 feet are on loan from enthusiast David M. Kahn. Executive director of the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y., Kahn spent 25 years amassing a collection of more than 700 kites from various regions in Japan.

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With the exception of a few still intact pieces from the 19th to early 20th centuries, most kites in his collection date from 1960 to the present. A large number were created by Teizo Hashimoto, one of the last known master Edo kite makers in Tokyo. He died in 1993.

"These kites are a delightful example of Asian folk art," said Felicia Katz-Harris, the folk art museum's curator of Asian and Middle Eastern collections. "What's appealing is that they are all handmade using traditional materials such as natural bamboo for the structure and sheets of washi paper derived from mulberry trees."

There's a traditional aesthetic element to the paintings as well. Detailed illustrations are sketched with sumi calligraphy ink, then hand-painted using garment dyes. They often take weeks to dry. Images depict the daily life of samurai warriors, mythical creatures and folklore legends.

Some of the more popular heroic figures represented are Raiko, the demon-slaying warrior, and Kintaro, or "The Golden Boy," a child of superhuman strength.

Japanese kites are made in a variety of shapes and sizes to harness different winds. The best-known style is Edo, usually a rectangular shape with elaborate paintings reminiscent of ukiyo-e, wood block pictures of the floating world.

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The first kites were brought to Japan around the seventh century by Buddhist monks. Thought to be talismanic, they served as a way for people to send offerings of thanks to deities and ancestors. "It really took off during the Edo period [1603-1868], becoming very popular for the masses," said Katz-Harris. "Prior to this time, kite flying was reserved for the samurai class."

Kites were used during battle as communication between troops, and there are tales of samurai being flown out of danger on kites.

"It's funny, but there are these incredibly popular kite festivals in Japan today where people fly giant kites 22 feet high that take 50 people to harness," noted Katz-Harris. "So it's not so farfetched that they could lift people off their feet."

The exhibition runs through March 23.

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