On Nakamise dori, the shopping street going from the Kaminarimon gate to the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, is a small store that you might not notice. A small shop for small toys. Indeed, the shop sells traditional miniature Edo-style toys. There, we met with Mister Yoshitaka Kimura, the owner. He introduced us to this delicate and little-known craft.
The Edo period and sumptuary laws
During the Edo period, artisans developed the skills to make smaller and smaller items. The reason? The sumptuary laws issued during this time.
With the establishment of the Edo period (1615-1868), the shogunate was determined to strengthen its control and maintain peace by creating a stable society. To do so, the class system was tightened with strong social and economic rules.
At the top of society, the samurai, followed by farmers, artisans and, at the bottom of the pyramid, merchants. Nobility, shinto priests and Buddhist monks were exempt from this class system.
To maintain this hierarchy, the shogunate issued sumptuary laws. They aimed to control outward signs of wealth, by regulating how to dress or how to decorate one’s house. For example, merchants couldn’t wear clothes with gold and silver trimming. While farmers could only wear hemp and cotton clothing. Even the upper classes were constrained by certain rules. Thus, women couldn’t bring along more than one maid.
In opposition to those laws, the Edo period was full of creativity and innovation. The merchants, stucked at the bottom of the hierarchy but getting very prosperous at that time, did not fail to find ingenious ways to expose their new wealth.
For example, one can still find today houses which, from the street, appear to have only one storey, when in fact have two, but only visible once inside. These creative architectures made it possible to circumvent the laws on housing constructions. This is also why artisans developed the skills to make miniature toys. Less ostentatious than large and luxurious items, the smaller the toy, the finer the details, and the higher the price.
Sukeroku shop on Nakamisa dori, Asakusa
Founded in 1866, Sukeroku, on Nakamise dori, is the last remaining shop selling Japanese miniature Edo-style toys. Now run by 84 years old Yoshitaka Kimura, his family has passed-on this tradition, introducing the skills of craftsmen for 5 generations.
Nowadays, there are fewer and fewer craftsmen capable of such precision. And they are scattered throughout Japan. Mr. Kimura made it his mission to promote this unique know-how by continuing to showcase their work in his shop.
Our time has seen a return to fashion for ostentatious objects, on the principle “the bigger it is, the more expensive”. But for Mr. Kimura, anyone can create a big item. While only a few specialists can have the patience, the delicacy and the skills to make such precise miniatures.
If you find yourself in the Nakamise dori shopping street, do not hesitate to go visit Mr. Kimura and admire the delicate work of the artisans.
Nakamise dori – Sukeroku
Address: 2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito City, Tokyo 111-0032
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